I didn’t always like poetry. As if fortifying the common poetic stigma, I found poetry disorienting, too concise, and purposefully hidden. There were three things I never hoped to do: dig my way through a poem, decipher peculiar words, and create peculiarity. As such, when our English-200 course embarked on a poetry journey this winter, I felt naturally reserved.
Sometimes, life dashes you with surprise. It’s magic, really.
If there’s one book you need to read this summer, take a stab at Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry.” I was introduced to this book at the beginning of the term. At first, getting assigned chapters every other night seemed like an attempt to brainwash us into thinking that no, poetry wasn’t that bad. Yet, with my immersion into Zapruder’s words and his world, I realized that his message was true. Poetry, despised by some but now loved by me, possesses such elegance… and is, without a doubt, “music in language.”
The grandest joy in writing poetry is rooted in its ability to express feelings ordinary prose cannot. A poem talks to the emotions. Some “things”––anything––need to be expressed through white space. There is no way I can write about my longing for a past life in full, grammatical sentences (with the occasional period and capitalized letter) from left to right. The emptiness I feel inside is suddenly congested and filled if I spell out the word. Emptiness, in its raw and unfiltered form, can only be conveyed through white space. Compared to prose, poetry doesn’t demand plots, characters, consistency, or completeness as rigorously. It is something to be experienced, and not necessarily narrated. It doesn’t live in the confine of having to “tell” something–– whatever that means. It allows for spontaneous bursts of literary genius that can be quickly jotted down. Writing poetry is emoting in the purest and simplest way.
In writing and reading, poetry offered me a path to represent my mind in addition to entering the mind of someone else. As I familiarized myself further into the world of writing poetry, words and thoughts started flying in my brain. There were specific words––simple, random combinations out of the same 26 letters––that just felt right. The placement of the words in my brain was right. Some words were farther apart, some were condensed. Some flew in a circle around others, some detached in the air. I transcribed that imaginary “word map” onto the page, omitting letters, skipping spaces, hopping from left to right, altering line spacing. For the first time, simple 2D letters on a page equaled my mind, perfectly.
When I inherited that thought process as a writer into my reading, I discovered a whole new world. I started to value the previously odd and arbitrary choices poets made. They reflected human minds––how could you deem a mind “odd?” They became what felt right to the poet, the “word map” of the poet, that righteously no one else had a say in. “Odd” and “arbitrary” disappeared; “personal” appeared.
Interestingly, poetry also redefined my interpretation of the English language. I soon realized that the feeling of randomness I once had, when reading a poem, not only came from the fact that the words were random (or shall I say “personal”)––but also the context they were placed in. As I examined my own writing, I realized my hypocritical self. The words I used also came off as random to others. Not long after, I discovered in my poems that the words feeling right existed not because of their most conventional usage. If I wanted to say “a snowflake fell to the ground,” I would not use “fell.” I would use “breathe and dip.” That feels odd to the reader, doesn’t it? I would argue the weird feeling stemming from “breathe.” We breathe the air; we breathe and pause to rest. But a snowflake doesn’t normally breathe (in) the air.
Attention! That does not mean it can’t. One of the definitions Merriam-Webster includes reads “to breathe: to feel free of restraint.” It is certainly not the most popular usage, and yet, it still exists. The snowflake feels free of restraint, lets go, and free-falls to the ground. Once I realized this trait, I let go of my assumptions on what a word meant. I let the dictionary remind me of a word’s Latin roots and neutral meaning, long before society’s taints. I started noticing relationships between words like “bird” and “blurred.” A phonetic relationship: they rhyme. In English, they are connected. Poetry reactivated and reanimated the English I thought I knew.
This reactivation of the language also allowed me to slow down in life and notice coincidences I often disregarded. For example, in William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” he writes:
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
If this phrase was written in prose, “a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” I would disregard exactly that. This scene typical of a farm always came off as common sense to me––rainwater was just rainwater; chickens were always white. But in the line breaks between “wheelbarrow,” “rain water,” and “white chickens,” I slowed down and noticed––for the first time in a long time––these realities that zoomed by.
I have transformed so much since the beginning of the term. I discovered a world of delight, a world where a literal mind clone exists. A world that made me befriend English and “notice” once again, a world that gave me a pathway to define undefinable emotions. Poetry is elegant. Marvelous.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen! I have one last wish for you all.
Embrace poetry, and let it embrace you.
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