Too Late for Poetry?

Never Too Late for Poetry
On the eve of National Poetry Month, March 31, I led a workshop on How to Read a Poem at Highland Community College in Freeport, IL.

For an hour, several dozen students and guests from the community came to engage in “holding [a poem] to the light like a color slide.”

First we held actual photographic slides from the 1970s (younger attendees had never seen them) up to the library’s florescent ceiling lamps. Then we took a stanza of a poem into our hands and gazed at it in the same way, turning it slowly and carefully, so that our senses, memories, and emotions illuminated the colors. The real details in the lines combined with our personal lenses created several dozen visions of the poem.

After the presentation, a woman from the audience came to speak with me. “I never knew,” she said, “that this could be done. My whole life, I thought there was just one right answer to a poem, and I was never smart enough to find it.”

She was around seventy years old.

Watching a woman become liberated after so many years of poetry intimidation was powerful and inspiring. It was also sobering to see how early classroom experiences can affect our attitudes for decades–until those attitudes are given a chance to change. Perhaps you had a teacher, most likely well meaning, who presented poems as puzzles or equations to be solved rather than invitations to open. Perhaps you or your children have had to take standardized tests that reduce poems to multiple choice answers. But it’s not too late.

No matter how you’ve experienced poetry in the past, you can face a new poem as the brave new world it is. Beauty instead of boredom, emotions instead of elusiveness, and grace instead of grades. You can read and wonder without the pressure to get it “right,” even just enjoy the sounds of words and rhythms of lines. But it takes work to stop working sometimes. The effort is to arrive with no other agenda than enjoyment.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying some of the exuberant work of Pattian Rogers in her book Firekeeper: Selected Poems. Open this gorgeous invitation, “Place and Proximity.” Open it again and again. Don’t worry about “meaning” as you read it, but eat, breathe, and survive on its “stars,” which are, of course, its gleaming, sizzling words.

Place and Proximity

I’m surrounded by stars. They cover me
completely like an invisible silk veil
full of sequins. They touch me, one by one,
everywhere—hands, shoulders, lips,
ankle hollows, thigh reclusions.

Particular in their presence, like rain,
they come also in streams, in storms.
Careening, they define more precisely
than wind. They enter, cheekbone,
breastbone, spine, skull, moving out
and in and out, through like threads,
like weightless grains of beads
in their orbits and rotations,
their ritual passages.

They are the luminescence of blood
and circuit the body. They are showers
of fire filling the dark, myriad spaces
of porous bone. What can be nearer
to flesh than light?

And I swallow stars. I eat stars.
I breathe stars. I survive on stars.
They sound precisely, humming in my nose,
in my throat, on my tongue. Stars, stars.

They are above me suspended, drifting,
caught in the loom of the elm, similarly enmeshed
in my hair. They are below me straight down
in the deep. I am immersed in stars. I swim
through stars, their swells and currents.
I walk on stars. They are less,
they are more, even than water
even than earth.

They come with immediacy. They are as bound
to me as history. No knife, no death
can part us.

Firekeeper Selected Poems

Photo by PS Lee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

Owning Poems: How a Rose Made Me Like Paul Newman

Li-Young Lee Rose Owning Poems

Nothing helps build appreciation like ownership. My daughters had to save up for their own Six Flags passes to truly understand their value. I had to add my own plants to my new house’s yard before embracing the garden. Paul Newman, for various reasons, had to develop his own spaghetti sauce.

The same goes for reading. While I read a lot of plays, stories, and encyclopedias as a kid, I didn’t encounter much poetry until I was older. In some of my earlier creative writing classes in college, I was transported, via professors and anthologies, to Elizabeth Bishop’s filling station, Theodore Roethke’s greenhouse, and Sylvia Plath’s mind. I loved these discoveries—except they weren’t truly my own discoveries. I hadn’t taken ownership of poetry yet.

In 1992, at the age of 19, I drove up the coast to see my friend in Berkeley. While the big thrill at my decidedly less cool southern California university was going through the Del Taco drive through at midnight, hers was exploring blues clubs in Oakland and taking the BART to San Francisco. At one point during my visit, we walked downtown, and in a matter of minutes, I saw Clinton’s campaign motorcade, my very first Starbucks (What an edgy, new-age mermaid! At a coffee store?) and, gloriously, Barnes and Noble. Now, this was back when it was okay to love a big bookstore. I had never seen or heard of one of these. And, most of all, I had never seen a bookstore with a section of literary journals. Or poetry. Shelves and shelves of it.

While my friend went off to browse the art books, I stared at the poetry collections. These were not anthologies but collections in which every poem was written by the same poet! I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I just started pulling them off the shelves—covers splashed with paintings, bright graphics, and photographs. The first one I sat down to read, however, was quite unimpressive in its design: maroon with white scratchy text and something like an eyeball/bud hanging from a stem. It was, simply, Rose by Li-Young Lee.

Perhaps the book’s humble design and the picture of a relatively young (and handsome) man on the back made me feel, as a beginning poet, that this was a world I could possibly understand, possibly belong to. I flipped through the pages and was drawn into a world of eating peaches, combing hair, and making out in the dew-covered grass. The language was lush: “O, to take what we love inside,/to carry within us an orchard” and “Hair spills/through my dream” and “how the waterlilies fill with rain until/they overturn”. Some of the poems spoke of the poet’s Chinese ancestry, a part of many of my friends’ lives they had chosen not to share. All of the poems filled me with an urgency to live, to write.

I bought the book, of course, my first volume of poems purchased and read on my own accord. I still have the copy—annotated, bent up, and, eventually, signed by Li-Young Lee himself. I’ve read it probably a hundred times. Owning poems: unfortunately for my budget and fortunately for my soul, it was the first collection of many more.

Photo by slgckgc, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.

How to Like D.H. Lawrence’s Piano

Piano DH Lawrence

A poem can sing to you, even if you don’t totally “get” it or enjoy every line.

“Piano,” by D.H. Lawrence, is not one of my overall favorite poems. It’s not a bad poem, of course, and I can’t pretend to even approach Lawrence’s levels of literary influence in my lifetime. However, references to “weeping” and “floods of remembrance” don’t grip me in the same way as precise, sensory details that invite me weep and remember. Which is precisely why this poem sticks with me.

In the first stanza, a woman’s voice seeps through the dusk like the soft, remaining glow of light. The speaker, drawn into this beauty, experiences an out-of-body memory and imagines himself as a child many years ago.

The next two lines are what grab me:

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

What I love about this memory is the full sensory appeal of it, especially the sense of touch. I feel the vibration of the strings under the piano–both the “boom” of the bass notes and the strains of the “tingling strings,” words whose similar sounds cause the music to tremble under my own skin. The tender detail of the child “pressing the small, poised feet” of his mother is just unusual enough to make the scene real to me. Specific is universal. I can imagine a child touching his mother’s feet because of my own children, who affectionately tug my sweater sashes, knee me in the butt, or whack my head with coloring books.

In Everything That Makes You Mom, author Laura Lynn Brown asks readers to recall memories of their mothers in specific situations, such as concocting treats in the kitchen, driving, playing, or tending plants. By imagining and recording these scenes in writing (remember, imagining is image-ing), readers not only reward themselves with rich pictures from the past but can give their mothers the invaluable gift of showing how they noticed things all those years.

My mom is not a musician. She’s creative, yes, but as a master quilter, builder of Victorian dollhouses, and any other task requiring an eye for detailed design. The images of my mother embroidering calico brown wedding rings and laying tiny shingles one by one on gabled roofs will never leave me. But these wonders were wrought in her own private moments as I stood in the background. We did share some important times together, however. And they did not take place alongside a musical instrument, easel, or Great American Novel.

Every Saturday night, during my childhood in the late 70s and early 80s, my mom and I watched The Love Boat while sharing a one-pound bag of M&Ms. We weren’t the snuggliest family in the world, but once a week we put our feet up, threw comforters over our legs, and huddled with a bag of candy between us. Of course The Love Boat was not a masterpiece. Plot lines were predictable and corny. Charo was a frequent guest star. But it was “our thing.” In fact, one year my mom gave me a sterling silver heart necklace to commemorate our sweet ritual, and even when I returned from college on the weekends, years after The Love Boat went off the air, I would find a large bag of M&Ms awaiting me on my bed.

As a mother, I wonder what close moments my children will remember. Hugging my son as I walk into his first-grade classroom as a volunteer? Squeezing through clothing racks with my oldest daughter at the mall? Lying next to my middle daughter as she paints watercolor flowers while on her bed? (Yep. I’ve decided to let her paint in bed.)

A whole poem can capture you, each word catching more and more of your breath until you’re dizzy with wonder. Sometimes just part of a poem does it: a stanza, line, or word. This is what “Piano” has done for me, releasing my own, okay, I’ll say it—flood of memories.

Give every poem a chance to explore you. You’ll never know what will sing.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

—D.H. Lawrence

Photo by Michael Schrempp, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.