Today’s guest blog is by an accomplished poet and dear friend, Iris Lee. Iris artfully describes how she became a poet and how she finds the structure and regulation of poetry liberating. She talks about a source of her inspiration and shares with us one of her favorite poems from her collection.
I began seriously writing poetry around twenty years ago for the big bucks (kidding!). Actually it was a bad time in my life – deaths, breakups – and I was becoming tired of ranting to friends and weeping in my pillow. I found that journaling was just another opportunity to let my feelings run amok, but that by applying the discipline of poetry writing to my thoughts and feelings I could enter a “safe zone” where paradoxically I could begin to turn emotion into image.
After a time it became apparent that I needed serious help if were to continue to write poetry that was more than a way to vent. I’d been told that I had “latent talent” but I needed to harness that talent to craft in order to create anything worthwhile. I was fortunate to be steered to classes with a teacher who became my mentor, a tough guy who did not suffer fools gladly. Long dead now, Bill Packard still perches on my shoulder as I write, growling, “No Latinate words!” and “No abstractions!”.
Form is a friend to poets. Think about a child throwing a tantrum. Hold that child tightly. She can’t escape but she is safe and can then allow her frontal cortex to overcome the amygdala’s emotional overload. That’s somewhat like the strictures of poetic form. Even free verse has requirements like syntax, rhythm, and image. Trust me: the more a poem seems to have been written with ease and speed, the more time and effort has been taken. There is that extremely rare poem which does “write itself” but you can’t ever count on that. As a wise person (my daughter) once said to me, write for yourself and worry about readers later. This would be the revision process, when you take your precious words and torture them into obedience by compression, alliteration – the whole bag of poetry tricks.
The other great gift of studying poetry writing is poetry reading. Let no one tell you that a writer should steer clear of reading others’ works. Reading, analyzing, enjoying, and yes, even sometimes copying, a great poet is essential to learning one’s craft. And the secret is that the more you read poetry, the more you “get it” and enjoy it. And grow as a poet.
Case in point: This morning I was sitting in my favorite patisserie reading “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, ” a collection of essays by the poet Jane Hirshfield. In one, she reprints a poem by the Polish poet Zbiniew Herbert titled “I Would Like to Describe.” The penultimate stanza:
“We fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets”
I was blown away. Emily Dickinson is often quoted as saying, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I always thought that was so much Old New England hype. Until today. When I read those lines by Herbert, I was awed and inspired; people and lattes vanished momentarily. Reality and fancy caught and presented to us in three startling, compact lines.
Such is the nature of inspiration that after the spell began to wear off, I was impelled to begin a poem of my own. Since it’s in its infancy, I will not share it here. But, in the interests of good faith, I will share a short poem of mine which appears in my poetry collection. “Urban Bird Life”:
CADMAN PLAZA PARK AT 8AM
Raingreen scent. I want to roll
like a pup until I’m soaked.
Until I turn raingreen. And shiver.
The rain’s over, been over
for some hours. The park’s become
a sunstruck raingreen
spot. Where god it sparkles.
Iris Lee is a poet and editor who runs a writing workshop for theater professionals at The Actors Fund in New York City. Her book of poetry, Urban Bird Life, published by New York Quarterly Books, is available through Amazon. Her work has also appeared in print and online in venues including Haibun Today, OccuPoetry, and Passages.