I don’t quite understand my fascination with poetry. I prefer writing it to reading it; I’m very picky about what poems I enjoy reading. I don’t have a community of people around me who like it. Why can’t I stop writing it? Why can’t I stop reading the ones I like? What’s the draw? What even is poetry?
Poetry takes your subject–word, concept, situation–and puts it on a pedestal. Not in the false way, unless you write it that way. Not like a girl you’ve put on a pedestal so you can look up her skirt. I mean up on a plinth, like a statue. Picked out by spotlights. Silence all around. Other patrons looking at the same thing just fade away; they aren’t looking the same way you are.
You circle the art object, or you hover in front of the painting. You take in every detail, every brushstroke. You enter the mind of the person who made it, and it’s a luminous, spacious space, full of ideas! This mind can look at anything and show you why it’s beautiful and important, or twist any ordinary thing to be strange and wonderful.
Then, once you’ve inhaled the full breath of this piece, you move on to the next one. In a gallery, perhaps each piece is part of a larger whole. (Is each “piece” here a poem in a collection, or a single line in a poem?) Maybe they’re even presented in an order that makes each piece expand on the one before, until at the end your brain has had things expanding in it like forceps for so long that the shape of your mind is fundamentally changed forever. Now you are spacious and luminous and full of ideas.
Poetry takes your subject–person, place, concept–and pins it to a card. It spreads the wings so they can be seen, spreads the legs into a pleasing formation. It takes the finest scalpel to the subject and precisely moves through the guts, measuring, weighing, tasting, keeping pieces in canopic jars.
You learn more about the subject than you ever meant to–but what can you learn about an animal from its guts? If you take a cat apart to study it, it doesn’t work anymore. So you learn tangentially. You learn only what the poem can tell you.
You might learn about a place through a brochure or a video. The pictures enter your brain without your permission, without definition, without terms. When you get to the place, it’s completely different. There are parts that were out of frame, that are different from your perspective on the ground. It all moves differently. When you get your heart destroyed for the first time, it’s nothing like a poem. It has nothing to do with the animal you saw pinned to the card. It’s alive.
Poetry takes your subject–situation, word, feeling, object–and makes you look at it. And then it makes you look harder. It grabs you by the back of the head and puts the viewing helmet from A Clockwork Orange on you. Then it puts a magnifying glass in front of that.
It leads you from the definition of a word to other words that mean the same thing, if you tilt your head and squint. It makes you think about why certain words grew to rhyme. What does it mean that they can be next to each other? What does a dove really have to do with love? What does a girl really have to do with the world?
It shows you the next stepping stone and the one after that. Later, when you come back the same way, you see there were bridges that you hadn’t learned about yet.
Writing a poem is exploring a cave system. You only have your headlamp. Maybe a backup if that fails (this being your rhyming dictionary and your prompts blog). You walk with your lamp showing you just the next few steps, your hand brushing the wall with every step, because you know if you keep taking certain turns you’ll get out of the labyrinth alive.
When you get to the exit, you turn around and shine your headlamp along the path to see what it looks like from here, now that you’ve walked the whole thing. It’s a gallery cave, huge and beautiful. There’s a lake with dinosaurs. You were too close to see it before, but now you have your magnifying glass.
Poetry takes your subject–person, place, thing–and puts music to you. It replaces the heart with a kick drum. You can’t help but move your body to it. Your mind hushes for once and there is only music. Only movement.
Poetry takes your subject–noun, verb, gerund–and scatters it into jigsaw pieces. The picture on the box is a blur. Where’s your magnifying glass? You build it yourself through the writing.
Does the puzzle have a shape? That is, are you writing the poem in a form? Does the subject seem to lie in the shape of a sonnet? Well, try it. Can you make the limbs and parts fit? Is “composition” only a visual term?
Does the puzzle not have a shape? Often the pieces of my puzzles just leave their bulbous cut edges at the frame, jagged and leading people to ask why I chose this spot to jump to the next line. Was it just to be edgy? It’s because when I split it there, the next line’s shapes and colors lined up correctly. They don’t rhyme and they don’t have a defined meter but I do have rhythm. I know it, even if you can’t hear it. Maybe you should listen to me (that is, maybe I should read them aloud for you).
When I go back through the puzzle, row by row, I take pieces out and look at them with a jeweler’s loupe. I sand down the edges if they don’t fit properly. I shine up the surface. Maybe even change the color, redraw the lines so that when I put it back in the row it makes a different shape with the pieces around it. I cut new facets.
You know a painting is finished when the person in the portrait looks back at you. You know a garment is done being sewn when it hangs correctly on the body. I know a poem is finished being written when the pieces fit so well that the cuts between them disappear, and the whole thing glows.
It’s about when the words shift into wordless understanding, like when a joke opens up a space in your head between two words of similar sounds and different meanings. Like when someone says they love you, and you understand a whole relationship in four dimensions.
Well, that didn’t really explain it at all, did it? I can tell you how it feels to read and write a poem, but I can’t explain why it’s addictive, exactly. Unless you understood all this instinctively, in which case, congratulations on achieving the rank of Poet.
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