National Poetry Month started yesterday. This week’s article is an oldie but goodie, originally published in 2007 and updated for 2014.
In Port Townsend, the daffodils have been up several weeks. As usual out here, it looks like we’ll get rain this next week and certainly lots during the month of April, but I remind myself that it will benefit the coming spring and summer flowers, my many favorites, blue forget-me-nots, orange calendula, red poppies, orange poppies, lavender poppies and pink peonies in my yard and those of my neighbors. As I await these splashes of color and the warmth and sun, I’ll enjoy another kind of garden–in the US, April is National Poetry Month and poems and discussions about poetry will be sprouting in the media. At Writing It Real, we’ll be posting articles filled with poems by today’s poets with their words on the poem they chose to share with us. Whether you already write poetry or haven’t yet written any poems, these articles will supply you with ways to think about this art and its practitioners and ways to use it to flex your observational muscles and encourage depth in all your writing. When you do write some poems, you’ll be in bloom, too. I hope to inspire you to begin and shape poems of your own. To celebrate National Poetry Month together, I am offering to do some interactive work with the poetry starts you make based on these ideas. I hope you’ll take me up on the offer. Read on!
Why Write Poetry?
Psychologist Rollo May wrote in his book The Courage to Create that:
…if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.
Although we may be willing to give “listening to our own beings” a try in writing essays and memoir, something keeps many of us from engaging in that same level of honesty and commitment and writing poetry. Maybe we don’t feel up to the demands of the art. We may feel, therefore, that if we devote ourselves to writing poems, we are only being dilettantes. We may worry that once we find and articulate our deepest feelings and insights as poetry has us do, those feelings and perceptions will demand we change our lives. We need to figure out how to address this situation by coming to believe in the power of poetry to not only indicate what our beings demand, but help us do it. If we learn to honor our need and ability to write poetry, all of our writing will benefit.
Acknowledge and Celebrate Your Poetic Intelligence:
In 1983, Harvard educator Howard Gardner published his book Frames of Mind, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, a groundbreaking work that argues for the recognition of human competencies that are separate intelligences in addition to the mathematical and verbal ones currently accepted and measured by IQ tests. The first intelligence Gardner discusses is the linguistic intelligence. This is the competency of the poet. Gardner trusts that a poet will best describe this intelligence, and he quotes poet Stephen Spender:
The poet above all else, is a person who never forgets certain sense impressions which he has experienced and which he can relive again and again as though with all their original freshness.
Gardner writes that the poet uses particular core operations of language: sensitivity to the meaning of words, sensitivity to the order among words, sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms, inflections and meters of words, and sensitivity to language’s ability to excite, convince, stimulate, convey information or to please. A poet knows that how something is said is part of the message, part of what is being said, often the most important part. A poet works on the sounds and words in a poem until they communicate the form of a newly discovered insight, glimpse a mystery or understanding. The words then capture the emotions that brought to life the desire to write the poem.
This intelligence is a hard one to value in a sound-bite culture that packages its messages to make target markets into one-size-fits all cultures, eager to purchase and consume, and fills the air around us with noise to keep us from locating our own specific yearnings, especially if they have nothing to do with buying. It is an intelligence hard to value in a culture that embraces, as poet Stephen Dunn writes in his book walking light, “the capitalistic ethic of acquisition rather than contemplation, the celebration of things rather than soul.”
But more and more, among writers, therapists, theologians and scholars a correction to this problem is emerging. Thomas Moore’s Soul Making, Julia Cameron’s The Artists’ Way, David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused and Deena Metzger’s Writing For Your Life are books I’ve enjoyed on the topic of valuing contemplation as an extraordinary competency. We often must search for support in making this intelligence and our practice of it important to us, because our society as a whole has not supported us in valuing this way of being and knowing the world. We are constantly asked to do, to buy, to go, to behave, to agree, to imitate, and to envy. What product can be sold by asking us “to treasure our own insights?”
In order to empower ourselves to write poetry, we must refuse to see poetry as merely verse or ornament. We must refuse to see our linguistic intelligence as inferior or unworthy; we must refuse to let ourselves believe our feelings are inconsequential, or worse, that they are wrong. In an essay called, “The Social Function of Poetry,” T. S. Eliot (who, by the way, is the poet who named April the cruelest month in “The Waste Land”) said about the poet:
…he is making people more aware of what they feel already, and therefore