Writing poetry, no matter what genre you usually work in, is truly an experience of re-creating a self. In writing poems from experience and from meditative and reflective moments, you become the maker of something that builds increased intimacy with your truest self. From this intimacy, you grow by creating a self that is more and more centered and willing to engage life with a full range of senses and emotions. Simply put, those who write poetry become more fully alive.
Poet Ralph Mills Jr. wrote:
…the poet invites us to share in his pursuit of identity; to witness the dramatization of the daily events of his experience–so closely resembling our own; to be haunted by the imagery of his dreams or the flowing stream of his consciousness; to eavesdrop on relationships with friends and lovers; to absorb the shock of his deep-seated fears.
The poet, Mills tells us, wants “to speak to us, without impediment, from the deep center of a personal engagement with existence.” And we start by speaking to ourselves in our poetry and poetic prose.
I have offered exercises over the years as strategies to help journal writers slip into this deep center of personal engagement by accessing their poetry writing self. I do believe we are all born with a poetry writing, image trusting mind, though for many of us, schooling diminished our access to it and introduced a fear of understanding poetry “correctly.” I put that in quotes, because poets know that the poem is an experience to be felt and explicating poems makes the experience harder to embody.
“The poet, above all else,” is, according to poet Stephen Spender, “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.” I know that in so much of my life what becomes real to me becomes real because I have written to know more about my experience.
I am sharing a poem I wrote for my mother quite awhile ago to help illustrate how anyone can use poetry to dig up sense memories that lead to evoking inner feelings and thoughts with timeless freshness, something valuable to writing in any genre:
I Think of My Mother Caring for My Father with Parkinson’s
by Sheila Bender
- Wednesday Afternoon
How easily I think back to those years —
me in the first grade, romping around in my mother’s
navy blue heels, watching her lipstick rise from its sheath
with a twist of her fingers, her compact chirping shut.
When did she stop using lipstick the red of the bougainvillea
outside my window? From the years between then and now
comes the scent of lilac bushes planted at each new home, the dogs
named Fanny and Butch, Pledge and Pride, products we dusted with,
the way we shrunk from the gurgle and hiss of her steam
iron, thud it made against the cotton wrapped board,
smell of heat on quiet cloth.
- Saturday After a Morning Bike Ride
Home now after 30 miles of sun in my eyes and the far off
Santa Monica Mountains beckoning like a voluptuous
woman in evening dress, a village of houses like sparkling
sequins on her full-length gown, houses like the one
my mother wanted when I was 11.
I remember my sister and me with bowls full of ice cream on shaky
folding snack trays in front of the couch, Jackie Gleason on TV,
his small city apartment, something my parents had come from.
My father at the kitchen table with columns of numbers to buy the house,
how much from here and from there and from their parents,
how much the interest on how many loans.
- Sunday Morning
I raise the blinds, see sunlight on the bougainvillea, this late
December, its branches grown laden with blossoms.
I want to give my mother back the red lipstick, the days she
bought pistachio ice cream my father loved, shopping trips
to buy the Howdy Dowdy spoons we ate it with, the chartreuse
couch, the window to raise and yell at my father
for doing his paperwork in his parked car, not ready to come in.
I want to give her back mornings he adjusted his tie
asking if he looked presentable, the other words he often said,
“Nobody is indispensable,” the way we knew it wasn’t true.
Poets might talk about line breaks that work or don’t work, about effective or ineffective enjambment of lines (a graduate student word for sure). We might talk about the number of prepositions or unnecessary words or the places where maybe another syllable would help the poem’s sound. And all of this is very valuable, but should never turn a writer playing with poetry, a budding poet, or an experienced poet away from seeking the way sense images that have stuck with us will get us where we are going.
To fully feel the sadness I felt for my parents and for myself as their daughter, I had to start where I was — in memories of being at home with my mom and dad as a kid, then with contrasts to where I was when I was writing the poem and they were suffering — those Santa Monica mountains seeming to me like my mom when she was younger and dressed for many formal occasions with my father, the ability to use my body outside, something they no longer had. I finally get to what I want to fully evoke in the last part of the poem when I am looking not inward as in the opening but outward through my window at the bougainvillea and at the images I had written that led to more images of my parents and immediate family in younger days. And then remembering my father adjusting his tie and asking for our opinion about how he looked (a pharmaceutical salesmen off to make a good impression on doctors), I am able to remember his other famous line to us all, a line that embodies my sadness now that he will soon die, the man who knew he might be replaceable at work but who could never and would never be that to us.
And so it is so many years later as I discuss the poem that I feel the experience of writing it, the experience of those days of impending loss contrasted to the days of our family life. By thinking of my mom to whom I want to give back time, I found my own feelings.
That is what writing poetry can do for us. And I truly believe that if we stick to images that arrive we will find our way. And that anything we can do in poems we can learn to bring into our prose.
Notice that when I tell you how I see into my poem now, I am not talking about themes and foreshadowing. I am talking about how I see my mind and heart working through the images of the memories and the current place I lived.
With my poem, I have invited you, I hope, to share in my pursuit of what Ralph Mills called identity. We could also call it identifying. Try writing what comes when you think of writing poems. Allow it to bring up sense memories from the past and images of the present and you’ll see them merging into a journey your writing self will be thankful you took.