April is National Poetry month and if you were turned off by poetry in high school, maybe it's a good time to revisit the genre. Modern day poetry is not laden with the rhymes of the past. While it might be entertaining to be inspired by iconic poets, modern poets write what is more commonly called "narrative poetry," which is essentially poetry that tells a story.
Poetry has been in and out of my life for nearly five decades. As a teenager, I devoured the poetry of Rod McKuen and the spiritual leader, Khalil Gibran. I think I had all of McKuen's books. Recently, I Googled him and was shocked to learn he was 81-years-old, almost the same age as my mother. For some reason, I thought he was closer to my age because so many of his sensibilities resonated with me when I was a teenager. His poems seemed so much more hip than how I remember my mother back then. McKuen's website shared some of his unpublished poems and I could not resist reading. The first one which caught my eye was, coincidentally, "Age is Better," which begins like this:
I have been young,
a fresh faced sprout,
with agile legs, a muscled arm and smile
to charm the world I went through
in a rush to get a little older,
This is such a perfect poem for us baby boomers who are beginning to look back and reflect upon the lives we have led, reminiscing how we were when we younger, always wanting to grow up so quickly. While many of us have tried to embrace our subsequent life transitions, we now look backwards with a mix of wisdom and wonder.
The beauty of McKuen's poem and indeed, most poetry is that poetry encourages us to remain in the moment with our observations, situations, images and/or feelings. The poetic form also honors the joy of succinctness and minimalism while offering sensitivity with compelling, musical language. These are just some of the many reasons I love writing and reading poetry. In the writing classes I teach, I always begin by reading a poem, because not only does a poem set the mood, it also is a way of "cutting to the chase" of what you are saying. One poem that has become one of my favorites as I hover over my sixth decade is Billy Collins' poem "Forgetfulness," which begins:
"The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,"
Reading and writing poetry also has healing and transformative powers. As a matter of fact, many therapists augment their treatments by encouraging their clients to write poetry to express their feelings. This is one way to foster hidden creativity and a chance to allow the client to express themselves using another form. This may be done by writing about a moment or experience in the past, the present or even the future. The idea is to write including as many details as possible so the reader feels as if they are with you on the page, living the experience side by side. Writing poetry also forces you to go deeper into your heart and to write with your heart and not your head as a way to access your inner voice.
Like all types of writing, if you want to be a poet, it is imperative that you read lots of poetry. If you have never written a poem or have not written in a long time, a good place to begin is by writing a prose poem. This type of poem uses the rhythm of a sentence. It could be just a few sentences about a moment that changed your life, a vignette or a short story. The prose in a prose poem extends to the right hand margin, where verse breaks each line at a place not determined by the margin. The prose poem can be a story, description, or a captured mood. In a prose poem, all unnecessary words, phrases and clauses are eliminated. The French poet Charles Baudelaire was largely responsible for popularizing the prose poem.
Since there are really no formal requirements, it's often a comfortable way to begin writing poetry. Try this: Think of an experience you might want to write about. Tell the entire story in three or four sentences. This will force you to condense. Center the telling on an action full of emotion. Revise. If you like it, try another. This time make it five or six sentences long. Keep doing this over and over until it feels comfortable for you and before long, your writing will be flowing beautifully.