Art and Literature

Story Time Sunday on Monday: August 11th, 2014 — how poetry world got nicer

Once upon a time there was a little girl who read the Cat in the Hat book and thought to herself  “poetry rhymes and is funny and can tell a story with great pictures, and I shall make a poem that rhymes and is perhaps a little bit funny, but mostly the sounds at the end have to sound the same.” So she made words on a piece of paper with a pencil and had “shine” and “fine” show up and she felt very excited about the high pitched squeal of  those sounds. She showed the words on the piece of paper to her babysitter who was a southern lady down on her luck, and the lady said “this is a poem!” and the girl felt very proud and told her parents who looked at her a bit confusedly because they were business people, and poetry was not a “business” and therefore had questionable application to real and fiscal life. This was the beginning of making these things called poems.

The girl made them in high-school after reading about a strange man who insisted on never using capital letters and who wrote about conscientious objectors and cars and having sex. Then she read about another man who lived far away in South America and who was something called a “radical” and she read about another man who lived in the Soviet Union (which used to be Russia) and who wrote poems about the terrible things that happened there. She realized that poems did not have to rhyme and could be weird and could be sad and could be funny and could be political, and she loved them even more. So she made and made and made and made.

But then she got to college and she sat on the editorial committee of something called a literary journal. And the women on the committee were very picky about what was a poem and what wasn’t and whether something called a “line ending” worked or not. None of her poems got accepted into the journal, and this was the beginning of poetry world feeling like a not very nice place to be. After a few more encounters with said literary journal, the girl went underground. She wrote and she wrote and she wrote, but she put it all on pieces of paper in drawers or on the backs of envelopes shoved into books, and this went on for many years.

But poems do not stay put. They insist on saying “hello! I’m here! What do you think?” And eventually the girl started to show her work to others and a few poems made it out into the world. But it was still very hard, and the line-endings people, and the significance people were still out there making very hard-to-understand pronouncements about poems and then reading their own poems (which always fit these mysterious categories) with an odd voice that sounded a little like they were talking in slow-motion.

But other poets came along. One was a man who made odd films in Los Angeles, and another was a woman who wrote about India and another woman who wrote about being a Jewish New Yorker, and a woman who wrote about her alter ego who was a weird scary lady, and these people helped other people bring work into the world. And there was a nice man who looked like a bear and his wife who was a beautiful artist and they said POEMS SHOULD EXIST IN HAIR SALONS AND IN LIVING ROOMS AND IN COMMUNITY COLLEGES AND IN BOOKS THAT WE WILL MAKE. And suddenly poetry world was changed.

Then a thin woman with blue eyes came along and got on the radio and said that poems were conversations, and that conversations could happen, and don’t you want to organize into groups and chats and talk about poems and make them too? This radio woman said “by the way —  you don’t have to be famous and you don’t have to win awards, but you have to keep practicing and appreciating,”  One day the radio woman stood at the edge of the ocean with some new friends, and as the sun set and the moon rose, she recited a poem by a person she admired. And that sharing reminded everyone there that poems are about sharing, and remembering out loud — twisting the words over and around your tongue and teeth and making the sounds, feeling them in your body as physical actual things that vibrate outside and inside and stay.

The girl was there with the others at the edge of the ocean. Later she told a friend. “I felt like that poem was for me.” “I felt that also!” said the friend, and so — it turned out — did everyone there.

That was the truth that emerged. Because that’s how big and and at the same time how small and specific poetry world was always meant to be.

And as we speak and write and think, poetry world gets kinder and wants to get — can get — kinder still.

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