I’m not sure we take the right approach in how we teach kids poetry. From a young age we’re exposed to poems via nursery rhymes and what we’re taught is that poetry is rhyming couplets. Dr Suess tells us, then later pop music – the only real exposure we get to what poetry is rhyme, repeated patterns and verse. And that’s fine, in no way would I ever disparage the skill it takes to create great rhyming poetry, but it’s also a very narrow view of what poetry is and can be. The problem is, we’re given such limited exposure to other forms of poetry. What’s more, while there are many brilliant examples of rhyming poetry, it is a true skill to master, and there are even more examples of bad rhyming couplets – and let’s face it, even amidst the greatest rhyming poems there’s normally a couple of laboured lines and references that have been jammed in, in order to stay in theme.
My issue with this is that we might be restricting people’s view of what poetry is by teaching them only one narrow view of the form. When people hear poetry, they think ‘Roses are red…’, that sort of light, generic, often tacky, form of expression. They think of jokes, of rhythmic language that’s used in movie clichés. They think of kids books, that poetry is something for kids, when really, the means of expression via poetic form are so wide, so unrestricted, and rhyming verse is only one small part of the equation. Poetry is the closest thing to connecting thoughts through language. It’s translating emotion, creating connections in the readers’ brains that connect on a higher level than the language alone. Poetry can be transformative and transcendent and more than most people might think it to be.
I know how many people view poetry. I know, because I once viewed it that way too – I’m a story writer, and have always been focussed on story. Poetry was like a joke to me – you put a few words together that may or may not mean something and if you can find the right balance between being vague enough that people can find their own meaning, and so vague that the words don’t even connect, then you’ve got yourself a poem. I even tested this in high school – we were doing poetry in English and one of my classmates asked how you do it. I wrote a poem about crying in the rain, with deliberately vague lines like: ‘My optimistic pessimism’. It got published in the school paper, then it got published in a state-wide street press publication:
This reinforced my view, poetry was easy and not to be taken seriously.
My view changed on this after reading Fight Club. This wasn’t because the language of Fight Club was so poetic, but from Fight Club I researched all I could about the author, Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk listed one of his favourite authors as Amy Hempel, so I went on to read all her stuff. Hempel is phenomenal – if you haven’t read any of Amy Hempel’s work, you’re missing out, and you need to get over to Amazon now and order a couple of her books. Her short story collection ‘Reasons to Live’ changed the way I think about writing – Hempel’s style is something that can’t be replicated, so intricate and subtle that, as Palahniuk says: ‘all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it.’
Fran Lebowitz still writes about the moment she first looked at a clock and grasped the concept of telling time. Hempel’s work is nothing but these flashes, and every flash makes you ache with recognition. –Chuck Palahniuk on Amy Hempel
Hempel is both a short fiction writer and a poet, with several volumes of both in circulation. The combination of the two is what makes her so brilliant – Hempel can extract the emotion from the most mundane moment and translate it into a thing of beauty. This is not ‘Hempel the Writer’, at work, it’s ‘Hempel the Poet’, but the two have become so intertwined that her prose transcends the parameters of either form. For example, here is one of my favourite Amy Hempel stories – the first story of hers I read, and the one that made me want to buy everything she’d ever written:
My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there — in the high brace of quiet and stained glass — and I listened.
At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.
My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.
When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.
The birdbath is shaped like that tub.
I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.
I lock the door and run a tub of water.
Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.
It’s a perfect example of Hempel’s work – simple but complex, mundane but poetic. It isn’t straight-forward storytelling, but there is such a resonant story there, even this very short piece. It’s a connective work, the way Hempel has used language to build layer upon layer. It’s more than just prose writing, it’s another level of literary expression. And I wanted to read more.
Hempel’s work lead me onto Sharon Olds, who’s an amazing poet, one of the best I’ve ever read. Like Hempel, Olds’ work transcends the confines of what you may think poetry can be. While Olds doesn’t have the prose leanings of Hempel, her poems tell a story nonetheless, and she’s often able to tell a more powerful story than many can in novel-form. One of my favourite Olds poems is this:
Summer Solstice, New York City
By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
life of his children’s father, in case
the man was armed, and one, slung with a
rope like the sign of his bounden duty,
came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building
like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,
and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
hairy net with its implacable grid was
unfolded near the curb and spread out and
stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at a birth.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted nest to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
as his body jerked and he
stepped down from the parapet and went toward them
and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when it’s found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.
This is a story, right? This is more prose-like than you’d expect a poem to be, but it’s also definitely a poem. The words carry such weight, each line is crafted and precise. Olds’ poetry taught me the importance of ‘language economics’, of the need to be concise and ensure each sentence reaches it’s full potential – there’s so much more to this poem that the words on the page. Great poetry uses the experiences and associations of the reader to build the greater context, rather than explaining it to them – which is true also of great prose writing – but nothing illustrates this point better than a great poem. One line can change everything, can hit you so hard. Poetry taught me the importance of rhythm and timing, and word placement in general. These are the tools you need to be able to communicate well. Poetry showcases those skills better than any other form.
Knowledge of poetry better informs you as a writer and helps you find better ways to communicate your story. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is one of the best examples of poetic description in prose form, and it’s so much more resonant because of it. A sequence like this:
By then it was already evening. Just the slow periodic rack and shuffle of the oarlocks. The lake dark glass and windowlights coming on along the shore. A radio somewhere. Neither of them had spoken a word. This was the perfect day of his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon – Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This is poetry, this is connecting emotion via language – sentence construction aligned with thought. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, than just the words alone, there’s a beauty to it’s simplicity. If I’d presented this as a poem, you’d not have thought twice about it. But it’s used in prose, in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, no less. This is the potential of poetic expression. It’s far more than just rhyme.
With a newfound respect for poetry, I started to investigate and appreciate other forms of the medium. And while it’s often lambasted as the height of pretentiousness, spoken word poetry, when done well, can be extremely powerful. The thing that many miss is that the performance is a major part – it’s ‘performance poetry’ not a poetry reading. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival a few years back, I remember Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan had done a session. Koyczan had his mostly female audience swooning, all because of his delivery of lines like:
looking at you it occurred to me
I could sit around all day
wearing nothing but your kiss
– Shane Koyczan, Skin 2
And one of my favourite performances was by ‘Coded Language’ by Saul Williams.
It’s passionate, resonant and again, it’s more than the sum of it’s parts, more than the words alone.
So this is why I don’t think we take the right approach to how we teach poetry, because I would have never thought to look at these things, I’d have never come across the greater opportunities of creative expression through poetry without finding it in my own way. I realise one of the main challenges of education is engagement, finding ways to get kids interested in what’s being taught, and no doubt that’s a barrier, but I feel like we need to reinforce that real poetry is so much more than rhyming couplets. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe educators are doing all they can, but there’s so much opportunity for expression through poetry, so much more than what people might interpret ‘poetry’ to be. While it’ll never be mainstream, by highlighting all these other avenues, maybe we can encourage more participation in poetic expression, and get in touch with more amazing writing as a result. At the least, knowledge of poetic expression will improve your written communication, in all forms.
There’s one certainty in writing, or in doing anything creative for that matter – not everyone is going to like your stuff. In fact, there’s always going to be people who hate what you do. It’s just not their thing, they’re not going to like it no matter how you go about it. You can’t expect everyone to be supportive or positive about your work, because it won’t happen. Same as you, people like some things, don’t like others, that’s going to be the case with editors, publishers, judges – sometimes your stuff just won’t be their thing. You can’t take it personal.
The best way to combat this is to know who you are and what you want. I was listening to a podcast by artist David Choe once, where he was talking about his life and how he became an artist. Choe was basically a juvenile delinquent, vandalising whatever he could. He talked about how he grew up doing stupid drawings of G.I. Joe figures and his early drawings that you can find online are just that, scribbles no better than anything you could do (Choe notes this himself in one of his books). But he stuck with it, and over time he developed his own personal style. His work (in my opinion) is amazing, but as impressive is his persistence and dedication to his art. It wasn’t created for anyone else, it wasn’t designed with a commercial strategy in mind – Choe has said his options were become an artist or end up in prison (he ended up doing both, but that’s another story).
What David Choe’s story highlighted to me was that you need to do your art for you. You need to know what you want and be happy with what you’re doing. And to a large degree it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, you stick with what you want to create, what you feel passionately about doing, and you can create something that will be wholly fulfilling. Anything can be art, any means of communication you choose for what you want to create can work, can come together, you just need to be true to yourself and be able to envision want from your work. It doesn’t matter what anyone else wants, you put your heart into something and that is something that cannot be replicated. You are putting your individuality into your work, no one else can do that. As long as you can feel happy with what you’ve created, feel that it is all it can be, then it’s right.
And that’s an important note to keep in mind – that it’s all it can be. Most times you’ll know when something’s done right, it will feel complete. You’ll also know when it’s not complete, when you haven’t given it your all. If you put out work that you know isn’t complete, that’s likely to come across, that’s the feedback you’ll get, and you have to be honest with yourself. If someone criticises something you’ve done, you have to think ‘is this the best I could do?’ Sometimes you need to be confronted with tough feedback to get the best out of your work – it’s not a stop sign, not a signal for you to give up. You need to take feedback on and use it. Keep in mind what it is you want to achieve.
My approach with my writing is that I will listen to any and all feedback from readers who want to give it to me, good or bad. If one person says they didn’t like a section, I won’t necessarily go back and re-do it (it would depend on their reasons for disliking it). But if that same section is highlighted by more than one reader, I will definitely go back and re-read it and make sure it’s communicating the story I want to tell. If I can read my work back and feel happy with it, especially if I’m reading it back months after first writing it, then I know it has something. It may need more work to polish it, but I know there’s something there and I’ll stick with it.
You, as a writer, as an artist, should never be afraid of criticism or feedback. You need to get your work out there. But you need to know your work is, at it’s core, the best it can be from your perspective. New perspectives will help you enhance it, but you need to be the one who feels confident – it’s your work. It needs to be you, not what you think someone else might want. You’re going to get rejected and criticised, but that’s how it is. All writers get rejected. All of them. Don’t let rejection get in the way of what you want. If you know that you have done all you can, that your work is the best it can be, in alignment with what you want to achieve, then you should stick with it. Keep working, keep developing your own style. You only fail as an artist when you give up.
One of the methods Christos Tsiolkas passed onto me when editing was to read my work out loud. Christos would take a scene I’d written and read it out loud to me, showing me what he, as a reader, would get from it. And what I found was he’d often put a different intonation or emphasis than I’d intended, highlighting how sections were not as clear as I might have thought they were. But then I too would read out a section, and I’d find the same thing. Sometimes the story flow, in your head and as you’ve written it, will not come across that way in the mind of someone else. But reading it out loud helps detect this, helps you see the flaws and iron them out, re-wording and re-working them to ensure the message is clear.
It’s been a massive help to me as I go through, particularly when I’m stuck on a scene or section. It can be embarrassing and you need to find a space to do it, but reading your work out loud can be extremely valuable when editing and re-writing.
If you saw fifty feet, you’d think differently,
Two hundred and fifty toes pointing up to the sun,
Ankles attached to stiffened legs,
Fifty feet of pale soles, worn and calloused from life,
Fifty feet that felt socks and touched water and danced,
Two hundred and fifty toenails degrading in the sunlight,
If you saw it, your perspective would be different,
Feet of twenty five children,
Poking from underneath the plastic,
Charred black, chilled blue,
The feet of twenty five people you know,
Their skin, their touch,
Hearts no longer pumping,
Fifty feet, lying dead still in the gusts,
Waiting for the next world,
Don’t tell me they are just ‘bodies’,
If you saw fifty feet, you’d see things differently.
I haven’t tried one of these before, but I’m having a shot at the Daily post Writing Challenge this week – which is ‘Haiku Catchoo!‘, writing five haiku poems for the week. Haiku poems, as noted in the challenge post are:
‘A traditional haiku has 17 syllables or “sound units” known as morae. The syllables are broken into three lines, where the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the final line has five syllables (5/7/5).‘
I’ve never done one before, but here goes my five:
Lonely, I wait for,
The time when you return to,
Hold my hand again
My son doesn’t speak,
He reaches forward, eyes closed,
And touches my face.
I can smell the rain,
Coming over the distance,
Grey clouds flood the sky.
The beach reminds me,
Of a time when I was young,
And nothing mattered.
I don’t get flowers,
They die when not in water,
But they make her smile.
I’ve written a couple of poems in the last couple of days. Not rhyming couplets, but free-form poetry, which is basically abbreviated storytelling (like this), boiling down a tale to it’s bear details and flow. I’m interested to see if, by doing this, I can translate some of the style back into longer form prose to tighten up descriptions and think more creatively.
It’s kinda of like how when you use Twitter you’re much more restricted, so you abbreviate and reduce and cut down you sentences and as you do so, you realise that you probaby didn’t need such a long description in the first place, as the shorter one works just as well and allows the reader to engage with the words more, as they have to think for themselves and put the image together in their own mind, rather than have it prescribed.
It’s another form of ‘active creativitiy’ I guess, keeping you creative mind active so you continue to think creatively as you go, so you remain open to creative thoughts and visualisations. I even did a couple of drawings the other day, just to see (they were petty bad). Another thing I’ve enjoyed recently has been catching the train. I’ve headed into the city a couple of times (I live about an hour outside Melbourne) and it’s been good, just sitting on the train, watching the people come and go. Takes me back to when I was a teenager, reading books at train stations and heading some place to meet some girl. I defintely feel that all these little things help maintain creativity and an active mind, and hopefully that’ll lead to some solid writing as I continue working on a couple of different projects.
Also, on creative output in different forms, did anyone see Justin Bieber’s latest ‘street art’? I have no real sense of Bieber, I’m not interested in him, but I’m not the target demographic, I get that, but recently he’s taken to doing graffiti – he got arrested in Brazil or something. He recently posted this picture:
So the message is positive, but that picture is, er, not good. I’ve seen some street artists do some amazing things with spray paint, even just looking out the window of the train as it passes I’ve seen good stuff. This is like a child’s drawing. And he felt so good about it that he posted it, so he’s pretty happy with how it looks. I mean, if he’s happy with it, he’s happy, and his fans will probably love it either way. But that is not good.
The man and the woman sit across from each other at the cafe table. There’s a storm outside, they’ve stopped in to avoid the rain and while they’re there they’re drinking coffee and waiting. The man reads a newspaper, the edges damp and shaded. The woman looks at the man, smiles.
‘Do you know poetry?’ She asks.
‘I know of it.’
‘No, but do you know any?’
The man doesn’t look up from his paper.
‘Poetry.’ The woman says.
‘No. I don’t know any.’
The woman watches his face as he reads, his eyes moving across the words. She looks out to the rain, the headlights of the cars washing by. Dark clouds pulled across the sky like a blanket, a cubby house from when she was a kid, over the whole world. She looks back to the man, touches the back of his hand on the newspaper. His fingers wrap over hers.
One of my favourite poems – by the legendary Sharon Olds:
Summer Solstice, New York City
By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it, he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building and over the soft, tarry surface to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice and said if they came a step closer that was it. Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life, the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening, and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a black shell around his own life, life of his children's father, in case the man was armed, and one, slung with a rope like the sign of his bounden duty, came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head, and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die. The tallest cop approached him directly, softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking, while the man's leg hung over the lip of the next world and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the hairy net with its implacable grid was unfolded near the curb and spread out and stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at a birth. Then they all came a little closer where he squatted nest to his death, his shirt glowing its milky glow like something growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then everything stopped as his body jerked and he stepped down from the parapet and went toward them and they closed on him, I thought they were going to beat him up, as a mother whose child has been lost will scream at the child when it's found, they took him by the arms and held him up and leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the tall cop lit a cigarette in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and then they all lit cigarettes, and the red, glowing ends burned like the tiny campfires we lit at night back at the beginning of the world. Published in 'The Gold Cell' (1987) - http://www.amazon.com/Gold-Cell-Knopf-Poetry-Series/dp/0394747704