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| Poetry—lovely language, brevity of speech, rhythm—probably all of these are qualities we think of when we think of poetry. A lot of us still must add “end rhyme” to the definition, a process which has fallen into disrepute for poets, probably due to the poor quality of rhyming choices and the demise of good English language useage, not to mention the stilting limitation to poetic patterns of speech that using end-rhymes suggests.
Still we all recognize poetry when we hear it, pretty much.
But whence the poetry, what indescribable place in the soul or psyche is the poem pulled from, and what motivates the writer to draw from this secret place?
I haven’t started writing with a pre-defined answer; this is a discovery article. Still, the first thing that pops into my mind is authority. A poem comes from a place of absolute authority—not the ruler-wielding picture that may come to mind, but the place of knowledge. Poetry comes from a place that you know that you know that you know. You have “seen” something that no one has seen as intensely or clearly or transforming as you. The words may be in question, but the kernel, the inchoate mass of discovery, is not.
Let that thread hang for a minute.
Poetry springs from a voice that you hear. Yes, it is your voice, but it is unlike your everyday voice. It is unlike your tentative, insecure voice. This voice streams in the window of your soul with a pronouncement, “The day swept in, in thirty shades of grey.” “No one kills a succulent.” It bears a finality about it, a certainty, but an oddness that requires an explanation, a paradoxical truth that is not a plain truth in any way. It is a secret discovered and shared with the reader in a spirit of confidentiality and urgency.
Leave out the categories—narrative, lyrical, confessional—for a moment.
A narrator lives in that voice. But where does the voice live? Is it a song? And from what do songs spring? Well, from sadness or joy. From grief, loneliness, fellowship. From a moment of time which impinges to such a degree and in such a strong way that it must be expressed. Urgency: I have so much to say. Things need saying, because they will help people. They will connect with people. Things will burst open inside of me if they are not expressed.
Let me share a couple of my own poems, since I know them best. My dream poem started as an argument. Of course the tension was in my own soul, but the challenge came from outside. My aunt concluded that since I expected a baby, I wouldn’t be able to write. Or paint. And this is the poem that emerged from the internal struggle her comment produced:
“Dream are great, you say,
for nighttime—like wispy clouds
that disappear at noon.
But I say dreams
are spit and fiber
spun and thrown
like spider webs—filmy filament
that sticks mid-air
catches and holds tight enough
for you to climb, run, live
(nest your babies on)
still make it there.”
Forget the tendentious “where is ‘there?’” Well, wherever your dream takes you, of course. I can’t spell out where your dream will take you. This poem was published in three different venues—in Sanskrit, Vol.20, Spring, 1989, UNC-Charlotte, and in Earth and Soul, an Anthology of North Carolina Poetry (Semlia I Ludsha, Antologia Rossii Severnoi Karolinia), 1st in English, 2nd in Russian, and parts were used for sectional divisions within that book.
Here is a poem that began with poignancy as the well, the springs that pushed the word and thought further…a kind of poignant revelation that I couldn’t stand until I had expressed to some degree of satisfaction. It’s what a poet does instead of crying; it’s an exquisite agony of soul.
When the whippoorwill
begins his evensong,
shadows lengthen, disappear,
as darkness joins them;
the trees turn black:
you want to catch fireflies.
A hundred such evenings
telescope into this one,
gone but here, missing yet
reflected in fragmented
crystals of blinking, cold light,
called, like a cloud of witnesses
to share the sacred moment:
childhood passed on.” –Joanna McKethan, The Lyricist, Vo. XXIV, Spring
1990, Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC
Fill This Empty Canvas, A Poetry Chapbook
For me, purity is another spring. I pause with near reverence when I approach something so pure it is almost holy—something you do not want to sully by touching. It is a moment of transcendence when we are lifted higher than our feet can jump. It is a note of a song that haunts us, or a word in a language we knew once, and we must strain to transcribe with any accuracy at all. We struggle, we stutter, we battle words and lines and feelings until we finally hold the best template, the most accurate bowl to the light and fill it with all those marinated moments from the soul. Each one a new dish, an exploding delight, if to no one else, then to the poet who has finally turned her exquisite sadness or joy into words of an otherness not everyday normal. Springs of colder water that refresh. Springs of bitterness expunged. Springs of struggle temporarily resolved.
Authority. Voice. Discovery. Revelation. Extreme emotion. Purity. Something emerges from a deep place and takes you to another deep place with even more precision, even more delight that finally, has a name. A poetic expression is born that lies on a par with the gravity of the moment of revelation. An expression that may sound clever, but was not birthed for cleverness, but for momentous-ness; that really is like slowing down the motion of the ordinary to a delicate dance, or like straining to hear and see the haunting shape notes on a song that suddenly became “more” than you’ve always heard. That’s what poetry is for me. And yes, I think I can say this vaulted expression applies even to humorous poetry. So that’s my story, and for now, I’m sticking to it.