This I Believe

John - Fairbanks, Alaska
Entered on November 6, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: creativity
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You catch a whiff of something on the border of consciousness. A phrase floats into your head. A fly buzzes at the windowsill; you wonder what it thinks it’s doing. Usually we dismiss such occurrences. They seem to have no practical use. But the suspicion lingers that these events may be trying to tell us something, to point out a meaning that, in the course of our busy lives, we’ve been too distracted to face. Everyone has such moments, but what do you do with them?

Poetry gives form to our feelings and intuitions and helps us come to terms with them. In a crisis, a poem can be the beginning of healing. The widespread rediscovery of poetry after 9/11 illustrates this point.

But if poetry is good in a crisis, it’s also a way of reaching out for new experiences and renewing our lives. Poems place themselves between the world of dream and what we might think of as the prose of reality. When I’m working on a draft, it’s a feeling of otherworldliness, no matter how ordinary the subject, that tells me I may have a poem going.

But how do you recognize a poem, when you sense one buzzing around the room? Well, of course there’s not just one way to go at poems. A phrase pops into your head, or a rhythm, a mental image, a smell, or sound. Things are always floating into our heads. Usually we brush them aside, but maybe there’s a poem there. Even that fly on the windowsill—as in Emily Dickinson’s disturbing and wonderful poem, “I heard a fly buzz when I died…”

It’s my contention that poems are happening all the time. In a quiet moment, you can cultivate one. I sometimes go out to a spot overlooking a river near my home and just sit and wait. Soon I’m noticing things that hadn’t been apparent at first. What I see draws new thoughts to mind that I’d been too busy to notice and I start taking mental notes.

Most poems don’t give their full meaning away easily. It can take a week or a month to bring one to completion. In the course of revision I’m learning from the poem what it really wants to say.

And along with writing poems, I read them. If reading poetry seems hard at first, it’s probably because you’re out of practice. Like anything else, it gets easier the more you do it.

For some, poetry expresses itself through dance or music, but in its root form, of course it’s language. Poems remind us, consciously or not, of our first burblings and vocalizations and the pleasure they gave us as infants. Then came nursery rhymes and the jingles of jump rope and hopscotch. As we grow up, we ask other things from poems, but we should never forget that first sensory intoxication.

That’s why one underlying theme of every good poem is a celebration of human experience.