Friday, April 6, 2012

Poetry as Present

The noun “present” means both something offered as a gift and being in the company of a person or thing. Poetry carries connotation of both meanings. It is a gift from the poets and from those, beginning with my mother, who fostered a love for poetry within me. It is also with me daily, a presence in my life through memories, through lines learned by heart, and through lines on the pages of books I read, some decades old and some as new as last week.

Among my earliest memories is my mother reading to me from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I memorized some of Stevenson’s poems before I could read. I wrote my first poems—very bad ones—at six. At ten, I discovered Emily Dickinson, with whom I have visited regularly ever since. I can’t imagine a life without poetry.

One of the things I always tried very hard to do when I was teaching was to bring my students to see that poetry is not written to be isolated in a classroom of reluctant students wrenching meaning from it with pain and protests. Poetry is living; it is as much a part of us as the stars we wish on, the wind that lifts our kites, the smell of lightning bugs on our hands. Dylan Thomas’s definition of poetry seems right to me: “Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”

 Because poetry is a part of my life every day, it seems quite natural to find inspiration for the fiction I write in the poems I read. Many writers have sound tracks for their novels. Although I too find ideas and inspiration in music, I even more often turn to poems I love to help me capture a feeling, craft a love scene, or give me the seed for a section of dialogue. April is National Poetry Month, a celebration throughout the United States of poetry and its place in American culture. One meaning of “celebrate” is to make publically known. Part of my celebration is to share with you three poems and snippets of the particular moments they inspired.

Grief, Cynthia Angeles
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

It was over then. Zan wasn’t surprised. She’d always expected Caleb to leave. She’d had plenty of practice at losing. Her mother chose death over her child and husband. Her father left years before his body followed his heart. Caleb was just the latest in a line. And Tal.  The man she loved, the child she loved. Her breath caught on the sudden stab of pain--sharp, physical pain, like a blade plunging and turning in her chest. She bent double from the blow. “Damn you,” she cried. “Damn you.” She didn’t know if she were cursing her parents who had abandoned her, Caleb who had followed in their path, or the distant deity who had let them leave.

Lovers, Connie Chadwell
How Will You Kiss? by Judith Pordon

Lilt me your lips,
our lost breath intermingling.

Synchronize our silence
as lazy hours ease by.

Waft cocoa, hazelnut, cinnamon,
scents around me.

Tremble with me
in paralyzing pauses.

I may no longer breathe
without breathing you.

Silence surrounded them as if the world had paused for this long delayed moment. He kissed her slowly, his mouth savoring hers. Saja tasted cocoa and cinnamon and lust and memory. His hand trembled as he stroked her breast, his mouth moving to brush kisses across her face. “Brody.” Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
 “I’m here,” he said. “I’ll always be here.”

Chair-Two Women Talking, Fred Bell
True Love by Judith Viorst

It is true love because
I put on eyeliner and a concerto and make pungent observations about the great issues of the day
Even when there's no one here but him,
And because
I do not resent watching the Green Bay Packer
Even though I am philosophically opposed to football,
And because
When he is late for dinner and I know he must be either having an affair or lying dead in the middle of the street,
I always hope he's dead.

It's true love because
If he said quit drinking martinis but I kept drinking them and the next morning I couldn't get out of bed,
He wouldn't tell me he told me,
And because
He is willing to wear unironed undershorts
Out of respect for the fact that I am philosophically opposed to ironing,
And because
If his mother was drowning and I was drowning and he had to choose one of us to save,
He says he'd save me.

It's true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn't let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.      

“All I ever wanted was to have what you have, to have a marriage like yours and Dad’s. Easy and—"

 “Easy? No marriage is easy, not if there’s any commitment. There’s anger and disappointment and loneliness enough to make you wonder if being alone is less painful. Maybe Dan and I did you a disservice by not fighting in front of you. Buy you’re an adult now, Dori, old enough and smart enough to know that no two people as different and as strong-willed as your Dad and I are could exist in perpetual harmony.  We didn’t speak for a week after I unplugged his TV in the middle of the Daytona 500. And the freeze lasted longer than that when I campaigned for Trent Porter.”

 “None of that mattered. You stayed together. You were happy. We were happy.”

 “They mattered to us. But you’re right: we stayed. The good was always enough to keep us together during the tough times. And we just kept falling in love again.”

 Dori heard the unspoken words as clearly as those spoken. “You didn’t stay, Dori. You ran away. You quit. You left.” Was Zan right? Should she be wearing a sign that read “Dori Marshall, Coward.”

What are your favorite poetry presents?


quantum said...

Thanks for giving us these glimpses of your writing Janga.

Perhaps in the books you could include quotes from the poems that inspired you. In italics after the chapter heading is a good place.

I like the snippets and can readily imagine that the complete book will be stunningly beautiful. One can almost sense the poetry flowing through the sentences!

After an afternoon walking through the wild daffodils at Dymock in Gloucestershire, Mrs Q showed me a book about the Dymock poets, and thinking about your question I remembered the short tribute to Rupert Brooke written by Lascelles Abercrombie:

Beautiful life! As air delights to find
The white heat of a fire and to be flame.
The eager world throng’d into his glowing mind
And flame of burning beauty there became

All things were turned to fire in him, and cast
The light of their transfiguring round his ways.
His secret gleamed upon us; where he past
He shone: he brought with him a golden place.

It was the purest fire of life that shone,
This angel brightness visiting our mould.
Life knew no way to make life lovelier, none;
But then came Death: ‘I know the way. Behold!’

To those familiar with their poems, or who stroll through the woods and pastures or admire the ancient churches, the six Dymock poets will always be present! *smile*

TerriOsburn said...

I recognize the first poem from the movie In Her Shoes. Which I know was a book first, but I only know the movie. I love these other two and the magical scenes they inspired. Amazing, Janga. Just amazing.

You always make me want to look up more poetry and I always get busy and let the desire fade. I need to do better. Especially with this kind of inspiration just waiting for me.

I'm more the music type, which is really poetry set to a melody. My daughter is the same way. I'm always finding post its or full sheets of paper around the house where she's jotted down her favorite lyrics. I need to find her a really good book of poetry.

Janga said...

Thanks, Q. You are so good for my ego. :)

Thanks too for sharing the Abercrombie poem. I had not read it before, but I have read Rupert Brooke, of course. Now he's a model for a romance hero. Yeats called him "the most handsome man in England." He certainly was gorgeous.

Janga said...

Thanks, Terri. Song lyrics definitely qualify as poetry. I always used them to show my students who said they hated poetry that they really didn't. Unfortunately, classroom instruction ruins poetry for a lot of people.

I recommend an anthology with lots of different poems for your daughter. The chances are greater that she'll find poets whose work she'll love that way. I think Billy Collins, a former poet laureate, and Naomi Shihab Nye, one of my favorite poets, have both edited anthologies aimed at young people.

Pat Kirby said...

What a lovely blog posting. So fun to see how other writers' creative processes work!

I confess, I'm not much for poetry. That is, poetry absent music. A while back I realized that I really do love poetry. I just need it to be set to music; i.e., lyrics.

Bandida, by Audra Mae is my heroine's theme song:

What nation needs no army,
What army meets no foe?
What soldier travel far and wide
While wives are free to go?
What would I do to keep you?
I'll cloak my face and hide
I'll veil myself in black and steel
And battle at your side.

When I heard this song, I thought that's so totally Kelly. This is a woman who's already lost a husband to war and she's not going to wait at home, ever again.

MsHellion said...

I was at the library last week and I saw in the YA corner they had set up books and I realized they were POETRY books...and I said, "Ah-ha, April IS National Poetry Month. Janga will be blogging soon."

I knew it would be good...and I am so glad I was right. :)

Janga said...

What a great theme song, Pat! And it does sound perfect for the character you describe.

I too find details of the writing process fscinating. I suspect that it's not exactly the same for ant two writers. Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by the blog.

Janga said...

Aww, Hellie, thanks! I know you share my love of poetry, even though we disagree about particular poets. Come to think of it, that's true of our views on romance too. Agreement gives us common ground, and disagreement keeps things interesting.:)