This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
The first writing I ever did was poetry. My sister moved away to college as I was beginning sixth grade, and for some silly reason left her diary right there on her bookshelf in her bedroom. I missed her, so I hung out in her empty bedroom as often as I did in my own, and it was inevitable my bored curiosity would lead me to crack the flowered pages of her high school heart. It was filled with poetry that had been partially pilfered from soft rock lyrics, a teenager’s romantic murmurs filtered through Amy Grant bridges and Peter Cetera choruses. It wasn’t long before I needed some love poetry of my own, and I took the liberty of stealing liberally from her verses scrawled in her loopy blue hand. The cases in which my poems were not outright plagiarism were at least very loyal cover renditions of her original riffs. It was the first time I wrote anything, and the last time I stole any of it.
Later that year our class was assigned to write didactic cinquains. The short, simple, strict form was a perfect frame for practicing putting pretty words together and forming brief images with them, and I wrote more than we were required to. My teacher submitted one to the church office (it was a religious school) and it appeared that Sunday in the bulletin. My first publishing credit was sandwiched between birth announcements and a reminder about the upcoming church potluck.
In high school I fell heavy for a number of poets. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti, Poe, the Brownings. Poets who felt everything, and felt it hard, and wrote it down like they felt it. Not the most elaborate of linguistic architects perhaps, but they felt and they gave us what they felt. I rummaged the shelves of the library I work for now, taking home varied stacks of possible empathy, chances to feel known. I started writing poetry again right after I turned sixteen. None of it was any good, but there was heart there.
I stopped writing poetry for a long time. I picked it up again in my late twenties, casually. Poetry still isn’t my comfort zone as a writer, though I will periodically put lines together to see what happens. I read more of it than ever.
Poetry matters to me. It is raw and sharp; language sliced and fractured and presented like thin cuts of something recently breathing. Without the bleeding staccato edges of poetry laid out on pages tanned with age I might never have woken up to what language can do. I want to see poetry do the same thing for readers now. In a recent review of Patricia Lockwood’s dazzling Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals I wrote the following:
“Patricia Lockwood is a poet to watch, not only because she’s original and weird and very, very good, but because she’s fun. Too many of the poetry books on our library shelves gather dust instead of feeding the minds and sating the hearts of readers, especially young readers. Poetry has unfortunately gained a reputation among non-academic readers for being dry, difficult, and intimidating. When I was discovering myself as a writer in my teen years it was through poetry, because poetry has the power to be both a gateway into the world of literary expression and also a way of feeling known, less alone. Patricia Lockwood shows it can also make us laugh and smirk without being frivolous and without sacrificing depth and complexity.
As Lockwood said in the above interview, “‘The idea about readers being too lazy to read poetry — they just need an in,’ she said, ‘a voice they can trust.’”
Poetry matters. Despite internet writers who periodically pronounce the form is dead, poetry is still very much alive, and it’s an exciting time to be reading it. More wonderful volumes of verse come out each year than I can keep up with. But I try.
And I want to share that with other readers. The plans are still being formed, but I’m going to be starting a poetry appreciation group that will meet monthly at Greenville Public Library. This won’t be for sharing poetry we have written ourselves, but for reading aloud published poems by established poets, exposing each other to names and verses that have impacted us. Stay tuned here for more details in the coming weeks. Poetry is powerful. I look forward to experiencing it with you.