On my other blog I’ve been sharing some of my poetry. Writing poetry is like being filled with fire. It forces its way out and once I begin I often find myself driven until it is done and then wired for hours later. It’s a very particularly type of inspiration and one of the many ways of connecting with my God (Odin).
Lately, I’ve been exploring two new poetic forms: the cento and word sonnets. The first is architectural in its structure. A Cento is a poem where each line is actually taken from another poet’s work. The first centos can be found in antiquity and the style has continued up to this day. It’s an odd synergy: the power of the poem is about the line and structure and flow itself, but each line is a window, a word knot that conjures that which it was taken from too, so it can get very complex. Word poems are sonnets (14 line poems with a particular rhyming scheme) that instead of lines and rhymes form a sonnet out of 14 words, with each word comprising an entire line. They’re more difficult than they seem! It’s almost like painting. You get a few strategically chosen brush strokes and it’s done. You have 14 words to paint a scene, 14 words with which to cast your shadow on the page.
All of this got me to thinking of when I first became aware of language and words and poetry. I actually remember it distinctly, or rather I remember three separate instances.
When I was three or four, having just learned to read, my mother went to visit a friend with me in tow. Wanting to keep me occupied and out of her hair, the friend plopped me down with a children’s encyclopedia set. One volume had Harold Monro’s ‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh” with this illustration.
I’m not sure why it captivated me so. Maybe it was just that it conjured a completely different world, that it smelled of magic and the outré, that it spun out like the doorway to some hidden faerie kingdom. I don’t know. I just know I wanted to devour it, to crawl inside the pages and be in that place, smelling the salty air, hearing the night sounds of frogs and insects, and seeing the greenish silver light of the moon overhead. I vaguely remember copying it out in my horrid script (it took me awhile to gain the motor coordination to write well. I was a clumsy child.) on a scrap of paper and then I never saw the poem again until I was an adult. There was no internet by which to look it up and my bio-mother wasn’t a book-lover and never thought to track it down despite my obsession with it.
Then when I was five I was playing after school at my grandmother’s and some magazine she had contained an ad (probably for a travel agency though I really can’t remember) that had the St. Basil’s Church in Moscow, with its colorful turrets and a snippet of writing in Russian. I cut it out and saved it and kept that for over fifteen years, until I learned to read Russian and figured out what it said. I was fascinated by the Cyrillic characters and the world I imagined they contained.
Finally I remember my first engagement with fiction. I must have been likewise four or five, maybe younger. My aunt told me the story of the “Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. She told it so well and so vividly that I was disappointed when I read the original years later! I began writing poetry shortly thereafter.
The first thing I actually remember writing was for a contest at school. We had to make little books of folded, stapled paper and could write anything we wanted. I wrote poems, including one about a boat. (I don’t remember them and don’t have them anymore, but my mother and aunt talked about them every so often growing up and my aunt was pestering me about the boat poem just this year. She was pissed I didn’t remember it). The librarian chided me saying I would have won first place if my handwriting were neater and going on about how sloppy it was. I remember throwing my little book, painstakingly hand written and colored away like so much trash.
Then in third grade, we were told we could write certain kinds of poems. It’s the first poem I actually recall. We were given simple examples and following those I came up with this:
I can’t see the sun,
That big round ball of fire,
Which the cat of the clouds
Gently rolls around
Then bounces it up higher.
I was eight. My teacher was not impressed. I was asked if I really meant that I could see the sun. I remember just looking at her as though she were out of her mind.
In high school, I got my wish and finally was able to study Russian. I’ve forgotten much of it now in the press of other languages (Latin, ancient Greek, German…) but I still remember how entranced I was once with that language. It was long ago in a very different world, a ghost of myself not yet marrow-ripe poured over those exotic letters and sucked and swallowed phonemes looking for enchantment. I found it too.
I kept writing poetry. My sophomore English teacher would hand them out to other classes, analyzing them. He was often wrong about the meaning of my words. Still, it was encouragement to keep writing.
Unfortunately I high school I went through a period of rhyming things. The best advice I ever got was from another student. We’d share our writing and talk and critique, discuss philosophy and such. Finally, exasperated at yet another gurgling flood of rhyme he snapped, “poetry doesn’t have to rhyme.” It was a revelation. Then I discovered poets like Auden, Ntozake Shange, ee.cummings, T.S. Eliot, a number of Russian poets, and of course being in high school, Sylvia Plath. I never looked back. Poetry became and remains one of the ways I process my world, and certainly one of the primary ways I build roads to my Gods and back again. It is the ultimate rainbow bridge, dripping with venom, sweeter than honey, ridden with white phosphorus that will sear away the boundaries of the soul.
I’ll end with another word sonnet.