Finding Poetry Everyday

View of the Ohio RiverWhere do you find poetry? On a rainy street corner? In a newborn’s deep sigh? Or maybe you find it just after you swerve so as not to hit a deer as you speed down the highway? In Rivertown Dispatch, Grace literally finds poetry in a box that she was planning to throw away. Fortunately for her–and for us–she accidentally breaks the box open and discovers that, rather than containing old receipts and owner’s manuals, it contains poetry written by her mother, Carol. Poetry that to Grace’s knowledge had never been read by another person before now.While her mother’s illness robs Carol of her identity, the poetry she spent her life writing has preserved it. One could even argue that now the poetry is her mother, the essence of her identity–thus allowing Grace to fully know Carol at last.And so Grace is able to encounter the mystery of another human being who also happens to be the one person she has known all her life.It is precisely the kind of paradox that poetry captures so well.For the past year I have been reading work by Mark Doty, Mary Oliver, and Stanley Kunitz–three writers who have a knack for finding poetry in the most unexpected places such as a black oak, a caterpillar, or a gym locker. But while their poetry is grounded in the ordinary, it touches on the loftiest themes of love, death, and the wild swirl of life around us. If this formula were reversed and their poetry was grounded in abstract notions instead of acorns, their work would fail.

So where should a person look for poetry?

“No ideas but in things.” This famous piece of advice from William Carlos Williams is an idea, yes, but I think we can forgive him that in exchange for the lesson it imparts. After all, would we have learned as much if he had merely handed us a sprig of lavender?

For those of us who love reading poetry, there is always a thrill in discovering that new voice who speaks directly to us. Well, us and the thousands of others who enjoy her or his work. But this does not detract from the sense of intimacy. The well-written poem allows us to see the world in a way that is both shockingly new and as familiar to us as our own name.

Rivertown Dispatch closes with Mary reciting one of Carol’s poems:

I am the blackberries that hang heavy in August.
I am the thorn and I am the scratch.
But I am the sweetness, too, written on your tongue.

I am the rusty chain dredged up from the river.
I am the driftwood floating, I am the silverfish
cupped in your hands.

And always, I am the name you’ve not heard for ages.
Spoken by a stranger,
a stranger you will soon call friend.

The story of Grace’s discovery is a fiction in the way that all of Rivertown Dispatch is a fiction, but I would also like to suggest that the poetry that most affects us is always true.

When writing the poetry that I eventually voiced through the character of Carol, my process was the same as when I write poetry as me. To probe a hunch, to write truthfully of the sensual world, to find the words that cast two shadows (to borrow poet Mary Oliver’s phrase)–these are the ways I discover the connections between me and you, my dear reader. The connection between this life and our deepest longings.

That is at least my hope. The reality is much messier: words crossed out, multiple drafts over a period of months, an uncertainty that I will ever be able to find the words that correspond to the ache or the image. It is quite a lot of fuss for a handful of words, but a necessary one. Because I believe that it is through the making of connections that poetry makes meaning. Poetry helps us to feel truths not just intellectually but through our senses. And I would argue that poetry offers a deeper way of knowing–as countless mystics and artists have done before me. Poetry allows us new ways of seeing and being in the world.

And that’s not all.

In her article, “Wielding Thor’s Hammer: What It Means to Write as Ministry,” Susan Yanos observes: “Because truth lies within each of us, the creative process is the discipline writers embrace in order to encounter the mystery of the truth of their experiences and of their beings. Slowly, ever so slowly, poets grow into the poems they were meant to be.”

Imagine that, all you poets out there! You are becoming a poem. No accountant, basketball player, or cashier can claim that, huh!

So let me ask the question one last time: where do you find poetry? And if you say, “in me,” let me congratulate you for coming so far without ever having left your best self behind.

Kiffmeyer, Jennie. Rivertown Dispatch. (Solo performance) 2012.

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1994.

Yanos, Susan. “Wielding Thor’s Hammer: What It Means to Write as
Ministry.” Friends Journal June/July (2010): n pag. Web. 7 June 2010.

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