The Way In

“What is a poem?” poet Leanne O’Sullivan asks, her soft voice straining to be heard over the rain pelting the conservatory roof. “How do prose and poetry differ?”

“There is more room for the reader in a poem,” I reply. “More room for interpretation and emotion.” I think of Colm Tóibín, one of my prose idols, who states that he writes the silences. I think poetry must be this, an honoring of the silence between the words, between our thoughts.

 

dot dot dot. question mark. Sitting with a blank notebook, uncertain in my ignorance, rattled by my fears, what the hell do I know?

 

Before arriving at this poetry workshop in southwest Ireland, I give myself permission not to write a poem. I’m not a poet and have read poetry in a haphazard way, picking up recommendations here and there, from names dropped in books or by friends, looking through slim volumes in a bookstore, from an obituary—for when does the world talk about poets, except when they die? As a writer of prose and essay, I know the value of rhythm and form, of the carefully chosen word, the breath taken, the meaning conferred in a phrase or in the spaces between. These are essential to developing my storytelling and writing art and craft. But to actually write my own poems?

 

All that I have to learn about poetry, all the poems I have yet to read, poets yet to discover . . . it makes me panicky, really. Yes. I would be the one to panic about poetry.

 

A creature of process, the kid forever tugging on a sleeve asking, “Why, mommy? WHY?” I pore over The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s lovely, lucid guide to poetry; I’ve got Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary on my equivalent of speed-dial (sitting on the end table next to the sofa); I sift through the teaching resources on poets.org

 

I am searching for a way in.

 

Yet on this workshop first day, as the storm blows off Slieve Miskish and hurtles toward Coulagh Bay, peace descends. My notes capture Leanne’s sure hand, leading me past my doubts: Poetry is permission to write; it is the places where language cannot go; it is the recognition that there is no language; it is the waiting, the revising; ‘The talent is knowing what’s called for,’ she quotes Seamus Heaney. Poetry is awareness. Awareness of what you are writing. Deliberate. Purposeful. Considered. Waited for. Poetry reveals or tells a truth, not fact. 

 

“What is your way into your poem?” This question Leanne poses to our workshop group is the essential question. It is the one I should be seeking the answer to. For finding my way in will take care of all the rest.

DSC_0769
Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

“What is your way into your poem?”

 

Something vital and tangible. Something real and describable. Leanne tells us, “The real things of the world are the entry point to the imagination. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your writing grounded by writing from a real place…”

 

I find my way in on a small road overlooking Coulagh Bay, sitting in the rain, remembering. I find my way in through the memory of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a stereo speaker, trying to draw the music into her body because her ears fail to hear it. I find my way into my first poem.

 

The moment is so natural and unbidden. I hear Leanne’s voice saying, “Maintain a sense of awe in the initial inspiration. A waiting has to happen for the poem to come.”

 

What is a poem? is, in its essence, a question that needs no answer. No immediate answer. No complete answer. For an answer excludes the entire process of discovery. Learning what a poem is comes from studying the poetry that has come before, the poetry that is happening now. Experiencing what a poem is happens when awe and meaning embrace, when experience takes over from expression.

 

“…there’s part of poetry that’s always about what cannot be said.” W.S. Merwin

14 thoughts on “The Way In

  1. Love the photo! Did you travel a long way to the workshop?
    I used to dabble in poetry occasionally, but then I thought who will ever read this but me? Why am I writing this? And yet these questions don’t trouble me much in fiction.

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    1. Thank you, Cinda! Photographic and poetic inspiration spring from Ireland’s earth, sea, sky! Yes- a long way- 30-hour non-stop journey from my peninsula in northwest Washington state to the Beara Peninsula, southwest Ireland. But a journey of joy. I spent a the week prior to the workshop on a private writing retreat (blogged about here about a month ago), which was precious writing time on my own, but the workshop was a time of discovery. I continue to work on my own poetry- it’s okay by me if I’m the only one who ever sees my silly stanzas- the act of creation is its own reward. xoxo Julie

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  2. I love this so much. (And my gosh, that church building!!!!!!!)

    I just read an interview with a poet (and veteran), Colin Halloran, who was asked about the military-civilian divide. He said, “The gap between civilian and veteran understanding of war is perhaps paralleled by the gap between readers of poetry and everyone else.” He was explaining the double difficulty veteran poets have in breaching first the divide between civilians and veterans, and THEN the huge gulf between the part of the population that doesn’t think to read poetry and the small sliver that does. I think a lot of people often forget that poetry EXISTS. Even I rarely read it without some kind of prompting, and I’m a writer!

    But your post reminds me of its particular kind of beauty, and I think novelists have a lot to learn from poetry, too. Sometimes when working on a novel I’ll read a few poems before I start the day’s writing, just to get that kind of thoughtfulness and specificity into my head. Not to make it sound like I “use and abuse” poetry 🙂 — but that I respect the very unique thing that it does, which you explained so beautifully here.

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    1. Oh Andria, that’s fascinating. I think there is such hesitation and trepidation, a sense of exclusivity, a remoteness to the way we regard poetry. How does one find their way in as a reader, much less a writer of poetry? The days when children memorized poems as part of their school curricula are long gone and with that we lose so much of the wonder and joy of language. Never mind meaning–but the simple tactile brilliance of the way words feel on the tongue and in the throat. And then as adults we’re too busy to pay attention . . .

      I do exactly the same as you, either starting or ending my day with poetry, to refresh my mental and emotional palate with new metaphors, new ways of seeing shared experience.

      Thank you for the wonderful comment. I will seek out Halloran’s work. xoxo

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  3. Beautifully pondered as always, Julie.

    I used to write a lot of poetry in high school and college, but have fallen away from it in my old age. 😉 I’ve considered writing more of it lately, but, honestly, it feels daunting.

    Poetry carries a different weight than prose, at least for me. Not that every word must be golden, but that every word, every moment, every comma and period should Mean something. That’s a lot of pressure. Perhaps it’s just the pressure I put on myself for writing in general, but maybe I’ll ease up on that pressure, just write, and see where I go. Question everything.

    The image of the girl hugging the speakers to draw the music into her – that is poetry. Stunning and beautiful. You found your way well. I knew you would.

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    1. That’s exactly it for me, Kelly. It’s that weight that I allow to hold me down. I feel like I know something about how to work my way through prose- just sort of bleed all over the page and use the revision process to clean up after myself, but with poetry, it’s letting the blood drip and catching it before it spreads and stains. I’m trying hard (and that’s my problem, I always try too hard) to write from the small things and see where they take me.

      Would love to read some of your poetry. SO much! xoxo

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  4. I love your reflection and I think the question “what gets in the way” is huge in all creative things we do and in the creative people we are. Identifying “what gets in the way” is the important first step. Lovely realization of your vocation. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for the beautiful comment, Les. You are so right- it’s the recognition of those barriers. Maybe the key is not wasting time or energy trying to take them down, but rather walking around them to the other side.

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  5. I’m much more comfortable reading and writing prose, essays, etc. For some reason poetry intimidates me. I wouldn’t mind trying to get inspiration on what a poem is in Ireland. 🙂 Maybe I’ll tackle some of the anthology you reference. Thanks!

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    1. I feel the same Geralyn. My poems now come in fragments, ideas, scraps, remnants, and I’m trying to trust that time will see them knit together. Trying to let the process happen, which I’m not very good at. Patience. Acceptance. Regardless of result.

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  6. That sounds like a chapter out of “The Triggering Town”. Some day, if you keep this up – maybe soon – Richard Hugo may be second choice behind Julie Christine Johnson.

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  7. I love the image for finding one’s way in! did you take that photo while in Ireland? what is a poem, indeed? The wonderful Pablo Neruda even wrote wonderful poems made of questions such as: “How old is November anyway?/What does autumn go on paying for/with so much yellow money?” in The Book of Questions (1971-1973).

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    1. The questions, Leslie- I love the questions. I think the questions are the poetry. Prose seeks to impart information; poetry, experience. And yet another collection to add to my to-read list-thank you! Did you hear that Copper Canyon press is publishing a series of “lost” Neruda poems? What joy! xoxo Julie

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