Everyone’s a Poet in April
The world of famous poets is small. The past hundred years have produced a handful of poets whose names are immediately recognizable: Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, ee cummings, Maya Angelou, with space here for your own favorite.
As a student of poetry and an addict of words, I sadly recall the words of my poetry professor Ed Perlman at Johns Hopkins University: “Only about six poets in the world are able to make a living off of their poetry. The rest of us write poetry because we simply can’t stop ourselves.”
He’s probably right. Most of us write poetry while teaching, editing or writing articles about poetry for newspapers like Bay Weekly.
Yet poetry is literature’s most appealing and accessible form. Anyone can be a poet, and many of us are. Poems are written by the people all around us, the mailman and mailmam, the character behind you in the check-out line, the bartender pouring your beer. In this way, the world of poetry is anything but small.
Thus, books of poetry are anything but few. Publishing on demand means every poet can have a book. Perhaps its distribution will be limited to family and friends. But even volumes by poet laureates — or volumes judged by serious editors — are printed in smaller numbers than any week’s edition of Bay Weekly (20,000). The New York Times reviewed 100 books this week; none was poetry.
One of the several thin volumes we’re reading this poetry month is Life in Me Like Grass on Fire, just published by The Maryland Writer’s Association, a community of statewide neighbors dedicated to the art and business of writing. Its 50 poets include Bay Weekly contributors Dotty Holcomb Doherty, Jane Elkin and Sonia Linebaugh.
The subject of love is thoroughly covered in seven categories: First Love, Lost Love, Love of Art and Work, Friends and Family, Love of Nature, Love Floods the Senses, The Madness of Love and Love as We Age. Aptly titled, the book has a heated feel. The love described has burned inside all of us.
Feel lost love in Elkin’s “Moving Day” (in rhymed iambic pentameter) as the speaker struggles with change.
A stupid thought to cap our eighteen years,
my last advice was, “Don’t forget to drink.”
Linebaugh captures a similar emotion in the “melancholy sky” of “Rainy Season”:
Rain hesitates, then streaks the sky again with grief.
Sweet love also blooms in this collection. Doherty’s poem, “Rowing on the South River,” describes the world — and the poet — as alive and renewed in early spring:
I rejoice with each particle of water racing under my hull,
my oars, my wings, pulling
through the shifting tide.
We expect poetry to be about big emotions like love and joy and loss. But the art does not adhere to expectations. Seemingly trivial topics can involve us just as happily, as they do in Cormorant Beyond the Compost, just published by poet, Calvert library memoir mentor and Washington Writers’ Publishing House editor Elisavietta Ritchie.
“Real Toad” explores toaddom with humor and expert depiction of a fictional life that make her poem as appealing as a backyard garden.
The real toad in my real
garden has no illusions he
could make it big on the poetry scene.
Another new release, Janice Lynch Schuster’s Saturday at the Gym, makes poetry do physical work. In “Boxing in Bifocals,” she writes:
I wear them so I can read
The fine print
On my opponent’s gloves.
Schuster uses a physical swing to get us into her poem; then her words study the process of aging. In “Coming, Going, for Ian,” her words take their time, like a stream, with meandering direction:
and before I am ready
You will go from being my child
to fathering your own.
Formal poetry — structured with a combination of meter and/or rhyme scheme — is making a comeback in poetry today after decades of formlessness. Writing in form can be a bit like doing a crossword puzzle. But counting iambs and stressed syllables creates rhythm and can give a poem a whole percussion section to add to its orchestra.
That’s what you hear in Ritchie’s lines from “Tradecraft in Iambic Pentameters”:
For I’m the owl, who flies on unheard wings,
foretells when others die, but never sings.
When I ask Ritchie her advice to poets, she directs me to her poem, “Additional Advice for a Young Poet”:
Only one paper napkin
with six empty minutes?
Cover it with a poem.
Wipe your face
on the other side.
Between splotches: write.
I get it: She wants us to write. It may sound obvious, but Ritchie has a point. Writers of poetry don’t just write poems. They obsess. Each poem is a chocolate addiction that enables the endless choosing of the perfect word, stanza, line break and all possible meanings of metaphors. (My fellow poetry work-shoppers and I recently had an intense discussion over the possibility of a castle moat containing a mythical sea monster. The professor argued his case and won. No real castle moat has ever housed a sea monster.)
If the poet in you wants to emerge this spring, don’t worry needlessly about metaphors yet. Just write. Pick a topic and explore every crevice. Take the advice of master poet Billy Collins in his poem “Introduction to Poetry”:
… take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
Poetry Month Get-Togethers
April 16: Poetry at CityLit festival, 10am-5pm at Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St., Baltimore: www.citylitproject.org/index.cfm?page=news&newsid=83. The daylong immersion includes seven poets published in Life in Me Like Grass on Fire from 10:45am-noon in the Poe Room.
April 22: The Poet Experience with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly, 6:30-8:30pm at Zü Coffee, 1015 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis: 410-990-9111.