A Challenged Poet

Being poetic can be hard work.

My hands smell like Lysol. The washing machine is churning. A child is recovering from Influenza and coughing so deeply I cringe with guilt. In the back of my mind are the other items on my to-do list waiting for me: dusting, dinner, vacuuming.

But, writing poetry is not on that list. It’s never on my list. Scheduling poetry seems counterintuitive to me.

But, maybe it shouldn’t.

Dreaming isn’t working.

I used to dream about sitting near the seaside with a notebook, scribbling random pithy thoughts that I’d later form into a lofty poem.
person-802075_1920Even though I live only minutes away from several lakes and a half hour from one of the greatest lakes–Lake Michigan, I have never sat on a pier and dangled my feet in the water and written a poem. Not even close. I wonder why. It seems so easy. I imagine phrases and cadences springing onto the notebook with grace and sophistication and intrigue.

Isn’t writing poetry that simple? Just escape to your favorite nature hideaway with a worn moleskin notebook. Watch the geese, feel the breeze, then scrawl your pen or flex your fingers over your keyboard and voilà . . . a refreshing sculpted poem.

Reality check.

Most of the time, for me anyway, it is not that simple. I doubt my word choices. I wonder if I’m leaving out something. I wonder if I’ve over written. Did I choose the wrong point of view to tell this poem? Nine times out of ten, I’m dissatisfied and I toss away the verse.

Poetry is not my bread and butter. It’s a hobby, as my husband likes to remind me. But, if it’s a hobby, why does it cause me grief? Why do I struggle to write one pure line of poetry?

Simple is hard work.

Dejan Stojanovic wrote: “The most complicated skill is to be simple.”

Like the ballet dancer who practices until her feet bleed but her performance looks effortless. We watch in awe of her talent not taking into account her trials. Or the pianist who plays scales for three hours every morning in preparation for a concert. We listen and hear beauty but we don’t see the struggles.

I have to believe that writing poetry is challenging to me because I want the end result to read simply and effortlessly. Not choppy. Or at least not incomprehensible. To look simple takes a great deal of work. I have come to realize that  my challenge to myself has been to write truth with purity.

That means I need to continue to learn and to grow as I seek to be simple but elegant. Simple but profound. Simple but captivating.

And that takes work.

Scheduling poetry practice isn’t such a bad idea after all. If I can schedule my laundry, I can schedule a few precious moments musing over Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats to learn my craft better.

Other challenges:

Speaking of challenges, the April Poem-a-Day Challenge is a few short weeks away. Last year’s April PAD results have recently been posted. What a surprise to learn that two of my poems made it into the top ten. I challenge you to join me next month. Maybe we’ll win one this time.

Also, take a peek at this month’s blog post on MouseTales Press. Thank you to Carol Early Cooney for interviewing me and to Linda Hatton, managing editor, for publishing Carol’s interview. It was fun. (And challenging. I’m not a spotlight type of gal, so this truly was a challenge.)



The Arrogance of Poetry

“Every work of art is, in one sense, a self-disclosure.”

You ‘ve heard the term metapoetry–poetry about poetry.  It’s a poem about the poem itself or some aspect of poetry: feet, iambs, couplets, etc.

Billy Collins has written a sonnet about sonnets that I can’t post for copyright reasons but you can read here: Sonnet by Billy Collins

In ModPo we learned that all poetry is to some extent meta. If there is any literary art form more narcissistic, I don’t know of it. (Well, except for maybe selfies, which could be, I suppose, a form of art at times.)

I grinned when I found this tweet:” Can the conceit of metapoetry avoid becoming poetic arrogance?”

Isn’t that the epitome of metaphor? The poem about the poem, which hasn’t been written by the poem, is considered arrogant. (Cue the chuckling irony machine.)

But, then what about the poet?

Poems are often about the poet. They are often soul-bearing, utra-personal, and shall I say, often whiny in nature and overloaded with self-disclosure.

Self-disclosure: the process by which one person lets his or her inner being, thoughts, and emotions be known to another.

Even if we write about concrete or the winter storm or wrinkly feet, the poem is reflective of the word artist and their narrators, disclosing  multiple facets such as:

  1. Depth of simile ideation
    Example: My thoughts are as slimy as wet concrete.
  2. or weather prejudices
    Example: I abhor the romance of spring.
  3. or the abnormal
    Example: He dreamed about her foot fungus with anticipation.
    Poetically gross.

So why do poets allow themselves to be so overtly vulnerable?  What need do they have that is served by writing short works of art about their deepest longing or observations or perspectives?

The art of poetry is to evoke emotion. That’s hard to do if we don’t connect with our own emotions.  “Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differential interpretation to words, or to evoke emotive responses.”

Even when we write a poem that says nothing about how we feel, the poem is still about the poet. The choice of subject, form, words, spacing, tone, etc.  is revealing.

In the very least, you reveal what you are thinking about at the moment. I’ll admit, sometimes even that feels too exposing for me.

But, it is arrogance that drives us to write poetry?

The criticism that poetry is arrogant, I believe, comes from the thought that we are essentially pointing a finger at ourselves and saying, listen to me.

Then, we blindly assume that someone, somewhere will actually want to pay attention.

That’s not arrogance.

I’d call that human kinship.


5 Keys to Memorizing Poetry

I eat my peas with honey.
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny.
But, it keeps them on the knife.

This is the one of the first poems I remember memorizing. My mom used to recite it us at dinner when she served peas with our meatloaf.

(We did not paste our peas to our knife with honey. Actually, my brothers secreted their peas to our salivating Schnauzers under the table.)

Most of us grew up reciting ingrained nursery rhymes to music:



Memorizing little ditties came easy to us in those days. Especially if they came with a tune, or hand movements, or a jump rope.

But what good is memorizing anything after we graduate high school?

After the time’s tables are fixed in our brains, and we can recite the Preamble to the Constitution, and maybe some of the Gettysburg Address, we think we’re done jamming information into our cerebellum or hippocampus or wherever we stuff our memories. Or if we get advanced degrees, we study for the tests and (some of us) promptly release that info into the atmosphere and wave goodbye as it meanders on the windwaves and then temporarily leeches onto someone else’s brain for another test at another school.

Heck, we don’t even have to memorize phone numbers anymore. We live in an I world with information at our fingertips. Who needs to memorize?

Not so fast.

This week Barbara O’Neal at Writer Unboxed wrote about The Powerful Nutrition of Poetry acknowledging that memorizing poetry is healthy. As healthy as taking your daily Robert Frost Gummy Vitamins.

Hallelujah! Memorizing poetry can make us smarter by enriching our gray matter. Which translates into making us better problem solvers, increasing our creativity, elevating our-thinking-on-our-feet ability, and frankly, making us more interesting.

But, honestly . . .

I don’t know anyone who likes to memorize. I don’t remember the last time I memorized a poem. Memorizing is fatiguing. Boring. And seemingly without reward.

But, on the flip side, if it will nourish my brain then I’m all in. (Four aunts and mom with Alzheimer’s. I’m looking for the cure and if poetry is it . . . I’m not that naïve.)

But, I will try.

I like tools. I like step-by-step game plans. I like easy. I like learning from the pros.

So I asked myself, who would know more about memorizing than actors?

In this article about the secret to actor’s memories, Michael Pennington insists that “Repetition, repetition, repetition.” works best.

Lesson: write out the poem on an index card. Read the poem. OUTLOUD.

He recommends acrostics and mnemonics that associate troublesome passages with a memorable story. Try to correspond lines of poetry with the story of the poem instead of learning word by word.

Lesson: Don’t focus on learning it word by word.

We memorize best “through chunks, phrases and patterns, often hammered into place by metre or by rhyme.”

Lesson: Learn chunks, phrases, and patterns.

Actor Lenny Henry advises to write down your lines, at least 10 times. Moving around also helps to fix the words.

I can attest to this. I once tried memorizing a large chunk of Greek literature. I wrote it on index cards and paced the basement, recalling a tidbit of something from a Kinesiology class. Some of us learn better when we fiddle or jitter and move around and fire up the neurons in our brain.

Lesson: Get Kinetic.

If you can, set the poem to music. Remember how we learned nursery rhymes? Make up actions, hand movements, get out your jump rope or hula hoop. If you know sign language, utilize your skills. If the poem doesn’t rhyme, try to find the patterns and connect them visually, orally, and audibly.

Here are the 5 Keys:

5 keys to memorizing poety

Encouragingly, Pennington notes that the actor Dame Gwen Ffrangeon-Davies, who lived to the age of 101, never ceased to commit fresh lines to memory.” She would learn a new piece of poetry every day until she died. It has to be good for the brain.”

If memorizing a poem a day has been helpful for a dame . . .  that’s good enough for me.

I’ll start Monday.

After my diet.

What about you? Do you memorize poetry? Have any other tips? How has it helped you?


Additional Reading: Poetry by Heart competition

When Poetry Converts to Prayer

One thing we can all agree with . . . poets are observers. Of people, patterns, and paradox. Of emotion,  enigmas, and ethos. In silence, sleep, and seclusion we ruminate and reflect. We roll around in the spring pansies and willow boughs and write their joy. In winter, we examine snowflake designs and compose similes. On the street, we trade sighs with strangers, mirroring life’s struggles, and we sculpt  slant rhymes to save for a sonnet or cinquain.

Our hearts are often saturated with emotion. Our minds are like Spirographs. This sometimes makes it difficult to honor our craft. We feel what belongs to others. It’s impossible not to. Is this intuition? Or instinct? Empathy? Insight?

William Wordsworth said,

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”


For me, digging into this avalanche of emotion can make it difficult to unearth the tranquility necessary to whittle a poem with artistry and skill. Even in seclusion my mind often races. I struggle to burrow through my mind’s Spirographed agitation (inspiration?) to expose versed thoughts.

When this happens, I turn my rough-hewn poetic thoughts  into prayers.

My mother is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s.  Sometimes she doesn’t know me. One thing she does know, however, is that something is not right. She just  doesn’t know what.

Yesterday she asked me to pray for her.

Today she prayed to die.

I need to do something with the overflow of emotion in my heart. I cannot write a poem to express the powerful sorrow and pain I feel for her.  I cannot write of my grief. I am unable to dig through the sands of sentiment to even find a poem inside me.

So, I turned to prayer and other poets to do what I cannot.

C.S. Lewis writes of death after prayers. I find it comforting. Even in his despair and after his death, he has connected with me through his poetry and prayers. Isn’t that what poetry is supposed to do?  Isn’t this why we write it? This season of my life,  I’ll hold onto my faith and the poetry of others to express what’s hidden in my heart.

“After Prayers, Lie Cold” by C. S. Lewis

Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush’d mortal, in the sacred night,
-A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness’ and pardon’s watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.


Maybe tomorrow, after my prayers,  I’ll feel inspired to write my mom a poem.

It’s Becoming a Tradition

What I wanted to do:

What I wanted to do

What I did instead:

What I did insteadHow about you?

The Science of Poetry. And yet . . .

You’ve probably heard the big news–People who write, live healthier lives. (Healthier than . . . ?)

Or maybe it’s people who write, die less quickly? (Less quickly than . . . ?)

The premise is whether you blog, write poetry, or scribble in a journal–as long as you write expressively for twenty minutes, three days/week, you’re gold, says Arts.Mic.

Physical Health Benefits

Quoting a 2005  article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, people who write enjoy more benefits than just publishing a piece of their work.PP_D079_poster_by_grasset_for_l'encre_marquet Science has now proven long-term health benefits of writing which includes, less doctor visits, stronger immunity, less depression, etc.

Chalk it up to my doubting Thomas personality but, I’m a little skeptical.

First, notice it said long-term.

Short-term, maybe not so much: “The immediate impact of expressive writing is usually a short-term increase in distress, negative mood and physical symptoms, and a decrease in positive mood compared with controls.”

Meaning, you’re going to feel kind of lousy at first because you are re-living a not-so-fun incident. At least temporarily. I’m not sure at what point the profits of long-term physical health kicks in but at least that sounds hopeful.

And yet,  if only we could interview all those poets and writers who took their own lives and ask them if they felt so desperate shortly after writing about a misfortune, that they could not hold onto life. Did they not experience the long-term benefit of writing?

Emotional Health Findings

And yet, (that phrase will repeat rapidly and . . . repeatedly throughout this post) emotional health findings were not “as robust or as consistent as those for physical health.”

Are you like me in thinking that emotional health is one of the big reasons we do write expressively?

The key, which seems not to be emphasised, is that to benefit from expressive writing, you must confront the traumatic event during your twenty-minute writing session, seek to understand the event, then integrate your experience cognitively instead of just ruminating about your feelings. Otherwise, you are just propagating negative physiological reactions.

The Key

In other words, to reap the health pay-off, the key is to gain understanding of what you’ve experienced. Not just to upchuck all your nasty nauseating  feelings, which, quite frankly, is kind of the fun part of writing expressively.

And yet, (I keep finding these caveats) one study suggests that while no direct evidence exists, structured writing seems to have more benefit than just journal or diary writing.

So, there you go. Just unlocking your diary (I almost spelled dairy, which I like better) and madly purging all those feelings you want to express about and to your BF, your BFF, your DH, your MIL, etc. does not lead to lowered blood pressure.

You gotta sort out the problems. Resolve them. Work them out. Learn from them.

And Yet Again.

As I read further a few phrases popped up: Some studies. Can benefit. Others failed to find any benefits. Not all studies find benefits. Results are inconsistent. Supporting and contradictory evidence. No direct evidence.

Does this sound like science has uncovered the writing secret to long-term health? surreal-402830_1280

Recently I read a big name blogger whose guest poster expressed her belief that writing healed her depression. Again, my cynicism wagged a fiendish finger.

While I believe  writing can aid in calming symptoms of depression. I don’t believe it can heal depression. I have a cell in that dungeon. I write there among the rats often. Writing underground cannot heal depression on its own.

And Yet Again Again

If you were to ask a random gathering if they thought writing was beneficial, I’d be the first to raise my hand because that is how I express myself. For someone who doesn’t enjoy writing, I’d guess, unscientifically of course, that forcing him/her to write twenty minutes a day would cause them stress. And writing long-term would cause them greater long-term stress. And quite possibly, they might decide that a life of words is not worth living for.

But, for those who love to write, we seek the joy of words, we chew them, suck them like lozenges, inhale the sometimes perverseness of surprise, then reread and rewrite and wake to do it again.

My point is that blanket statements and glass-overflowing, jump-to-conclusion analysis of studies offers false lofty promises.

Just keep it real. Writers are not superlative beings.

Just as runners love to run. Bakers love to bake. Quilters love to quilt.

Writers love to write.

If there were no psychological or physiological gain from participating in these activities . . . then why run? Why bake? Why quilt?

Why write?

And Yet

I’m stopping here.