What you’ll need: an appreciation for the sublime and the profound in everyday life, a rhyming dictionary

Songlist: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Further reading: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (the most comprehensive), The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (my favorite)

In the American tradition of giving causes their own days and months, April is National Poetry Month (this week is also National Library Week–a double whammy!) Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, poets, teachers, publishers and booksellers now celebrate the art form in a multitude of ways from readings to poem-a-day mailings to poetic tweets.

My own illustrious career began in the 3rd grade when we were doing a poetry unit. We learned about haikus and tankas and tried our hand at several forms. When we were instructed to write an ode, I quickly put together a poem about one of my best friends at the time. I turned it in to my teacher within a few minutes. She looked it over and suggested a few revisions, but I shook my head, assuring her that my artistic vision was perfect the first time around (somehow I already had a fully-formed artistic ego, and only learned the necessity of revision when I was about 21). The poem eventually won a contest judged by Garrison Keillor, for which I gave readings at a local mansion and a Barnes and Noble.

Cleopatra's poetry class at a dinner with Lucille Clifton (pink sweater) and Grace Paley (pink hat, gray sweater)

That early success has been unparalleled in the sixteen years since. Middle school was a particularly bleak time for my poetry (What more can I speak/of that which I seek?/Ah, this poetry is bleak!) But luckily I went to a college with an exceptional creative writing program and was gently nurtured from writing terribly crappy poetry to something a little more substantial. The winter of my junior year I was in a class led by the wonderful poet Cleopatra Mathis. For those three months, and about six months thereafter, poetry made sense to me. I could read a poem and be profoundly moved by it, and I saw the world in metaphor. That summer I had an internship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and on the ferry ride over from Boston I started to memorize poems from my Vintage anthology (see above).

That summer was one of the best of my life, as I was surrounded by other fiction writers and poets my own age as well as published writers. As most of us interns were newly 21, we spent many nights out on the town, but it was perfectly acceptable to decline an invitation out if you had a poem or story in mind you just had to get down.

At the end of the summer, one of my fellow interns who was in her second summer with FAWC told me that things would never be as good as with this community. She had gone back to her senior year of college with high expectations, but had been disappointed by the lack of energy there. Though I had had a fabulous class the previous winter, I experience a similar let-down my senior fall. I was in a seminar for poetry majors, but the poetry I was writing sucked and it seemed like I had no hope of improving it. I continued on, miserable, and was denied entrance to the honors track in poetry, instead being assigned an independent study. Poetry just didn’t make sense to me in the same way it had, almost as if my ability to understand it had shut off. Luckily, at the last minute I changed my focus to fiction and was able to make the honors standard with a thesis of short stories, but it meant that I gave up the image of myself as a poet.

I still haven’t gotten back in the habit of creating poetry out of my everyday life, but I have recently started reading and finding beauty in it again. Maybe my ability to understand it is turning back on.

 

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