photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson




March 2006

"A poem has secrets that the poet knows nothing of. It takes on a life and a will of its own."

Stanley Kunitz from Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers by
Donald M. Murray


Jumping into the Poetry Pool

Dear Reader,

When someone asks, "What do you do?", think twice before you answer, "I am a poet," unless you are talking with a group of poets. People tend to remember their difficulty with poetry, in the course of an education during which poems were taught as a way of counting syllables (haiku) and recognizing rhyme schemes. They recall their quest for the Holy Grail of one correct interpretation that only the teacher knew. They envision a group of lines that look different from anything else, lines arranged to engender suspicion or anxiety. They may even cite not having time to read poetry, as if it is a luxury item they cannot afford. The quick thinkers may even fast forward to another question, "What else do you do?", which can be rephrased as: "You can't actually make a living doing that, do you?"

And yet, a small group of Americans struggle to embrace this art form. I specify Americans because every country treats or mistreats their poets in different ways, showering them with reverence (preferred) or squashing them. In the United States, poets are mostly ignored, which can be worse than death or torture (see Judy's Journal - February 2006). To the opening quotation by Stanley Kunitz, I will add, "…if you can find an audience to read it."

Where did my love of reading and writing poetry come from? In my day, the English curriculum was dominated by dead white males. In the early 1960's, John Ciardi did a reading at Buffalo State, and I received credit for attending. I liked his work. Had I stopped exploring poetry then, I would be in that first category of people scratching my head when confronted with by poem.

Not long after hearing John Ciardi, I was in a bookstore in Buffalo, NY and for $1.25 (!) bought a slim volume because I was attracted by the abstract expressionist cover drawing by Basil King and the title, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…. And then I read "Hymn for Lanie Poo."

Today when I found the yellowed 48 page book, I remembered how it changed my notion of what poetry could be. The poet's language and themes electrified me. Le Roi Jones took the name Amiri Baraka and is today one of America's most respected poets.

In 1999 when he read at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I had the opportunity to tell him about the effect his book had on me . He thanked me, signed my book and seemed pleased to see the relic. It was an honor to meet Baraka because he has never backed away from themes of social and political protest. Is he a "popular" poet? No. Will he ever be named poet laureate? Not likely.

Baraka's publisher was Totem Press/Corinth Books in NYC., and on the last page is their list of poetry books. Keep in mind that the year of publication was 1961. The litany of modern American poets included: Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, Bob Brown, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Frank O'Hara and Philip Whalen. Many of them are responsible for my obsession with poetry today.

How did poetry become an obsession? Reading. Reading. Reading. Writing. Writing. Writing. Taking classes with poets whose work I respect. Attending public readings. Do I like or understand every poem I read or hear? No. Poetry is an acquired taste, therefore as much falls to the wayside as is embraced.

To describe my personal history of loving poetry, this analogy applies: If Amiri Baraka was the first on my diving board, the pool is now filled to overflowing with Kay Ryan, Suzanne Cleary, Marie Ponsot, Charles Simic, Stanley Kunitz, and Elizabeth Bishop. Like a surrealist painting come alive, their faces morph into Robert Francis, Mary Oliver, Denis Johnson, Meg Kearney, Peter Johnson, Martha Rhodes, Wislawa Szymborska, and Wesley McNair. The crowd will continue to grow and morph as I take classes, attend readings and buy books by poets whose work might be unfamiliar today, but destined to be "in the pool" of favorites.

I am immersed in language and rhythms, but the poetry I choose to read does not let me drown. It makes me think, it makes me see things differently, it makes me weep, and it gives me permission (and courage) to approach the keyboard to write what I need to write. If you search for work by my favorite poets, and you will certainly find others you will like better. Connoisseurship is acquired over time.

Who are your favorite poets? And how would you define "favorite"- on the basis of a few poems to which you have connected or entire books? How did you become acquainted with their work? You can write to me:

Since April is National Poetry Month, my journal will celebrate that fact in some small way. Imagine: National Poetry Month. Is it possible that there is hope for poetry in America?