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The Wonder Report: January 29, 2021
Reading and Writing Poetry
Over the years, I've been many kinds of writers. In school, I was a student, of course, but also an academic writer. In college, I studied how to be a journalist, and afterwards, that was the kind of writer I was in my first real job. After leaving the newspaper business and throughout young adulthood, I was a wannabe writer, often spending more time reading and thinking about being a writer than actually writing. But then, I made my way to publication and became a freelance writer.
More recently, I've been writing essays -- that makes me an essayist, I guess? -- and after writing and co-writing books, I'm also an author. I've even tried my hand at fiction, though only privately, which presumably makes me a closet novelist.
But the very first kind of writer I was, all the way back when I was just eight years old, was a poet. Poems purred the first siren songs that have kept me stranded in prose and verse ever since.
Whenever I talk about poetry, most people get nervous looks on their faces, worried I'll ask them about their favorite, which they rarely have. Some people tell me they don't understand poetry or they think poets are too snarky or sneaky. "Why don't they just say what they mean?" a family member, who shall remain anonymous, once told me.
For a while, I tried to defend poetry, as if I understand it all or don't, myself, think some poets are snarky or sneaky. But since neither of those things is true, and since I don't necessarily like or understand all the poetry I read either, I've changed my tactic. Rather than convince people that all poetry is always amazing, I limit my response to this one piece advice: You need to read more poetry.
Because while not every person will like every poem, I am convinced ... thoroughly and entirely convinced ... that there is at least one poem out there for each person. Somewhere at some point, a poet has written a stanza or composed a rhyme or mapped out the perfect meter that will connect with even the most resistant poetry reader. The more poetry you read, the sooner you'll find yours.
At the same time, I am also convinced ... thoroughly and entirely convinced ... that the poetry you read in the meantime will also work its magic on you. The precisely chosen words, the accurately drawn descriptions, the playful imagery and the suggestive structure will take you by surprise, it will delight you, it will invite you to read it again and again. And without even realizing, you'll find yourself liking poetry.
At least I hope so.
Because poetry has purpose far beyond what may be immediately apparent. In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntire says that reading and writing poetry are "survival skills." Through poetry, she says, we learn to "slow down, notice patterns, reckon with ambiguities, consider subtle distinctions between one term or image and its alternative, and recognize the relationship between techniques and purposes." Poems "equip us to walk into any situation, look around, assess, analyze, and act," McEntyre writes. And maybe most importantly, poetry helps us "stay accountable to the largeness and mystery of truth by playing at its edges, peering into it, and 'finding what will suffice.'"
When was the last time you read a poem? The last time you memorized a poem or tried writing one? Well, this could be your chance. This entire issue of The Wonder Report is dedicated to poetry, because like McEntyre, I'm not sure we can "steward language well without some regular practice of poesis--reading poetry, learning some by heart, and writing--if not verse as such, at least sentences crafted with close attention to cadence and music and the poetic devices that offer nonrational, evocative, intuitive, associative modes of understanding."
So if you're already feeling resistant, lean away from that urge to run, and instead, simply try. You won't enjoy everything I have to offer here, and you may be not good at writing poetry if you're brave enough to try, but I can almost guarantee the effort will be worth it. After all, in the times we're living in, who couldn't benefit from an extra survival skill or two?
And by the way, I'd love to hear what you think about this issue. Did you feel resistant to my invitation? How did you respond? Is poetry already your thing? Then send me a link to one of your poems. And what do you think about the idea that poetry is essential to stewarding language well? Just reply to this message and let's talk.
This week I've played nurse to our 10-year-old Labrador Retriever, Tilly, who had to have a tumor removed from her leg for the second time. She's doing well, and with this nifty Medipaw covering, we've been able to avoid the "cone of shame" so far.
The Wonder Challenge
Let's read some poetry.
If it's been a while since you've read poetry, you're not alone. According to the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a collaboration between the NEA and the Census Bureau, only 11.7 percent of the U.S. adult population — or about 28 million people — had read poetry in the last year. Of course that's better than the mere 6.7 percent who read poetry according to the 2012 survey, but that's still not many poetry readers.
Here's the challenge: Read at least one poem a day this week. There are several websites that make poetry reading a breeze. Tweetspeak Poetry, for instance, often publishes poetry on its blog. They also have a poetry subscription that allows you to receive a poem each day in your email inbox. I also like the Poetry Foundation's website, where you can easily search for poems by author or by topic. Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets, along with Mary Oliver. And Poets.org also has a great poetry database, with the work of another favorite poet, Padraig O Tuama.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. By Heart 'As I Walked Out One Evening' + New Lucille Clifton Challenge by Megan Willome for Tweekspeak Poetry. One thing I love about Tweetspeak Poetry is the way they make poetry more accessible, without watering it down or distracting from its purpose. For instance, one important way to appreciate good poetry is to memorize it, recite it, and listen to others do the same. Tweetspeak is committed to this part of poesis, too, while also acknowledging that memorizing and reciting poetry isn't always easy. In this essay, Willome talks about her attempt at memorizing W.H. Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening and how it impacted her everyday life.
From the Essay: "This is a poem with wonderful images — the ocean “folded and hung up to dry,” a glacier that “knocks in the cupboard,” and salmon that “sing in the street.” I love these images even though I do not claim to understand them. But if they are true, then so is this line: “Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless."
2. Opinion: Amanda Gorman Reminds Us That Poetry Is Not a Luxury by Karen Attiah for The Washington Post. It seems like the whole world is talking about poetry since that day a little more than two weeks ago when the young poet Amanda Gorman was introduced on the Inaugural stage. One of only a handful of poets who have been part of Inauguration ceremonies in the 200 plus years of such events, Gorman was the youngest, but that didn't stop her from pulling poetry onto center stage and reminding us all that, as Attiah talks about in the piece, poetry is not a luxury. It's necessary for our healing and our growth. Here's a transcript of her poem, The Hill We Climb ... if you haven't already read it, you can use this as part of the Wonder Challenge above.
From the article: "The purifying power of poetry has existed as long as humans have wielded words. And for women especially, as Lorde said, poetry 'is a vital necessity of our existence.' Biden’s inaugural words about unity and coming together were good and helpful and presidential. But it was Gorman’s truth that was the necessary one."
3. 'This Is Our Dream': A Crowdsourced Poem To Inspire Hope by Kwame Alexander for NPR. As NPR's poet in residence, Alexander issued a call out to Morning Edition listeners for poetry that starts with the words "I dream a world," a line from a poem by Langston Hughes that inspired Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Alexander then took lines from the various submissions to create a community poem, "This Is Our Dream." This is another poem you could use to help meet the Wonder Challenge this week.
From the poem: "I dream of that world
The one that lifts the silenced souls from shackles.
Where vision cannot be smothered beneath my eyes beyond my reach
Where what lies waiting aches to teach."
What I’m Reading
Check out these books, magazines, or other publications I'm currently reading or have just finished. I'll only share resources I highly recommend ... and I'd love to hear your recommendations, too!
by Michelle Ortega
I want to introduce you to Michelle Ortega, a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist, a writer, and an author. She recently published her first chapbook of poems, Don't Ask Why, in a limited edition run with Seven Kitchens Press. Unfortunately, that means you can no longer buy the book ... but lucky for us, Michelle has given me permission to share one of her poems, both in print and audio.
What I love about Michelle's story is that she has been various kinds of writers, like I have, and I'm guessing she'd also say that she started out as a poet. But after a few years of writing essays, memoir, and other non fiction, poetry drew her back. Over the past couple of years, she has had numerous poems published, in addition to this book.
Here is a poem from Don't Ask Why, along with a recording from St. Michael's Episcopal Church's online program, "Poetry in Response to the Pandemic."
No rain falls with the storm, but energy whips through branches,
pares away the brittle, scrubs bark to awaken buds. Fallen meets
bloom with pentecostal chaos. The view from my bed, this new
mid-day softness (healthy in the pandemic)—my own breath, a dryad
whisper. Earth never stopped this song; only now am I still enough
to hear it.
No words to pray, but each breath drawn beyond my lungs offered
for those who step into the next life, unheld, unseen. For those that
cling like dry leaves on a tree through winter. For those bent in the
storm who do not break, but care for the ones who fall.
Find more poetry from Michelle by following her on Instagram.
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
If you're a writer and not a poet, chances are you came to this section of a newsletter on poetry with your eyes pre-rolled, knowing what I'm going to ask of you. Yes, I think it would be great if you gave poetry a try this week.
But why should you try to write poetry if you aren't a poet? For one thing, any writing you do will benefit the other writing you do. If you pay attention and work at your craft, you'll improve the writing you regularly do by practicing other writing skills. Also, if you want to be a good steward of language--and what writer wouldn't want that?--then "practicing poesis," as Marilyn McEntyre put it, is part of the deal. Finally, being a beginner at something, like poetry, is a good reminder that learning new things is beneficial to us in so many ways, even if we're always "just a beginner."
"No one wants to stay a beginner. We all want to get better," writes author Tom Vanderbilt in The Guardian. "But even as our skills improve, and our knowledge and experience grow, what I hope to encourage is the preservation, or even cultivation, of that spirit of the novice: the naive optimism, the hypervigilant alertness that comes with novelty and insecurity, the willingness to look foolish, and the permission to ask obvious questions – the unencumbered beginner’s mind."
In his book Beginners: The Curious Power of Lifelong Learning, Vanderbilt makes a case for adults always learning something new, not only as a way to acquire new skills or knowledge, but also because the very act of learning benefits us physically, intellectually, and socially. In fact, Vanderbilt says that learning new things is like "life practice" at this point in history, when "the fast pace of technological change turns us all, in a sense, into 'perpetual novices,' always on the upward slope of learning, our knowledge constantly requiring upgrades, like our phones."
So whether you do it to improve your writing, or just to improve yourself, give poetry writing a try this week. And if you want a real challenge, try form poetry on for size. Tweetspeak Poetry offers several different infographics with tips for writing Rondeaus, Tankas, Cinquains, Ghazals, Haikus, and more.
That's it for this issue! Thanks so much for reading along. I never take for granted the privilege of showing up in your inbox. If you know someone who might benefit from these emails, just send them to help them get subscribed.
Until next time!