Once poetry coursed through my veins, shooting out on the page through my pen. I wrote it, read it, loved it. Then, like many loves that go untended, it faded away. But not forever…

The Adolescent Poetess

writing in book.jpgAs a young girl, I didn’t fill diaries with childish complaints about family and friends. Instead, I filled them with pages and pages of poems. (To be honest, a poem or two might have been about how my family had wronged me in some way, just disguised in iambic pentameter and rhymes.) Full disclosure, my poetry was amateurish drivel from an adolescent. But I loved writing it. Every heightened, intense emotion poured out of me not as spoken words, but as poetry.

In middle and high school, my teachers dabbled in poetry on occasion. But it was just a brief introduction of rhyme, meter, rhythm and alliteration. Poetry always seemed to be the unit both the teachers and the students liked least. Regardless, I managed to fall in love with Whitman’s Lincoln who’d fallen cold and dead and Frost’s fading golden sunsets.

I wrote it. I read it. I thought I really knew poetry. I didn’t.

The Young and the Arrogant

On the twilight edge of my teen years, I sauntered into the first day of my English Lit course full of literary confidence. (Actually, I hobbled in on crutches. I’d torn the ligaments in my right foot walking down the stairs in 3-inch platform heels. Yes, I’m a klutz who has no business wearing 3-inch platform heels.)

TS Eliot Wasteland.jpgSliding into a desk, I propped up my leg and leaned back, feeling a comfortable ease sweep over me. Having skipped English Lit 101 and breezed through Freshman English 102, I assumed this would just be another class where I got to read novels and write summary reports.

The arrogance would soon be knocked out of me. On that first day, the professor announced the first assignment would not be a novel, but a poem by T.S. Eliot called The Waste Land. She tasked us with reading the poem and writing a 3-page paper describing a theory we had about one section and what it meant. She said it could be anything as long as we backed up the theory with sufficient supporting ideas, explanations and evidence.

I bombed this paper. Well, I got a C+, but for me, that is bombing an English paper. What I didn’t realize until the professor handed back the papers was that no one got a good grade. Everyone in class looked down at their papers, eyebrows bunched with stress and confusion.

It was a calculated move on her part. The professor wanted all of her arrogant students, expounding about Proust and thinking they knew everything, to realize they had still had much to learn and she had much to teach us. It was a lesson that has stuck inside me for decades.

The Real Art in Poetry

After that humbling experience and class, I started to read poetry differently, dissecting the words and meaning and metaphor. Instead of thinking I already knew it all, I researched. I thought about the poem, the context, the time it was written. I listened to other’s opinions and formed my own wild ideas. I learned to love poetry on a new, deeper level.

But it was hard work. In college, I had the time and the inclination to sit and ponder the meaning behind each and every stanza. It was sort of my job. Now my Academic life is just a small bundle of memories. The real world leaves me a few hours at best for literary contemplation. But it’s more than that. The poetry I read in college taught me about imagery and metaphor, but as I grew older, it felt less relevant. It felt as if these old white, men poets of the past had little to teach me about the present. The classics felt less classic and more arcane.

And so, like the slow dissolution of a friendship, poetry slipped out my life and I barely realized it.

And so, like the slow dissolution of a friendship, poetry slipped out my life and I barely realized it.

A Modern Love of Poetry

“Mom, you have to read this,” my daughter said, sticking her hand inside a thick book. She closed it over her fingers to show me the cover where three metallic circles crowded around the silhouette of a girl holding a book. My daughtered opened the book back to her page. “Listen,” she said and then read a passage, a short, lyrical description of a garden.

brown girl dreaming“It’s a book of poetry?” I asked. I’d been with my daughter when we bought the book, but I’d thought it was a novel.

“Yes, you should read it,” she said, eyes wide with that hopeful anticipation of sharing something she loves.

“Maybe I will,” I replied.

And so I did.

That book of poetry was Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Unlike the book of Whitman poems on my bedside table, which I’d pick up periodically, read for an hour and then put down feeling like I didn’t have the time or the brain power anymore to understand it, Woodson’s book felt accessible. It was more raw, more real, more relatable, but still filled with imagery and metaphor I could ponder and analyze.

It was a new type of poetry for me. Instead of getting lost in complex language and words that would make SAT prep course teachers balk, I got lost in the story, the beautiful descriptions and the emotion of the poetry.

It felt like I’d unlocked a gate to a secret world. I wondered if there were more books of poetry like this, ones that told stories that felt authentic and full of life and loss.

princessThis was the beginning of my journey back to poetry. Although taken with the book, I didn’t start seeking more like it. I wasn’t sure how to even find something similar.

And then one day while wandering through a bookstore, I saw a book with a simple black cover and white print that read, The Princess Saves Herself in This One. It rested on a single bookshelf in a back corner of the bookstore. The world “Poetry,” tiny and faded, was written on a small label on the shelf above it.

My heart lurched to see the poetry section was only a few shelves inside a giant, hanger sized bookstore. I felt pity for the book with the fantastic title. So, I picked it up and thumbed through the first page. Then I read next page and the next. It had the same raw emotion of Brown Girl Dreaming. The same lyrical beauty of words describing something awful, but real and relatable.

Moments later I stood in line to buy the book, not realizing at the time, this was the next step in my journey not back to the poetry I used to read, but forward to a new type of modern poetry. It’s a kind of poetry that speaks to me. It makes me not just think, but also feel. It makes me remember why I fell in love with poetry. Now it’s just more modern.