On Wednesday one of my poems was published in the local newspaper. That statement alone carries at least five reasons for cheer.
1) First, it is a real treat to live in an area that has a local newspaper in this day and age, when so many small papers are being bought up or shut down.
2) Next, to live in an area with a local newspaper and to have that paper publish poetry – what can I say, I live in a wonderful corner of the world, where poetry and all of the arts are valued.
3) And then, it is a special pleasure to have a poem published at all (no easy feat in and of itself as any poet knows) but to have a poem appear in a publication that is so widely read by those who make up my community, well that’s even more satisfying.
4) Could it get any better than that? It does! The poem was published next to an article about Sylvia Plath. That would be a nice coincidence for any poet, but for me it’s even more serendipitous.
5) You see, Sylvia Plath and I have a special connection. This is a fact that literary scholars have heretofore overlooked, but I will share the details with you. Here goes: I was born just hours after Plath died. When you take into consideration the time difference between England, where she died, and New England, where I live, one could imagine that our spirits passed right by one another as I entered this world and she exited it. If that isn’t enough of a connection, consider this: Sylvia’s first name and mine are almost identical. In fact, I am often called Sylvia by people who don’t know how to pronounce my name. And finally, of course, like Sylvia, I too am a poet. Coincidence? Okay, probably. But I like to read more into things than that. If nothing else it makes life more interesting.
So anyway, I just wanted to mention that it was nice to have my poem published. Cheers!
Tonight I was sitting in my back yard, staring into the flames that were leaping in the outdoor fire pit, wondering what I would teach my students tomorrow. First I thought about poems I might want to introduce them to. Then I asked myself, “What do I want them to learn about poetry tomorrow?” In the end there’s only one thing to learn about poetry, and of course I can’t teach it. That is, we need to learn to go inside, to explore the dimensions of our hearts and minds. Well, I can’t teach that, but maybe they’ll discover it by delving into one of these poems:
1) “Stone,” by Charles Simic. Simic, our current Poet Laureate, offers an imaginary peek inside a common, stepped on, ignored, thrown in the pond, sometimes flinty, stone. I think this poem will be a good one to begin with, as it is less threatening to journey inside a stone at 10:20 on a Monday morning than it would be to start right off with looking inside ourselves. We can work our way up to that as the weeks progress. To hear Simic read “Stone” click here.
2) “The Unwritten” by W.S. Merwin. Here, Merwin brings us inside a pencil. That’s getting closer to the heart of things, but a pencil is still seemingly just an object made of wood, and so again, it won’t seem too terribly threatening. Until, of course, we start to write about what word is hiding inside our pencils, waiting to be written. (Visit this site to see a copy of the poem … you’ll get a writing assignment while you’re there.)
3) what the mirror said” by Lucille Clifton. This poem brings us to the mirror, where each poet can look inside her own eyes, and if she dares, she can write about the territory that is found there.
photo by Aja Riggs
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
– From the Gospel of Thomas
At least once a week, it seems, a student asks me why they should write about the hardships they have suffered. Rather than tell the truth of their lives, they will create fictions of empty words and forgettable cliches.
But one by one they crack open. And along with tears, a sliver of light pours through, puddles on their desk, spills onto the floor and washes over their lives.
I am so fortunate to be reminded of this possibility every day.
There are some topics that invite cliché and should therefore be avoided as themes for poems. Those include: Babies, Love, and Grandmothers. Yes, I know, that’s what everyone wants to write about. But here’s the problem. Try writing about your baby without getting all gooey or using the word angel or angelic. A love poem free of clichés? Good luck. As for grandmothers, that’s our theme for this week’s poetry classes.
My teen students were immediately silenced when I suggested the topic. Always a bad sign. But after a few minutes of prodding, I learned that the problem was that they assumed they should be writing sweet old lady poems and in fact some had grandmothers who are in jail, on drugs, dancing at parties with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another. No need to worry about clichés with this group … as long as they felt free enough to tell the truth. Which took some prodding, too.
To get folks started, and to steer them away from cliché’s I offer the following prompts … give it a try:
- List three objects you think of when you think of your grandmother.
- List three things your grandmother always says.
- List the names of the songs, types of music and/or singers she likes to listen to.
- List your grandmother’s powers: (to heal, to interpret dreams, to scare your father …)
- List your grandmother’s skills … what can she do better than most people?
- List three things your grandmother can’t do … drive a car? shingle a roof? speak a foreign language?
- List three reasons she makes you angry.
- List three reasons why you love her. (If you’ve been honest and specific enough with the top questions you can afford a little sentimentality here.)
Now, make your list a poem. It is probably already almost there. But to make it complete you can add phrases like: I remember … or My grandmother is … to the beginning of each phrase.
Happy writing … and remember, the truth and a specific detail or two are the best weapons in the war against cliché!