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My Gift Is My Song

Let’s talk about poets. Poooets. Wordsmiths. Visionaries. Mongrels. Thieves. When I was getting my MFA, someone asked the great William Matthews why poets didn’t have agents. “Because 15% of nothing is nothing.”   When people discover that I have a degree in poetry and won a couple of prizes when I was still in diapers, they ask me with a hopeful longing, “Do you still write poetry?” And it sounds like, do you cavort with the angels, do you still touch yourself gently, or lay down in a field of alfalfa where wild ponies run?

I would say it makes my skin crawl, but that is cliche — the enemy of poets. Do you have any idea how much I love poetry? But I quit it. Like some people kick booze. One day at a time I don’t write a poem. I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. I used to count syllables on my fingers while I walked. I used to have images in my head and words that fell like burning rubbish. I used to walk from Columbia to Inwood and eat everything in cellophane. I never believed I was any good. Just clever. What was the point? A few journals deigned to print a few poems. A guy made a pass at me after a poetry slam and I ran home.

What about you? Do you believe in iambic pentameter? Do you go to readings and wonder if you should clap in between poems? Do destroy a beautiful piece of paper with a poem?

65 Responses

  1. No. Because 85% of nothing is nothing.

  2. I studied poetry in order to write better prose.

  3. I do not have a poetic soul or ear, but I’m starting to appreciate those who do more every day. Even those who think they’ve escaped. 😉

  4. I like poetry but haven’t read a lot of it.

    I write poetry very quickly (usually 15-20 minutes to write and 15-20 to revise).

    Usually I write poems when I’m feeling emo and confused or emo and inspired or emo and absolutely clear in unclear terms. As I write, the emo part drops away and I enter a state of deep focus I guess you would call it–or flow, whatever. Intense concentration takes over and I forget myself.

    That’s why I write it.

  5. My poems are the best things about me. And yes, I was touching myself when I said that.

  6. For six years, I was Editor of Peninsla Poets, official organ of the Poetry Society of Michigan. I believe in grass roots poetry–free verse, blank verse, the sonnet, the villanelle, the pantoum, and all forms that have once charmed, warned, grieved, overjoyed and filled a void prose can never challenge. To me, writing includes it all–prose-poetry, and drama. Each a part of the whole.

  7. I can’t write poetry but I am so grateful for those who do.
    Nothing cures writer’s blues like poetry. The space between the words, the things that are not said, are generous.

  8. I’m eclectic in my poetry love.

    Haiku, limericks (the whole range), sonnets, doggerel, the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, snotty ravens, clever song lyrics, lives measured in teaspoons, most of the Spectrism stuff, Donne (when he isn’t being a jerk), the one that ends, And the pig got up and slowly walked away, and a host of etceteras.

    My own sporadic efforts are closer to filk than anything—nothing as classy as lyrics. But I did write a poem about lemmings once, for a class, that wasn’t too bad—though I’m sure it had certain psychological implications (as all poetry does, I’m sure). I think the last line was, “You first.”

  9. In college, I loved writing poetry. I always considered myself a fiction writer but loved poetry, too. I thought I’d continue writing it after college, but I didn’t. I think it scares me, or I’m afraid I can’t recapture what I once had when I tried to write a poem. That’s a pretty crappy reason, but there it is.

    I attended an open mic poetry reading recently. A girl who must have been all of 14 stood up and read a poem about how she wished she was beautiful, how she cried all the time, how ugly she felt, etc. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe her courage in reading that stuff in public to a bunch of strangers. I’m also glad I never stood up and read my angsty teenage poems out loud in a coffee shop.

  10. I can’t relate to 90% of the poems I read. I relate to 90% of the novels I read. If I had to chose one or the other, I’d chose poetry. It comes from a place no other type of writing can access.

  11. I used to write poetry nearly every day, but that might have been because I was toking nearly every day, and poetry was the perfect form for such times – short, intense attention span with sky-opening insight and lyrical streams of thought.

    Now I simply get my daily dose from The Writer’s Almanac.

    • That’s a great segment on NPR and often the poems old Garrison selects leave me smiling or thinking all day.

  12. I do enjoy writing poetry sometimes, but not usually. Poetry is something that I write when I am feeling depressed or just trapped. It is kind of like an outlet to clean bad emotion from my mind. However, I don’t ever plan on trying to publish a book of poetry.

  13. don’t know much about poetry but i try to learn. i force myself to read one every week and slowly, i’m learning. i enjoy a good reading but sometimes poetry readings can go sideways. you know how it goes. when the cool back-up band is too fucking loud, the poet starts awkwardly rocking back and forth and reciting off the beat of the music. i’m scratching my head about what the hell they’re talking about. then somebody starts that godawful moaning in the audience and i can’t figure out why i’m sitting in a crowd of people with their eyes shut, poemoaning.

  14. your streams-of-questions-instead-of-conscious always sound like poetry to me.

    when i was really young i liked the way shaking my head felt. not for an extended amount of time, but like i was violently shaking my head no for a moment or more. i would do it out of nowhere like kids who have to blink their eyes or crinkle their nose. it drove my mom crazy and she would tell me to, “stop it already!” but i liked the way it felt.

    later i liked the way binging and purging felt. kind of in the same way shaking my head felt, but with food and more intense. you know.

    and then there was beer and tequila and then wine and vodka tonics. and man-oh-man did i like the way they felt.

    i’m going to start praying tonight that writing never feels this way to me because it’s the only thing that keeps me from shaking my head, or throwing up my dinner and drinking. good lord, i’d be drunk right now if i couldn’t write.

    i don’t think i answered any of your questions. i don’t write poetry, but i like reading it when everybody else is asleep.

  15. Write, read, and listen to poetry? Scan lines for pleasure? Clap? Clap between poems?

    — hell yes. Like my life depends on it.

  16. Good poetry read aloud can freeze me in place and leave me breathless. Do I write it? No. Do I read it for myself? No. But poets (and songwriters) who can draw pictures and evoke emotions with so few words have my utmost respect.

  17. I DO still write poetry. But only when I’m in a special mood. And it does make dramatic improvement on the rest of my writing.

    Lisa

  18. I can’t write poetry worth shite. But I admire those who can.

  19. I read and write poetry. I’m better at prose, tho’. I think the 15% of nothing (meaning, of no incoming royalty payments) is nothing (no money in pocket) says everything about poetry. Poetry isn’t easy entertainment and differentiating between “good” poetry and “bad” poetry is hard to do. Highly subjective, as well. Going away from poetry because it doesn’t fit into capitalist sensibilities is just as stupid as going away from prose because it doesn’t fit in today’s televised world. Every year, publishing houses put out fewer and fewer books. Why is that? Because they’re breaking the prose habit the same way the 20th century broke us of the poetry habit?

    I like poetry because of itself. I like the words, the rhtyhms, the images. I don’t write poetry because I ever plan on selling it (ha.) I don’t write prose because I ever plan on selling it, either. We’ll all be putting 5 dollar ebooks on our kindles in a decade anyway. Print publishers are a species as endangered at poets were a century ago.

    I believe in poetry because I don’t believe the dollar is more important than the art, even if it means that only dinky lit mags publish stuff that’ll only pay in 2 copies. I’m a sucky capitalist. I left that cult behind.

  20. It’s funny, the world. When I first read your book as an undergrad, I wanted to write novels. Now, I’m a grad student who reads your blog and writes poems. Clearly, I didn’t get the message. Or I just wrote bad novels.

  21. There was a moment when all I did was write poetry. It was my lifeline. I was young. I was free. I was wild.

    I think poetry has some kind of magic attached to it. It connects you to The Universe when you need it most. I always found it amazingly personal. It was rare that I would ever share it. When I did, there was a reason. Poetry is not for the world at large. Its audience must be hand picked.

  22. Writing? What’s that?

    • Uh-oh. Tough weekend?

    • Oh, not so bad, Sarah. My friend and her husband are waiting for biopsy results today. The last time he almost died he said, I don’t have it so bad. There are people in here who can’t lift their head off the pillow. It makes me laugh because it’s so honest. How can I possibly follow that with my whine?

      • The last time he almost died

        That’s a whole lot of perspective right there.

        My fingers are crossed for your friends—belatedly, maybe, but crossed just the same.

  23. I love poetry more than anything. And I hate nearly all of it.

  24. In my ragged childhood I was made to memorize a few poems–Stopping by the Woods, 23rd psalm…among others and many, many years later these words often come to mind. I destroy beautiful paper occasionally with so called prose poems –the last few written for my husband as a gift because I can’t speak what I want to say. A writing teacher I had said you should read a poem a day. Poetry readings make me run but yes, i believe in iambic pentameter.

  25. Yes. Poetry makes you listen and see the world in a different way, for better or worse, all in a few stanzas. I’ve traveled in poems, floated for awhile and have seen “monkey feet, small and blue, coming after you.”

    Make money at poetry? No, it defeats the purpose. If you want to eat, potatoes are cheap, but with words, man, now there’s a price to pay.

  26. Poetry exploded out of me, through my pen, through my typewriter (remember those?), when I was seventeen. For two years I wrote poetry, hundreds of poems, then the flow began to dry up as I came to feel I was doing nothing more than turning tricks with words, and as I became increasingly strung-out, finally too strung-out to write.

    Twenty years later, with most of the string reeled back in most of the time, I went through another fit of poetry-writing, this one lasting nearly a decade but not as intense as that of my late adolescence. This one pretty much ended after I read the works of Lord Byron (now, there was a poet).

    Nowadays, I don’t think a new poem could find its way out of me. As I recently told a writerly friend of mine who had the sense to go to law school after she got her MFA, my poetry has come to seem to me to be thinly-disguised prose hobbled by an excess of counted feet. That doesn’t stop me from trying to make the best I can out of that which I’ve already written. Most of the adolescent poetry was burned in the fireplace long ago, but the later stuff I still pimp in the soft red light of the Litmag District. Even had a few published last year. Likely to have more published in the future, Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, but I can barely stand any longer even to read contemporary poetry, much less compose it afresh.

    As for going to readings, the Cheney Gang waterboarded but if they’d really wanted to torture, they’d have taken detainees to poetry readings. Open mikes, especially. Confessions would have poured forth.

    “Poetry went away.
    It took the pen from my fingers,
    And there was nothing left to say.”

  27. Anonymous because ashamed – maybe one day I’ll come out of the closet. I do not read poetry AT ALL. I know it keeps the world going, I know it’s the highest form of writing, I know I SHOULD, and all that makes me want to read it even less. It just feels like too much hard work. You may all despise me now. And yes, I write. And amazingly, it still turns out ok. I’m not famous or published, so this isn’t an exciting secret to anyone, by the way!

    • The definition of poetry is astonishingly broad.

      You may not read “formal” poetry, but I’ll bet you listen to music lyrics and read advertisements, watch commercials, and/or snicker at the occasional limerick or rude rhyme (whoops, that’s me).

      It’s difficult to avoid the stuff – even a lovely turn of phrase is poetry to someone.

  28. Oh, to write a poem that doesn’t read like Dr. Suess! The curse of a writer wanna be. My poem about my sister-in-law nearly getting run down by an ox coming down stairs in Cairo was so sing-song I just had to call it, “And to think I saw it on Telelahar Street” If I work really hard maybe I can ape A.A. Milne. “All Matt’s friends are short and stout, which I, quite frankly wonder about.”

    • Dr. Suess is awesome.

      • Right you are. I must have read The Lorax hundreds of times when my kids were small, and I still love the little guy. And that rotten Onceler …

        I’ll bet if the world had a designated poetry reader, everyone would like poetry. I nominate Alan Rickman. That scene at the end of Sense and Sensibility makes my heart go pitter-pat.

      • I speak for the trees. How deep is that?

        And I’ll second that nomination. Alan Rickman could read me poetry in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, here or there, anywhere.

  29. Poetry in prose, that’s what gets me.

  30. I do not read poems, but I find poetry in beautifully written sentences in novels. That is where I look for poetry.

  31. Write poems? I wish. But I sure do thank my old profs — Michael Dennis Browne, Garrison Keillor, Sam Maio — for teaching me how to love it, touch it, and swirl it around for fun.

  32. I love poetry. I’m not a poet, at all at all, but I’ll try out some iambic pentameter every so often, just for the exercise. Sonnets were a revelation to me in high school English: that you can let the form take over and jog you along until you drop. The results have never been something I’d want to show another soul, but not everything has to be that.

  33. I think it’s fascinating the lengths we go to deny ourselves our greatest pleasures – or even in deceiving ourselves that we are, in fact, dipping down into those pleasures, half-hazardly. I know that I can sometimes do my greatest writing when I tell myself, “I’m not ‘writing,’ I’m just, well, writing.” Ms. Lerner – it amazes me to hear that you don’t think you write poetry when I often think to myself that your posts are pure poetry. Maybe you need to tell yourself that in order not to suffer through performance anxiety; maybe you’re not writing iambic pentameter; and maybe you’re not submitting poems to magazines – but you are, without a doubt, still writing poetry.

  34. Sometimes it just comes out that way, said the big-handed proctologist.

  35. I wrote poetry in college and enjoy flipping through my norton anthology and reading favorite poems. But I don’t read contemporary poetry…it gives me a headache because I can’t penetrate it and figure out what it’s all about….

  36. I’m in the middle of memorizing 100 poems and writing about how they pimp my prose. (Also have a novel in progress.) Every now and then I play with a verse or two myself–just entered a “Sevenling” in Robert Brewer’s “Poetic Asides” blog contest. And I agree with “anonymous” (3 comments up)–you are still a poet.

  37. I love poetry and think there’s some really great stuff being written right now — poetry is in much better shape than the short story, I think. Mary Jo Bang’s collection, Elegy, about the loss of her son, is incredible: tough and brilliant and moving. Frederick Seidel’s poems are brutal and perfect (August, you love them, you do). Also see Malena Morling, Ed Skoog, Heather McHugh, Dean Young, Carl Phillips, Brenda Shaughnessy, Matthea Harvey, Ben Lerner…. John Ashbery’s newest is awesome.

    I just read poems, don’t write them. I ain’t no good at it.

  38. Poetry is 100% of good prose. It has something to do with loss and death and the weight of all you can’t count can’t even see, might never overcome, or ever fully understand.

  39. Well, what you said:

    “Do you have any idea how much I love poetry? But I quit it. Like some people kick booze. One day at a time I don’t write a poem. I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. I used to count syllables on my fingers while I walked. I used to have images in my head and words that fell like burning rubbish. I used to walk from Columbia to Inwood and eat everything in cellophane. I never believed I was any good. Just clever. What was the point? ”

    AND that’s why I have just about quit writing prose fiction too. What IS the point? (Don’t need money or fickle fame. Miss it like a bad habit.)

  40. For those of you who like poetry and for some of you that don’t, here is one I think you might enjoy.

    PRECEPTION

    If crazy is my destination
    The drugs were my drive
    Insanity my pool
    Addiction my dive
    Fear is my wall
    Opportunity is my door
    My limitations have no ceiling
    But also my bottom has no floor
    Persistence my run
    Failure my walk
    Ignorance my silence
    Knowledge my talk
    Anger my blind spot
    Serenity my sight
    Nightly my surrender
    Daily my fight
    If honesty is the key
    A lie is the lock
    Insults are a hit
    Humility is the block
    If love is the answer
    Life is the question
    Laws are orders
    But 12 steps are suggestion
    Sobriety a straight road
    Temptation a bend
    Recovery the journey
    Reality no end

    By the way I wrote it. It’s about me. Bill Bradley

    • Sooooooooo. The basketball player politician?

      Wonder if they have 12 steps for cereal and ice cream.

  41. It’s just poetry–it’s okay to write, read, sing, dance to. Read it the way you eat chocolate–just a little, once a week, the best you can find. Read it the way you eat spinach–a lot, every other day, the best you can find.

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