In Ray Bradbury’s Zen in The Art of Writing, he asks,” What does writing teach us?”
“… [writing] reminds us we are alive ….and writing is survival…while art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”
What Bradbury confirms is that stories and poems have importance because they are the human story. Your (seemingly) benign life is a magnificent tale, and if you have the gift for storytelling or word crafting, it is your responsibility to do so because, “for human beings, not to speak is to die.” (The Word, Pablo Neruda.)
April is National Poetry Month, and Bradbury proclaims: “Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes, ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommend them for browsing.”
Writers pay attention to crafting their sentences, yet the longer the piece, the more we can get away with less than perfect diction. Not so in poetry. Each word matters. One misconception about poetry is, since they are usually short, poems don’t take long to create. Sometimes it takes months and years for that draft to simmer. Often the best thing you can do for a poem (or any writing) is to stuff it in a drawer for a while and not look at it for several days or weeks, so when you see it again, it’s with a fresh set of eyes.
Real writing, be it poetry, prose, or screenplay, begins in revision. The word itself, re-vision, means to see your work all over again.
Originally, I began writing poetry to strengthen my prose. I’ll never be in league with Mary Oliver, Stanley Kunitz or any notable poet, yet I challenge myself to play with words.
The person I am who writes poetry is not the same me as a prose stylist. For one, I draft poems by hand. I need to feel the words curl from my pen onto paper. Then I recopy these words into another more legible handwritten draft before I type them into a Word doc.
Here’s an example of a piece I crafted after a five-day workshop in San Francisco.
In the airport gift shop the words death
and plane crash leap from newspaper headlines.
The opening lines of a novel I pick up announce,
“You are going to die.”
My travel companion recounts last night’s dream.
“You and I attended a poetry reading at a graveyard.
The poets perched their bodies on headstones.”
As a kid I pondered how the world could exist without me,
this infinite universe, my own private amusement park
I controlled by opening and closing my eyes.
Life is an airport hotel.
You fly to a new destination;
Someone else moves into your room.
Here’s a poetry exercise to start your poem a day journey.
Take an old or new vinyl album, preferably a double album, and randomly select the titles (about 10-12) that jump out at you. Use these titles inside lines of your poem.
Here’s my example from a double album from the 80s I found at a library sale. You can see I channeled my inner Jack Kerouac.
Henry Mancini’s Greatest Hits
A happy barefoot boy hums
The love theme from Romeo and Juliet
As Nicholas and Alexandra leap
across the continental bridge over troubled water.
“El condor pasa,”
says Mrs. Robinson, interrupting
the sound of silence at Scarborough Fair,
thinking her own life would make a great love story.
A shaft of magnificent seven stars
glow as misty as a Hawaiian wedding song.
A baby elephant walks under a sweetheart tree
with a midnight cowboy and Peter guns the engine toward Moon River.
Michelle, the girl from Ipanema, doesn’t buy into the charade.
Dear heart flies like a shot in the dark out of Norwegian Wood
with all my loving, and I love her like a hard day’s night,
even as raindrops keep falling on my head.
By the time I get to Phoenix the entertainer
has played the Pink Panther theme on seventy six trombones.
It was good, bad, and ugly.
Mr. Mancini, how soon you left,
at high noon, during the days of wine and roses,
leaving behind the windmills of your mind.
P.S. Here’s a bonus exercise on my website.
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is board president of EPIC Group Writers. See EPIC’s eventspage for upcoming workshops. She is currently revising her fourth novel and her first screenplay.