On the Subject of Poetry


It has been my experience the best poetry I’ve written is linked to strong emotional states: love, melancholy, sadness, birth, death.  Those episodes brought forth poems almost complete, directly from my head to paper.

My grandpa died when I was eighteen years old.  It was the first close death I had ever experienced.  A couple of years later, I had an assignment in one of my rhetoric classes: write a poem using only concrete images.  Grandpa came out in a single sitting.  All I had to do was put it in some kind of form and correct the spelling.  When my brother was killed, I expected some kind of poetic epiphany.  I had to write a eulogy, after all.  In the end I did write a eulogy, but it was just a long essay; almost a proto-blog.  No poem came to me.  In fact no words came to me for a long time after that.

We were cleaning up the house a couple of years later and came across a roll of exposed but undeveloped film.  It turned out to be pictures we took the Thanksgiving before David died.  It was an odd feeling, looking at my brother in new pictures.  I think I had gone through all of the existing ones until they were burned on the backs of my eyes.  To see him in new places, new positions, new poses, was weird.  It made me realize we hadn’t seen David at all for a long time.

“I’m beginning to think that you’re not here.”

I wrote that line and had some ideas I wanted to convey.  But it was still too early.  The emotion I felt was too deep.  It came from somewhere in my reptilian brain and defied any attempt to put it into language, short of a cross between a low growl and a plaintive howl to the sky.

This past Sunday, the senior high students planned a poetry slam for the service.  They asked people to bring poetry to read.  I looked through my poems and picked out a couple from college and a couple from high school (that seemed appropriate).  I also thought I would try to come up with something new.  I rummaged through my files and found my notes.  In the shower, in lieu of singing, I rapped out some lines; trying them out for size, how they rolled off the tongue.  I finished my first take of the poem in a couple of hours.

I’d like to say that I offered the poem to the congregation and it was a big hit.  I’d like to say that, but it isn’t true.  It’s been my experience that everything I’ve written is always the best thing I’ve written… right after I write it.  Upon further review, some are still good and others – well…  The truth is I chickened out.  I second guessed my second reading.  There are parts of the poem I like, parts that are strong.  Still, I don’t think I’m quite ready to let it go.

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