Poetry, process, progress.

How to grow a poet

In my other, more academic life, I teach some graduate courses within rhetoric and composition with this semester’s offering being “Literacy Theory and Composition.” My students just completed their family literacy reports and I would like to do one too, one that traces a specific literacy.

Like most English professors and most writers, I had a childhood filled with books and more importantly in my view, filled with storytelling and analytical talk. Yes, I have the Golden Books memories common to the U.S. middle class upbringing, but we also had bookcases full of hardbacks and I was never stopped from reading anything that otherwise might have been considered above my level. A little bit of skullduggery was involved too. For example, we moved every few years and in one house when I was six or seven, I remember standing on a chair to get at some books on a closet shelf above the clothes. That was when I found  Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and probably more than one volume by Walter De la Mare, which I remember enjoying more because of all the nature imagery. I also found Shakespeare’s plays. I remember reading “The Tempest,” which astounds me now, but then I read it mainly for the action and for the rhythm of the lines. Iambic pentameter had a pull for me even then. Here is what I wonder–how does this rhythmic sense develop without reading and hearing it? I do not think children get this anymore, not to the degree I did. It makes a difference. The hardest assignment by far in a university-level Intro to Poetry class is the blank verse assignments. Students claim they just can’t hear it, and they certainly don’t hear the nuances that make up the shifting caesura within the iambic pentameter lines. I hear it though, loud as the slap of a jump rope against asphalt in a Kansas schoolyard.

That was one way rhythms played out besides reading poems. Chants, jumprope rhymes, taunts, rhyming fortunetelling rituals–wordplay was a big part of growing up. Being bored was too, and I don’t discount how the length of a Kansas, Oklahoma, or Texas summer day could lead to playing with words or going down to the basement where it was cooler to read. My father was a natural storyteller and that comes into play also. I don’t remember enough of what he said, but I do remember how quick he was, and an example I do remember is how on the farm when my son asked what the big door above the barn door was for (the hayloft door, for those without a rural background), he did not hesitate. “That’s so the giraffe can look out.” My son looked at him sideways a bit, but no one, not even that young realist could deny the power of what could be.

School was not always a rewarding place for me as a child, but some things were, mainly music and drawing. I wasn’t necessarily good at either, but I liked them and that meant I tried. I was good at metaphor even then, but trust me, a metaphoric view of life is not rewarded in school.  In third grade my teacher asked me what clouds are made of and I said cotton. Now, I knew they were water vapor, of course I knew, but have you ever seen a Kansas sky in April? The blue is so blue and the clouds bunch and ball up in wisps that look like you could go to the corner drugstore and buy a bag of them. I was laughed at so thoroughly that I kept my ideas to myself for some time to come.

This may be part of the trouble, part of the reason why we tend to see far more creative writers who aspire to be fiction writers than poets. Now, I was doomed. I couldn’t be anything else, and nothing else can express what needs to be said like a poem can. For those who don’t feel the rhythms right from the start or those that do but don’t have it nurtured through reading and community/family support, it’s hard to find it later in life. And, as I found out, seeing life this way is not necessarily rewarded in school or professionally. The stereotype of the dreamy poet who can’t deal with real life lives on, and the short, sharp insights that lead to poems can be very disconcerting to others if said out loud. A balance is needed between learning to keep one’s mouth shut and ignoring the insights altogether. I still struggle with that a bit, and it may be that my introversion grew out of the interior life of a poet and the need to not talk about it much lest other thing you’re a loon.

I believe specific literacy acts in childhood add up to poetic skill later in life. Some of them are still common, yet others are dying away as childhood becomes more of a series of after-school activities and sports teams. I suppose those activities are helpful, but I regret the loss of the long stretches of time children used to have to ruminate, do nothing, or make up stores and rhymes as part of play. Books are fine, but without the incremental growth that comes from practice with wordplay, taking up poetry successfully as an adult can be much harder, perhaps impossible.