Celebrating Our First Language – Poetry

Lullabies and rhymes heard in childhood provided our first experiences of poetry.  Think back.  Can you recall a song, a book or poem you heard countless times, or a favorite bedtime story?  “The mother speaking to the child is also a poem,”  according to poet Naomi Shihab Ney.”

My good friend Jane Dorn has kept separate journals for each of her grandchildren over the years to record their memorable words and clever phrases – those precious early associations we love to hear but quickly forget if not written down.  Poet Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, in her book “poemcrazy: freeing your life with words” says that she too records her own children’s sayings in her journal.

But as children grow, someone – a teacher, sibling, parent, even a stranger – may criticize early attempts.  That’s when many put down their pencils and abandon poetry.

You can reignite that early fire if you choose, and today is the perfect time during National Poetry Month. Read some or write a few lines to celebrate the “Bard of Avon,” William Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23 born in 1564.

Reading poetry is just as important – even more so than writing your own poems when you are beginning.  Make reading poetry a habit – especially contemporary poets. This practice will help you develop your own voice even as you imitate others at first.

“One of the qualities essential to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life: a capacity for surprise.”   (Poetry Magazine, July-August 2011)

Pamela Spiro Wagner’s poem, “How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual” offers some good advice.

First, forget everything you have learned,
that poetry is difficult,
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you …..

Do not assume meanings hidden from you ….

Read just one poem a day
someday a book of poems may open in your hand
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun.

Poetry is visceral – you feel it in your bones. Emily Dickinson described her own experience:

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.  If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Poet Kwami Dawes shared his view during a half-day workshop I attended at USC in 2002.

“A poem begins with its own energy – not a point.  We don’t control it. It must be a discovery for the poet and the reader.”

Here’s an exercise from poet Richard Jackson found in “The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach,” Behn and Twichell, Editors.  Try it for fun.

First spend 5 to 10 minutes free-writing as you remember a person you know well.

Next, spend 5 to 10 minutes more free-writing to describe a place where you imagine you might find this person.

Re-read what you’ve written.  Sit quietly for a minute or two noticing your breathing to ground and center yourself. Then write your poem following these five steps.

1.     Describe the person’s hands.

2.     Describe something he or she is doing with the hands.

3.     Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.

4.     Mention what you would want to ask this person in the context of 2 and 3, above.

5.     The person looks up at you and gives an answer to your question.

I include some poetry in almost every session of the Journaling Groups I lead.  Poetry has the power to tap our deepest thoughts and emotions offering incredible healing opportunities.

Take time to enjoy poetry today.  Make a plan to read more every day – or at least as often as you can – once a week or once a month. You’ll be surprised to learn that poetry has waited patiently for your return.  You’ll feel the embrace.

Books mentioned are linked on my website at  www.susanhendricks.com/resources

Susan Hendricks leads guided journal writing groups in Columbia as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Journal Therapist and Certified Dream Group Leader.  To contact Susan and learn more, go to www.susanhendricks.com or www.wholistictherapyandcoaching.com

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