Reading · Teaching

The Return of the Verse Novel

People tell me all the time they don’t like poetry.

They don’t get it; they don’t see why it has to be so hard. They think it’s pretentious—you should just say what you mean, already; why torture your words in to form? They think it’s out to trick them and to make them feel inadequate. They’re on guard and defensive.

I think that’s all wrong.

I think poetry is just distilled language, in sharper focus, with the volume turned up–pick a sense. It’s true some of the writers I teach want to challenge their readers, but it’s not the poetry that challenges, generally; it’s the content. Dante is not dense because he writes in terza rima; he’s dense because we don’t know enough of his historical and political context to get all his references, nor enough of his religious context to grasp his spiritual claims in their fullness.

But man, the guy can sing.

So I’m on a perennial quest, every term, to break down walls in people’s minds and help them feel poetry. And lately I’ve discovered a tiny resurgence of a genre I was not expecting: the verse novel.

On our last trip to Solvang, my daughter and I each bought, without consulting the other, a verse novel. I don’t know about you, but I have very little experience with verse novels, and the one that comes first to mind is the quite forbidding. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is a 600-page whopper that I bought as an ambitious undergrad and left on my shelf. 21,000 lines of iambic pentameter had intimidated even me, the poetry lover.

But there is new hope. My daughter picked up a book that is sort of a biography in verse of Joan of Arc: Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire. And I bought a retelling of the Minotaur’s story called Bull: A Novel by David Elliott. Then she read mine and I read hers, both in a sitting.

These are novels told in verse, published in 2019 and 2017, respectively, and I thought also of Jane Yolen’s 2018 Finding Baba Yaga, and realized this might be a thing. If it is, let me just shout from the rooftops, Hurrah! Because all three of these are wonderful—lively revisionings of a well-known story spun in readable, small spurts of poems.

The poems are mostly free verse—the kind of poem that makes me wonder why the poet chose to break the lines there… or they would if I weren’t swept up in the narrative. Some of them are visually poetic, and by that I mean the very way the words are presented on the page is beautiful. Some of Yolen’s have very, very short lines—two syllables. Or they build from short to long lines and back. Or they intersperse voices in italics. Elliott’s have pages that get progressively darker as Asterion the Minotaur’s perspective darkens.

This is good stuff, y’all. This is poetry that lets you in. It may be my predilections that lead me toward the myths and fairy tales (Joan’s legendary status notwithstanding), but they seem perfect subjects for this medium. You already know the story, or think you should. (Yolen’s first poem, in fact, is entitled “You think you know this story.”) So the content is not going to be the problem, as in Dante’s case. This time through, you just get to enjoy the show.

But all three of these are marketed for the Young Adult audience, which means that many readers will not know the stories. If this is the first introduction to these stories, that’s good too. They are more expansive than the myths, more personal than a “real” biography, more psychologically vivid than a fairy tale.

But they also get to sing.

And if they’re selling, that means young people are getting exposed to old stories through poetry. It’s brilliant, of course. (It always has been.) The poems are short, moving briskly through the narrative, switching voices, clapping back—even making Hamilton references–and because there are simply fewer words on each page, you get the sense that you’re flying through the tale. And that helps skittish readers feel like they accomplished something, which they absolutely have.

I hope what they’ve done is hopped on the bandwagon to revive a wonderful form. I hope that means more will come to my classes with less fear of poetry and more sense of its potential.

Living · Reading

A Poem A Day

National Poetry Month rolls around once every year, and some years it slips by without my notice amid the bustle of an academic spring. I try to remember Poem in My Pocket Day (April 18 this year!) because I adore the idea of carrying words of power with me in my pocket, like a spell that no one suspects I bear. I usually enlist my daughter in this happy conspiracy, and we have had wonderful, serendipitous moments like her having the poem in her pocket that a teacher referred to and she shouted out, “Hey! That’s in my pocket!” to the amazement of her teacher and the annoyance of her gobsmacked peers.

This year I’m celebrating by posting a poem every day of April on my choice of social media. (It’s Facebook. I’m old). But I’m excited because it feels like taking part in the same magic mojo of Advent or a gratitude journal–a small, lovely thing that builds toward something substantial and rewarding.

I know it’s small. But it’s really also lovely. I promise.

It means I have to think of thirty poems. The first couple I pull right out of my head. They’re short. I own them. I have swallowed them like Zeus swallowed Metis—whole, so they can still advise me. I carry them everywhere.

Some poems I associate so strongly with people, that I can’t think of or read the poem without an accompanying memory of the person. E.A. Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy” is the first poem I remember my dad reading to me. He was extolling the virtues of a set of books he’d owned as a child and was passing on to me, and he proved their worth by plucking “Miniver Cheevy” out of the pages like a flower, reading it aloud, holding it up to the light for me to look at.

How much happened in that moment for me is hard to gauge. It may have been the first time a poem was presented to me like a gem. Was it the first time I thought about someone being so enchanted by the past? The image of Miniver dreaming while drinking certainly stuck with me. It is a tragic poem, but an incredibly evocative image.

Some poems are locked in my memory as emblematic of a certain time in my life. I know it’s cheesy, but Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is probably the first grown up poem I memorized, and it’s absolutely due to my watching of the movie The Outsiders in about 1984 on HBO. I can see 12 or 13-year old me on the couch in the family room thinking to myself, “something big just happened there.” So I memorized it and kept it with me. I vowed to stay golden, like Ponyboy, but not by dying young. I started looking at flowers as something with an expiration. I let it change me.

35 years later, many, many more poems have changed me.

Because some poems are like people. Once you encounter them, they offer you a new perspective you never considered. They open up a window on the world that you hadn’t had access to before. Some friends have introduced me to Buddhism and homemade tamales. Some poems have introduced me to reincarnation and sugarplums.

So in anticipation of when I run out of poems in my head, the commitment to produce a beloved poem a day is an occasion to sift through books of poetry looking for treasure. I know the internet exists, but I prefer to start with books. So I’ve just set myself a reading assignment. Part of me thinks I may go beyond the month. Probably I’ll let myself slip back into the mundane world where my daily responsibilities outweigh my self-indulgent word-love, but one can always, always hope.

Poetic Poppies for attention.
Reading · Writing

Blessed are the Legend-makers, or My Favorite Poem

Do people still have favorite poems? Is it something people rate or collect, like songs or movies, and then there are too many, so you have to say your top ten?
Last week someone tagged me in a social media challenge to list my top ten movies, and I’m still deliberating. But I know my favorite poem.
My favorite poem is “Mythopoeia,” and it’s by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s longish at 148 lines—longer than Poe said we are comfortable reading in his “Philosophy of Composition,” an essay he wrote about his process of writing “The Raven.” I love “The Raven,” but I love “Mythopoeia” more.
“Mythopoeia” is an occasional poem; that is, he seems to have written it on a particular occasion—following a discussion with C.S. Lewis, where Lewis argued that myths were lies, “though breathed through silver.” In the days and weeks following this event, Tolkien responded with poetry, as such an occasion demands.
He starts with an accusation:
                You look at trees and label them just so,
(For trees are “trees,” and growing is “to grow”)
You walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
One of the many minor globes of Space:
A star’s a star, some matter in a ball
Compelled to courses mathematical
Amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
Where destined atoms are each moment slain.”
He’s taking to task all those who see the world with clinical, scientific, quantifying brains—those who assert we can classify and codify all, and that that is the best way to understand it. Tolkien accuses Lewis, essentially, of having no soul, or at least not having the ability to wonder at the mysteries and magic of the world.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic, called God the Creator, but posited that humans were, or could be “sub-creators.” God did the big stuff; humans create little worlds. When he created Middle Earth and The Shire, he was sub-creating. But he did so with a healthy dose of respect and awe for God.
Chaucer’s Franklin comes to mind (doesn’t he, always?). In the Franklin’s Tale, Nature (Mother Nature) claims that she and God are like a well-matched couple. He creates cosmically, and she creates on Earth. Tolkien’s mutual roles here subdivide a little differently—God creates the physical world (no Mother necessary), and artists create little, imaginative worlds. Still symbiotic; still complementary.
I’m not Catholic. Or Christian. Pagan love for Natura comes closest to my faith, I suppose, so I see nothing wrong with these thoughts of mysteries, and I love the idea of complementary creation. Humans, in constant awe at the natural world and its cycles and stories, make new art in our own fashion.
Tolkien goes on to explain how such storytelling takes place:
                He sees no stars that does not see them first
Of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent,
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth
unless the mother’s womb whence we all have birth.
Two things strike me here: first, that primitive people made mystical explanations for the natural world, and we have been singing songs to explain and perpetuate those ideas ever since. But that might seem to lend support to Lewis, as the mythic view of things may have been part of our primitive past, but now we know better.
Tolkien says no, however. That each person is “primitive” as they come to understand the world. That childhood is our individual Neolithic phase, and we can choose to keep connecting with those impulses, those feelings of awe and wonder and joy, or we can walk solemnly with Lewis on his mathematical course. I’m not a Luddite, but I am a recovering biology major and the spouse of a biochemist. I vote with science, but my heart loves myth. This speaks to me deeply.
The last lines of the poem yell the loudest, in my opinion. It’s an image of paradise for poets, and one that resonates with some of my favorite images of paradise. Borges said he imagined Paradise to be a kind of library. I do too. So, it appears, did Tolkien.
                In Paradise they [poets] look no more awry;
And though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and Poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
So paradise is a place where poets are gifted with all the material they can ever use, like living in Chaucer’s House of Fame, but with flames upon their heads (like the blessed souls they are) and play their harps and sing new songs forever.
Paradise is doing what you love most, with limitless time and materials and with faultless results, and being blessed for it? You don’t have to be Catholic to love that.
Long live the Legend-Makers.
Living · Reading

The Noodle Dream

I’ve had a few moments with my kids lately that feel like Po having the Noodle Dream in the Kung Fu Panda movie. You know those moments when your kiddos bear out all their genetic programming and/or careful nurturing, and there is no denying they belong to you.

My daughter was studying for a test recently, and she was assigned a poem by Wisława Szymborska. This is not a poet people might expect me to have in my library, being a medievalist of the Germanic/Latinate persuasion. I know no Polish. But I have a dear friend who taught English in Poland for a year, the year that Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for literature, in fact. She decided I this was the perfect time to expand my VFOGI (Vast Fund of General Information), and she brought me a collection of poetry home from Poland.
So there I was, acting all cool, like “Of course I have Szymborska on my shelf. I’m well read.” And I pulled it, and she read more than the one poem her silly high school text book tempted her with, and she and I had a genuine moment.
She found the poem from her text book first. We compared translations and talked about how hard it is to translate poetry. We puzzled for a minute over which translation might be “closer” (as only people who know zero Polish can do), and then she flipped through that collection like I used to flip through card catalogs—looking for treasure.
She read aloud every poem that caught her attention, and I tried to hide the fact that I was weeping. I think I did.
She reads beautifully. She reads with feeling and clarity and good judgment and musicality. And she LOVES poetry.
What is it about poetry that appeals to teenagers? I remember a friendly argument with my dad when I was fifteen, that took place on our backyard porch swing one summer afternoon around dusk. He had just made the egregious error of saying it was “a pleasant evening.” I pouted a bit and protested that “pleasant” wasn’t enough. Things had to be electric and exciting, or you weren’t really living. And he smiled his Mr. Ping smile, where the dad notices his kiddo is just like him, and said “Someday you’ll come to realize ‘pleasant’ is pretty damn good.”
I think that’s what it is. Teenagers need electricity, and poetry is language like lightning.

(For those of you who missed Kung Fu Panda, Mr Ping is a goose who adopts a baby panda and raises him without telling him he’s adopted. When Po has The Noodle Dream, Mr Ping takes it as a sign that he is ready to commit to the family business and claim his birthright. It’s hilarious, but also feels very real.)

Living · Writing

Metamorphosis–Giving Myself Permission to Change

I got my fifteen year pin at work. That’s half a career. It feels like a perfect time to shift some gears.
I sometimes have to remind myself not to be afraid of change. I’m pretty good about trying new foods and restaurants, but big changes, I resist. I’m done moving. I chose a career with job security.  I’ve been married to the same guy pretty much all of my adult life.
But I know change is good. I know it’s invigorating, and I know it’s necessary. Since I’m not willing to trade in my husband for another model, it had to be work that changes.
I certainly am not stopping teaching, although some shifts are coming there too, as we change to semesters, and I step out of the King Arthur class and in to some new territory after “semester conversion.”  But this is a multi-faceted job I’m in, so I’m shaking things up in terms of writing.  Really, I’m giving myself permission to revisit a dream.
If you had asked me at fifteen what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d have said write, and at that point, I’d have meant poetry. I wrote a lot when I was young, but I could never have been so bold as to try to make a career out of writing creatively.
After about twenty-five more years of reading, though, I feel like I have something to write.
It started with a book for my kids. After reading so many books to them, I felt like I could tell where the gaps were, and what worked and didn’t work. But I still wasn’t ready to commit to thinking of myself as a writer.  It took five years to write one little novel. The kids I wrote it for have grown up; that doesn’t sound like I’m a writer—more like a scratcher in the sand.
This year, though, I’m picking up speed. I got awarded a sabbatical to wrap up the novel. That was very validating. I started a blog about reading. It turns out that counts as writing! Before I finished my first novel, I started thinking about the second one. And as I start getting in to critique groups and searching for an agent, I find I have reached a critical mass of baby steps toward a new identity and now don’t feel like an impostor when I call myself a writer.
There is a delicate dance, being a reader and a writer, and we can go from being one to another and back again in an endless circle. I have always considered myself a reader, but only a dilettante writer.  But I have come around to writer again, and this time I’m not begging off.
The best bit of wisdom my dad ever gave me was “If you do what you love, you’ll never work again.”  At the time, I dropped the biology degree and ran headlong in to literature and languages.  And he was right (except for grading). What he forgot is that there can be more than one thing you love.
Living · Writing

After the Golden Years

When my first child was born, I was told to look in to his eyes, because he had so recently looked on infinity.  Does looking in to a dying person’s eyes give the same view?  What if that person is blind?
Poetry is how I process.  Sometimes feelings are too big to fit in to prose.  That doesn’t mean poetry written in emotional straits is necessarily good—far from it, and it can be the opposite.  But it does mean, at least for me, that ordinary statements don’t suffice.  They don’t draw out the pain as well as words that have been subjected to rules and strictures, held to higher standards. Sometimes poetry soothes because it forces one to take some critical distance from the subject, and in that space, healing happens, or begins to.
I visited my mother recently.  She has paranoid schizophrenia, she is blind, and she lives in a convalescent center.  When I walked in, she was sleeping, and she was so stiff and uncomfortable looking, she appeared frozen in death.  I staggered, then realized she was only mimicking death—not yet moving on, but readying herself and me.  She woke abruptly, shuddering at the sound of my voice, then calming at it when I began to sing.
Her eyes are blindness.  What does she see?  What can I see in them?  Blankness, peace, a tabula rasa—pure potential.  Perhaps that is a window to infinity.  It’s not the face of angels I was told would be lingering in my son’s eyes, but it is the face of humanity reckoning, reflecting, readying.
It’s as if she’s caught between earth and ether, inhabiting neither completely.  Here she is on a mountaintop, years ago, close enough to touch the sky.
After the Golden Years

She walks a line she doesn’t see;
She feels it vibrate in her mind.
On one side life, across it death—
She’s wheelchair bound and wholly blind.

It’s years now since she felt real fear,
Or threw her head back, laughing long.
Her days are numb now, mind’s sedate.
I speak to her in favorite songs.

“Too Ra Loo Ra” wakes her up.
“Scarlett Ribbons” slows her breath.
“Stardust” makes her arch her back
In rictus as she tries on death.

One day she’ll whisper to her soul,
And daughter’s dread will turn to awe.
I brush her hair back from her eyes
And sing her “Que sera sera.”