Let’s get something straight. I write fiction. Fiction is what I do. Novels, short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction (it made me crazy, but I did it). But every now and then, when the moon is at its apex in the eastern sky and the crickets are singing and there’s beer in my belly and the radio’s up . . . I like to pretend I can write poetry.
It’s funny, because I had poetry published over the summer, but I have yet to place any short prose (and my novel, though the first draft is sooooo close to being finished, is nowhere near ready to take agent-shopping). Most of my poetry seems (to me) like complete drivel, but every once in a while, something comes out that I can’t ignore, and it sticks with me for days or weeks. The poem “Swallowing sounds like boiling water” was actually the fruit of a year’s worth of ruminating. “Farmland” was written and edited in probably a couple days. It’s different for each poem, and there are varying degrees of how much I like the poems I produce, just as with my other writing.
Reading poetry, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing. For one, I didn’t write it. For another, I wish I had. If you can find a poem you love, you will love it forever and it will speak to your soul in ways I can’t begin to describe.
My friend Katie‘s sister tweeted me the other day asking what poems I would suggest to someone who doesn’t necessarily like poetry. That started me thinking on what was really the starting point of my relationship with poetry. I wrote crappy love poetry in middle school (who doesn’t?). Of course I read the popular Shakespeare sonnets in high school and the occasional contemporary poem thrown in my AP English study books, but I was always of the opinion that poetry was stupid and duh fiction is better and what the hell are these people saying anyway. Which I’m sure a lot of folks can relate to.
I didn’t really get exposed to any good poetry until my sophomore year of college, when I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. Yes, groan, modernism, but hear me out. The class I took was required — Survey of American Literature. My professor was a lovely, happy woman that I have the distinct pleasure of calling my friend now. She influenced a lot of the way I think nowadays: there is always a positive to every issue, and you can’t let things get you down. She is an amazing instructor and a great woman.
I read “Love Song” and I liked it, but I wasn’t immediately in love. It was only when my professor explained some of the finer details that I realized how much genius is in this piece. Take, for example, the first stanza.
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
The image he sets up is beautiful — a sunset spread across the sky, two people traveling hand-in-hand enjoying the evening. But then he brings this to a crash with the image of a sedated human being laying helpless on a hospital table. Already, in three short lines, he has set up the tone of this piece: dark, bitter, melancholic. (Also, who doesn’t love the word “etherized”??) He continues for a while in this vein, setting up imagery of streets then marring it with giant yellow dog-like fog (“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes / The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes”). Then he launches into what I consider his main theme of the poem: time.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
This poem is really just about a man getting old and wondering where all the time has gone — an extremely relatable subject. But the words. The movement. Blech. I don’t have the skill to talk about poetry as well as other people can, but suffice it to say that when I read this a second, third, fourth time, I realized I was in love with the love song (no, gross, stop thinking about that Selena Gomez song). There is so much nostalgia here. “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…”
It’s just fantastic. I don’t care if I’ve got it all wrong. These words touched me, helped me break out of my poetry-is-stupid stupor and realize that when words are put in certain orders and structures, the product can be beautiful and moving. I’ve never looked back. I even named my tumblr after my love of both this poem and the infinitely wondrous works of J.R.R. Tolkien. (It’s just a jumble of cat pictures and writing advice. Feel free to browse, but don’t get lost in the addictive madness that is tumblr.)
I think that everyone needs to find their Prufrock. There is a poem out there that will make you shiver — you’ll know it when you read it. And maybe, when the moon rises in the house of [insert planet here] and there’s nothing good on TV and the snow outside is still beautiful and you have a cup of hot chocolate and a blanket, you will want to write a poem. Or read one!