Never did I mean to write a poem. I didn’t like reading them for school and though I once wrote one based on a dream, I never thought I could really evaluate how good it was. It seemed perfect. I sent it off to The New Yorker. What makes a poem good is a question I never asked myself. Then I accidentally started writing them, and now the question hangs there, unanswerable.
Poems seem derived from their structure. A sonnet or a haiku only is one because of how many syllables and lines it has. That makes no sense to me. Isn’t poetry an art? How can it possibly be so different from other things, so boxy, so rigid? I took a whole poetry survey course at UBC where I (unadvisedly) read poems really fast, at my normal reading pace, then showed up to class expecting to participate in discussions. I never could and I never tried reading them differently. I never saw the point.
When I started having to teach poetry to my elementary school students, I asked them to start with free verse, because this was where you could play with words. I executively decided this to be the heart of poetry. We never moved on from that. Any other forms of poetry didn’t make sense enough for me to teach. Why on earth would one write a limerick? Is a child really expressing himself by writing an acrostic poem using adjectives that start with the letters of his name?
I know that stories and novels have structures. They have beginnings, middles and ends, characters and certain other tropes one usually has to adhere to or at least understand, but these seem so much more intuitive to me. I have actually been afraid to write a poem because it seems like an exercise in solving a puzzle, some precise and well-planned thing I would not be good at, like planning an event or buying the right items for a recipe.
The poems I started writing were, as I said, by accident. I was writing the first line of a story, and then I suddenly became looser (drunker?), more willing to follow the flow of my thoughts. I payed closer attention to the pattern in the language and the ideas I was playing with, and from there I built a structure within which I wrote a poem. It was not a structure I knew, but one I made up on the spot, to fit my ideas. A self-serving structure. And then I thought, oh! Oh! Maybe that’s poetry.
Upon rereading the poem I wrote, though I still can’t judge it for what it is, I can see the ability to make it better. There is a possibility of digging deeper into the idea, because now I can identify it. There is a way of being more faithful to the structure, because it exists. There is the question of specificity, and rhythm, and feeling, and all that can be dealt with now that there is a poem in front of me, a life form waiting to be better moulded and presented to the world, though maybe not The New Yorker.
It occurs to me now that this is the only way I could have ever written poetry, by discovering what poetry is for myself. I find myself wanting to read poetry now (at least the first few lines of one), thinking of a person sitting there and sculpting a thing out of nothing. And I wonder, as I often do, why no one ever told me this. Why did no one ever run up to me and tell me to read Walden, to listen to Destroyer, to watch Noah Baumbach movies? Don’t people actively follow my interests, seeking to give me guidance? Actually, they don’t! So the discovery of Lorrie Moore, of e.e. cummings, of ukulele and trail running become all the greater when done independently. Hey! I like this. Now let me find out why.