Hidden stories in a Poem

Sometimes when we write, we reveal our subconscious evaluation of a situation through the imagery we use, and only later do we realize that.

For example, here’s a poem I wrote thirteen years ago:

Three Men     9/27/05
A polished marble obelisk
in a rose garden.
A portly tiger cat
rubs against my ankles
and nips my hand in greeting.
A lake at midnight,
with harvest moon reflected.
A distant poor-will calls,
and my heart aches.
At the end of an endless road —
a house, cool white, surrounded by trees.
I sit on the porch, waiting.
A huge white dog runs to me,
and puts his head in my lap.

This was about three men who were casually in my life at the time. I was not dating any one of them, but spending time (face to face or online) with all three. When I wrote, it was based on the imagery I had when  I wrote about them, which is one of the reasons I think this poem became a turning point in my poetry skills.

According to the “end of an endless road”, you’d think guy #3 was someone I might end up with, right? Not if you were my friend and mentor Les. I read him this poem and he said, “I’m putting my money on the cat.”

He was right — #1 was written about my now-husband. We’ve been married for 11 years.

What did my friend see in the symbolism? #2 was never in the running, as he was all about darkness and heartbreak. #2 was great for poetry (I wrote a poem abut him which should be set to music.

#3 — wouldn’t he be the one, the one all about settling down and coming home? Not if you’re me, although I didn’t understand it at the time. The dog here is subservient and tame. I’m a high-spirited person, which my friend knew well.

So that leaves us with #1. What might my friend have found in that verse? The description is more affectionate and playful, with a tiger (orange) cat nipping at me. The polished obelisk represents a sense of mystery. Roses represent romance.  I didn’t get this at the time, so it surprised me.

I owe my friend Les a fifth of premium Scotch whiskey.

really, really short

I haven’t been wise.
I’ve tried to converse with illusion,
To know the doppleganger of my desires.
I’ve made a character from travelogue pictures
And tried to divine his intent from silences.
I’ve come to mistrust him
For all the thoughts I haven’t put in his head.
I ask forgiveness
He didn’t ask for any of this.

The Problem with Poetry

I will illustrate the problem with poetry, using yesterday’s poem as an illustration:

Tell me a story —
tell me about the echo in the hallway
when you sing,
(What’s there to say? It echoes.)

tell me of silence.
(If I told you, it wouldn’t be silence.)

Tell me the word that will help me understand you,
the word of your truth.

Tell me your name.
(You already know my name.)

Well, THAT was an interesting conversation. Not at all what I expected.

The Nature of Poetry

Did I mention that Josh Young — one of my characters — taught me to write better poetry? Given that Josh doesn’t exist except for pages in a book and in my mind, this would seem impossible. But when I wrote Josh, I created him as a talented English major who got teased in grade school because he was too beautiful, and who has grown into a formidable young man with mystical leanings. (Whether he is still beautiful or not, I expect, depends on personal preference, but his girlfriend/wife Jeanne thinks so.)
Josh, as an avid student of English literature and composition, learned about the same things I learned in that poetry class in college, but he took them more seriously. He identified as a poet, so he understood metaphor and developed the ability to distill his thoughts in the purest way possible. I, on the other hand, wrote entirely out of emotions, and my poems are of three sorts: “
There’s this guy, I’m so blue, and I’m so blue because there’s this guy”.  (My husband would argue this is still the case, bless him.)

When I wrote Josh’s poems in “Gaia’s Voice”, I had to write as Josh. In reality, that meant pulling up all those technical things I learned in my poetry class (long LONG ago), and pull Josh’s thoughts through that process. In my imagination, it looked more like this: 
Josh stood over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him approaching me, and I blamed my hearing as much as I credited his Aikido training. “Have you thought of holding back your passion?” he inquired as he read the words over my shoulder on the screen.
“Holding back?” I asked dumbly. I defined myself, if by nothing else, by my passion. I highlighted a block of text to delete it —
“No. Don’t deny the passion. Channel it. Play with it. Hint about it. Concentrate it like a laser beam and zap someone with it at the end of the poem.” I turned around to see him push that unruly lock of black hair out of his eyes. 
I stared at my words on the screen. They made “How do I love thee” sound coy. They bludgeoned, they overwhelmed. They didn’t tease the way first love would. They did not capture Josh’s feelings. Moreover, they did not capture mine. 
“Poetry captures an experience, not a speech,” Josh noted. Then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he walked off into the white existence of my imagination.

Write as if people want to read you.

I’m okay as a poet. I’m better than I used to be, but I still feel like there’s something I don’t quite understand, maybe how poetry distinguishes itself from lyrics (the latter of which I feel I do well at), or how to show what I want to say instead of telling. 

On the plus side, I write poems better than I used to.

The breakthrough was when I needed to write poetry in the voice of one of my characters in a novel. Josh turned out to be a much better poet than I was. This should not make sense, as Josh existed only in the novel and he couldn’t write any words I didn’t put in his pen. In other words, I was Josh. yet his style held mysteries mine didn’t. It held stylistic experiments I’d never tried.

The biggest thing, though, was that Josh wrote as if people wanted to read him. 

I put that into italics because that just occurred to me. Self-doubt puts limits on our motivation, our daring, even the effort we take to write. And it’s an uphill battle for many, even most of us. It keeps some from writing, and others from seeking publication.

Something I need to think about.

Melancholy Pt: 2 — a poem about Limerance

There’s a push to ask you for your name,
And a pull ‘cause I have no right to know,
As I stand in the corner of the venue
With nothing in my mind except the color of your eyes.
There’s a push to sift through every word
And a pull to flee from disappointment
Still I remember and I polish all your words
And call myself the author of the author of their shine.
There’s a push from my husband and he’s laughing,
And a pull from my husband ‘cause he’s scared
And I’m standing on one foot while juggling cats
And I don’t want what I want,
And I don’t want what I want.
NOTE: No husbands were harmed in the writing of this poem. Said husband says he’s merely bemused, not scared. 
NOTE2: This may not be the finished work.

Melancholy makes for good poetry.

When someone paints a portrait of a poet in their mind, they picture the poet as brooding, head resting in hand or fingers steepled, drinking coffee absentmindedly in a cafe with walls the color of storms.* The word “Byronesque” comes to mind, appropriately.

There’s a very good reason — melancholy makes for good poetry.

Why? Because poets bear the feelings of their society. Not just the positive feelings — all the feels.  The feelings we don’t want to deal with, the feelings we’re afraid to deal with, the feelings we wished others understood. Poets even imbue poems about stealing plums from the refrigerator with interpretable, moody meaning.

Poets have a solid qualification to write about society’s moods — poets are moody.  They ponder in ways that bring feelings to the surface. They flirt with limerance and relive heartbreak. Their words bleed on the paper as they write with fountain pens in cafes with walls the color of storms.

But you need our melancholy, because you need to visit your own.

Portrait of the author on a blah day.

* Correction: only the male poets. The female poets always look perky, even though some of the moodiest work ever was by women like Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks.  And Emily Dickinson. And Sylvia Plath. And …