I used to love teaching students about poetry, mostly because I “got” the genre and could analyze poems with my eyes shut. I’d always been good at that when in school and later when working on two college degrees in English Literature and Language. But I had never written a poem, and I wasn’t too successful at helping students make sense of analyzing poetry either. As I know my own teachers did and others I’ve worked with over the years, I put that down to it being a “problem with the student” rather than a problem with what we were asking them to do and how we were asking them to do it. Poetry remained an esoteric mystery for almost all students I ever taught back when I was a high school teacher regardless of my knowledge and training in the field of literary and linguistic analysis.
My journey into writing poetry and developing a richer understanding of what this genre is and offers, began one very snowy, bitterly cold and beautiful night in a small, cozy apartment on the third floor of a house on Central Avenue, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. My living room floor was littered with about 400 articles, grouped in piles and labeled according to research studies related to how cultures shape discourse, especially written discourse. All this was to form the basis for the review of literature for my doctoral dissertation that focused on what is called ‘”contrastive rhetoric,” an area of research in English as a Second Language Writing Concepts, Issues, and Instruction. I was fascinated by it for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here – that’s another story in another discussion. The material, however, was hardly poetic in style, or nature. My left brain relished it, though – it thrived on this kind of stuff – dry academic discourse! My soul, though, was parched.
As I re-read every one of those articles, later to be grouped into the foundation of an argument that related to the central thesis of my dissertation research, I came again, across a piece written by Paolo Freire, the Brazilian literacy educator and philosopher who made a huge contribution to the study of the relationships between poverty, social and political disenfranchisement and illiteracy. Bone tired (it was past midnight and at the time I never got to bed till about 3.00 am for most of that year), I almost fell asleep over those piles when my eyes caught the phrase “narrative sickness” in Freire’s piece – a phrase he used to describe how so much has been written about illiteracy and yet how little has been effective in eradicating it in his own country.
The phrase was, and is, poetic. I jolted awake, shocked. It gripped me on that freezing snowy night, it reached my right brain because it is, in the midst of all that dry academic language, a poetic statement about the state of literacy about illiteracy everywhere. So much written, so little achieved.
A poem tumbled out on paper. I wrote, in a trance, my very first poem – not a great poem, but a poem, and not from my left brain, but from some deeper, surprising source that continues to puzzle and amaze me all these years later though I no longer question it, nor do I suppress it. I just know that it’s the source, the center, the home of the creative impulse, that pours forth the raw material , and which, utilizing my left brain’s wonderful capacity for detachment and analysis, I can then craft what poured forth into something that is also about aesthetics. The poem tumbled out and I’ve left it much as it appeared in original form. It’s not a poem I’ve ever sent out for publication, and nor do I anticipate sending it out to a poetry magazine or journal, though it may, some day, appear in a collection. It wrote itself simply as a response to the stimulus of Freire’s phrase “narrative sickness” ─ a door-opener, a lifter of the veil .
Trust the creative impulse and see it as providing you with raw material for shaping what emerges into a work of art – if that’s the direction you want to go to. If it’s just about “expressing’ whatever feelings you have that seem to want to be expressed, do that too, but see that need to “express” (whether in poetry or prose or simple jottings) as about not the urge to write a “poem” so much as the urge to put some emotion into words in whatever way they fall out. There is, I believe a difference. If the impulse is to “create” something that has its own ultimate identity, you will want to work it into a form that will do that. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use poetry as a form for pure expression but don’t confuse spilling feelings out on a page as “creation” so much as the road that leads to creation.
Anna's first poem (late December 1983)
Freire said of my world -
of yet another paper churned out
because of the burning once caught
in the paper maelstrom of
ideas not action.
Burned and turned red.
He was speaking of me and of us -
of us in our cubicles
by our word-making implements
and silverfish-attracting files
thinking up thoughts
for the world at large
so it could buy our knowledge
gained from our bookishness
while the field itself lies
still barely touched by those words
written with such learned wisdom
and yet still unwise.