Today I was fortunate to teach a poetry class to about 50 cardiovascular nurses, gathered at a local hospital for continuing education. Balancing self-care and caring for others is a continual pursuit for nurses. Because I’m a nurse as well as a poet, I appreciate the reciprocity between the disciplines of practicing art and caring for others. I wasn’t sure how the group would respond to the lesson I had prepared, essentially an expansion of a warm up I use with young students. But they were amazing. I shouldn’t have wasted a moment in worry. We laughed and cried. They wrote and shared. I felt very happy, humbled, exhilarated, blessed. And so grateful.
I started the lesson with this poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” by past U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I use this poem to reassure novice writers that poetry is not all about academic code-breaking. Analyzing great works of literature is all well and good, don’t get me wrong. I could do it all day long. But most people who want to explore poetry want to read a little, understand what they read, or, if they are mystified, they want that experience to be pleasurable. Even if reading poetry elicits emotions of grief, anger, compassion, the experience should essentially be one of inclusion and communion — not of confusion.
Anyone who is tempted to write poetry wants to feel confident that she has a place at the table. Your poetry can be whatever you want it to be — it’s completely possible to be a good amateur part-time poet. And Billy Collins’ poem suggests a few ways to approach a poem: like an object found in nature — a bee hive; or a fun experience — water skiing; or something beautiful to look at — a color slide of somewhere you traveled; or a game — a maze. Poetry is good. It shouldn’t put us off or frighten us. There are depths and complexities to great poetry, just like there are to great music (jazz or classical), to great art (Rembrandt or Pollack), to great wine. But who can afford to go to the opera or a museum every day, or drink the most expensive wine with every meal? Don’t you like to sing in the shower? Don’t you want a picnic with a cold beer once in a while? I hope more people will start with poems they like, reading alone or in groups, listening, and maybe some day take the plunge and write a little. You don’t have to be a prima ballerina to enjoy dancing at a wedding. You don’t have to understand John Ashbery to have a memorable experience writing a poem.
Your prompt for today is to look around you and find five objects in your every day life — one that you can appreciate with each of your senses. Did you notice how Billy Collins engages a poem with his eyes, his ears, the feeling of water splashing against his skin, the touch of a sensitive nose? Then, simply, write “poetry is…..” with each of those objects. We are used to talking about a beautiful dancer or figure skater as poetry in motion. We are used to calling a rich chocolate dessert poetry on the plate; the master chef can be called a poet in the kitchen. See if you can do it. Let yourself notice that there is poetry all around you at home, at work, in town, on a hike, with your family, in your dreams. Maybe a little mystery will find its way into your poem. Let it in. Maybe a little rhyme or repetition will emerge. That’s fine. Feel the poem in your body, say it out loud, what does that suggest for the poem?
Here’s my example:
Poetry is the rhythmic licking of the cat washing her face. Her spotted paw polishing her pink nose.
Poetry is the dog, in the February sunshine, turning around turning around turning around.
Poetry undulates with the clean sheets, my husband helps me make the bed.
Poetry settles on the windows as darkness settles on Saturday.
Poetry is the clattering fork whisking eggs in a bowl, the smell of my son making his supper, his little hums and yummy murmurs.
Poetry is strong fingers on the keys, typing typing typing, thinking about my mother with every word.
Poetry, a weekend family feeling.