Sunday, May 24, 2015

On Beyond Poetry

I have a confession:  I don’t read poetry anymore. It’s embarrassing given the fact that I have a master’s degree in English and it’s astonishing considering the fact that I wrote nothing but poetry for more than a dozen years in my youth. I didn’t purposely give up on poetry. I did not attend a 12-Step Poetry Recovery Program. The words in poems are footsteps carefully placed and each one requires attentive care and pondering. You can’t skip over words in poems; and I don’t have the patience to read every word like I used to. Though I can’t remember specifically, I think I crossed over from having an obsession with poetry to no longer writing the stuff when I became a mom. Once the children arrived, I found that I had stories to tell that could not fit into a few carefully crafted lines. So I guess you could say that I went beyond poetry when life got sloppy.

Consider the haiku, a Japanese form of poetry that I do still love, and read on occasion, mainly because it’s brief. A traditional haiku must be seventeen syllables. I mention this because I read a haiku recently that summed up my relationship (as a writer of epic fiction) with poetry. It went like this:  “Take me down to Haiku-City where the grass is green and dammit.” Ran out of syllables, couldn’t finish the thought. There you go. I need to spread out. I need a lot of space to tell a story. I can’t do it in a poem anymore. I have tried writing flash fiction and it’s painful. This is why you won’t find me on Twitter. I can’t possibly say anything in 140 characters. Unless of course by characters we mean people. I could do a lot with 140 people-characters in a marathon novel. I could, if hard pressed, crystalize a thought. But why would I want to? I am fascinated by the context.

I just looked for my old poems so I could share one, and I can’t seem to find the box in which they’re stored. (None of them are on my computer, of course.) That’s just as well because, if memory serves, a disproportionate amount of my college poetry revolved around sex. I hope my children fail to locate that box when I am dead as it would embarrass the socks off them. Super-duper ewww. In retrospect, it was excellent discipline for me as a young writer to attempt so many poetic descriptions of sex since it’s one of the hardest things to write well. I have labored over sex scenes in my novels. They should be erotic, and not pornographic. They should be poetic, touching, emotional, and not corny, silly, clichéd. One of the highest compliments I have received was when a woman told me that Memories from Cherry Harvest had great sex in it. Sex scenes should arouse and move the reader, not make the reader wince. You don’t want blather like “she felt his member throb against her thigh like a swollen banana preparing to fly on wings of longing” or “he cupped the rounded spheres of her rear-end lasciviously yet as tenderly as the first peaches of summer.” See what I’m saying? Fifty shades of pathetic descriptions of sex. Super-duper eww. In all seriousness, writers have been trying to describe the mystery of the sexual experience for centuries. It’s one of those things that tries to escape the confines of words.

Life itself tries to escape the confines of words. For this very reason, I never grow tired of the thrill of capturing the living moment with my words or reading someone else’s brilliantly constructed insight or portrayal. Occasionally I stumble across a poem that speaks to me, that delights me with its perfection. I remember many poems from back in the day that held meaning for me (not that I memorized them word for word). Here is one of my favorites by William Carlos Williams that popped into my head when I was under my plum tree the other day.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

That’s the kind of poem I can still handle. I don’t have the patience anymore for poems that require deciphering. (I once did. Can you believe I wrote my master’s dissertation on Wallace Stevens? Go figure.) I enjoy simple poems that paint a moment and go piercingly and swiftly to the heart of the matter; and I do love a good, clean image in a poem. My taste in prose, on the contrary, runs toward the complicated. I adore the many-layered grand novel, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. When I finished that book I turned to the first page and started it all over again. Give me a long and complex novel with so many characters that I can’t keep them straight or remember their names. I want to dwell in a book. I want the author to create another world so that when I turn the pages I travel somewhere else, somewhere outside my existence. I want to enter a parallel universe that informs my life in this one. That’s probably why I like sci-fi so much.

At my book group this month, we discussed reading a classic novel together. When one of the people in the group suggested we read a nineteenth century Russian novel, I lit up like a newly minted galaxy. I think I frightened the group a tad with my roaring enthusiasm when I shared that I had read War and Peace three times. (Seriously, who reads War and Peace once, let alone three times?) The person who made the suggestion hastened to say that she thought perhaps a Dostoyevsky novella or a Tolstoy short story would do nicely. My hopes were dashed.

When I hear other people talk about poetry these days, I feel a twinge of regret. I sort of wish I enjoyed reading it. I will never write it again. Come to think of it, my passion for writing fiction has diminished in recent years as I have increasingly enjoyed writing the personal essay. Or, to be more precise, the blog. I like writing this right here; this ramble down the corridors of cyberspace; this throwing words at the wall and hoping they stick to something. Or someone. I hope that occasionally they stick to you, dear reader. If I ever become a famous blogger, it would be fun to host a writing contest for the most wincingly worst descriptions of sex. Not pornographic, just hilarious-awful. Are you with me on this?

Plums. Yum.

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