No Longer a Poet: A Cautionary Tale

When I was about seven or eight, I fell in love with poetry.

I don’t quite remember how it happened, but one day I started begging my parents for books of poetry in much the same way that other girls beg for Malibu Stacy dolls. My dad was happy to help find the poetry book he grew up on:  Best Loved Poems of the American People, a Readers’ Digest treasury.

Anyway, shortly after reading all the way through that, I began my own first poetic efforts, typing out a rhyming line at a time on an old electric typewriter. Those early creations meditated on the seasons, and on jump roping–topics near and dear to my third grade heart.

I wrote poetry sporadically from then and throughout college. While all of it was dreadful, I do think the practice helped improve my prose. The poet chooses precise words, accumulates telling details, and structures spare universes — all actions the prose writer performs as well. Turning life incidents into poetry gave them a poignance and vitality that they did not represent before being translated into poetry.

In graduate school, I came to appreciate a lot of modern poetry. I still read a lot of William Carlos Williams and the occasional Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  I still pick up a book by a colleague occasionally (including the local poet Ken Irby, who composes particularly enjoyable and intelligent poems).

Unfortunately, graduate school also disabused me of the notion that my scribbles were Poetry and Worthwhile. There the major emphasis in poetry was on doing new things with words, which was not my personal focus; I simply enjoyed using structure and poetic devices to make sense of experience.

I count that loss as one of the great losses of attending graduate school; now I am unable to write even my scribbles, for I lost my confidence in their worth. In that loss, though, I learned that poetry’s worth is precisely in its refusal to promote fame, in its ennobling the everyday emotion and experience. I try not to dwell on wishing I had not gone to graduate school. But writing poetry was enjoyable for its own sake, and now I am too self-conscious to undertake it even in privacy. Beware: not all experience enables poetry.

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