I sat at a well-worn table in what used to be a store, now turned into a cultural center of sorts. Listening to a poetry reading. I don’t even remember when I was at a live poetry reading before that.
And I was really getting into the poem. The story weaving through it. The images in the words.
It wasn’t strictly a reading though. As in a person standing up, reading lines on a paper. This was the creator of the poem pouring it out to us, the audience, directly from his soul. A true performance. Not merely words, but his entire being communicating. Where you could feel the words every bit as much as hear them.
There was a time when I wrote poetry. Except I was never sure it was really poetry. Because so not Shakespearean sonnets or iambic pentameter. Not even limericks.
What I wrote was free form poetry. Vers libre.
No strict form. No rhymes. No counting syllables.
It’s words crafted together to generate and convey idea, feeling, message. Unified by the natural rhythm of language.
The importance of every word
All poetry relies on very careful selection of each word included. In that sense poetry is an excellent exercise for writers. Because you can cobble together a couple thousand words and have a short story. Or many more words and have a novel. You may even be forgiven for having too many words in there. Ones that aren’t strictly needed.
In poetry, not so much. Every single word counts.
That economy of words is of course why poetry is so ancient and very much sticks with us. Add rhythm and connections between the words and we have something eminently memorable.
Historically, writing was laborious. Words written on paper with ink take time to form. Even words typed using a typewriter require thought. Unless you’re going to use massive amounts of whiteout.
But today, almost anyone can quickly crank out a couple thousand words on a computer. Editing is easy. Nothing is permanent. As a result, we use more words than ever to say the same or less.
Something got lost in the process.
Communication across time
Language is key to our human experience. The ability to pass on not just facts, but emotion, thoughts and concepts for generations has kept the human race going over millennia.
I can read an old poem from a thousand years ago and be moved by what it conveys. Just a few lines of words reaching out across time and space.
But poetry is hard
It may also be that very economy of words that confuses our understanding of poetry.
We look at the tightly formed language and conclude that there must be some really, really deep meaning. That somehow proper poetry is very “high-brow”. Not for regular people to understand or care about.
It might be that reading Shakespearean sonnets in school put us off. After all, that’s English from a time long ago. Not like we speak it today. So harder to understand. And not something we speed-read.
Even so, when we encounter something really stunning that flows harmoniously and is full of feeling, we exclaim: “That’s poetry!”
So here I was at a live poetry performance. Getting into it. Connecting with the words the poet spoke. Feeling the power in them.
The experience inspired me to dive into capturing ideas and emotions floating around in my head and expressing them in words. Part of the power of poetry is that you can, on one sheet of paper, sort out quite deep issues.
There are times for all of us when we struggle with things and don’t have answers. Writing can be immensely cathartic.
It’s a way to process, to work things out. Short stories or novels are often inspired by real events the author has been through. Free form or any other form of poetry works the same way, except it’s much more focused, since fewer words.
But I couldn’t write poetry…
We’re in a culture where we leave so much up to professionals, opting to become spectators rather than active participants.
The idea of providing our own entertainment is nearly unheard of today. If you have guests gathered at your house, you’re not going to have someone sit and play the piano. Not going to have everybody come together and sing.
We’ve abdicated that in favor of turning on a recording and listening to a “real” performer.
In the same way, we’ve abdicated formulating our feelings by writing poetry in favor of getting the sentiment on a piece of paper from Hallmark.
Clearly those people are much better at finding the right words than we are ourselves. Because somehow it’s my true feelings that come out when I buy a card that somebody else designed and wrote text for — then printed by the thousands. Or not.
Power in feelings, in interpretation
It’s entirely true that any of the poetry I write today, or at any point in my lifetime, likely will never match something like The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. It is beyond iconic after all. Yet that’s okay. Because it’s about me and you expressing ourselves, for our own benefit, as much as for sharing with others.
Poetry is powerful. Read on a page. When spoken. Because it engages our senses, our entire being. Heart, soul and reason all together. When we read out loud, we engage much more of our senses. I become aligned with what I read as I choose emphasis, rhythm, cadence. I’m connected at an entirely different level.
Long ago, people read everything out loud. At some point, they started reading silently. Much later only skimming, scanning for bits and pieces that catch their interest. At which point we only think we got the content and meaning of the words.
Encouraged by that recent poetry reading, I’m going to read (and write) more poetry. And read it out loud. To engage all my senses and get the full experience. Can’t wait to see what I’ll discover, about myself, about the world around.
Because poetry heals, inspires, and challenges.
It may be another one of those roads less traveled by. One that will have made all the difference.
I’ve added a (so far small) poetry section on my website, expecting it to grow as inspiration strikes. Each poem is there for reading on the page and also as a recording for listening.