Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


2 Comments

Grace in Few Words

The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.

It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!

But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.

April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.

From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)

In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.

Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.

Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.

Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.


Leave a comment

The Poet in All of Us

I am not a poet. I would never claim to be. If writing were music, I prefer to play conductor to soloist. My fiction would be a symphony, not a piece for solo piano. But the craft of a prose writer also involves cadences, subtle pauses for thought, deeper undercurrents and expressions that run just beneath the written words. There is a great deal that all of us can learn from poetry, particularly brevity (something that obviously escapes me at times in these blog posts!).

Since 1996, the month of April has been National Poetry Month. I was reminded of this when my third grader came home with an assignment to pick and memorize a poem for school.
National Poetry Month

Almost simultaneously came a scattering of poetry messages to my inbox: yesterday on NPR: ‘Who I Am’: Poetry Not Wasted On The Young from which I discovered “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg, a good one for my son, though I’m doing my best to reserve judgment at least until he’s read it.

Poetry is immediate. In just a few short lines, a well-wrought poem can raise the emotions of visceral experience. It can share the commonality of human existence – sorrow or elation, melancholy in the passage of time, humor, guilt, irony. It can draw the shape of an entire character, the journey of a complex life. It is truly amazing that such breadth and complexity can be twisted into such an incredibly compact creation.

When I read poetry, I am always anxious for that heart-tapping “ah-ha” when the message of the poem comes breathlessly clear to me. Inevitably I read a poem once, twice, three times, then return to it again over years.

I remember attending poetry readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York City where the poets read slowly, purposefully without inflection, but always – always read their poems twice as if the repetition would remove any lingering veil from their richly insightful meanings.

And for nearly a decade, I’ve forgone the pleasure of attending The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a biennial event that I recall with much passion for the freedom of my pre-motherhood days, when my husband and I strolled from tent to church to woody grove at Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

This year, The Poetry Festival is moving to Newark. And I think my boys are just old enough that I might risk dragging them along. I remember first discovering the festival from a documentary by Bill Moyers in the early 1990s. In a recent redux, Bill Moyers Journal revisited the festival as I remember it. Check out the wonderful video on PBS’s website, though I wasn’t able to embed the code to post it directly here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03062009/watch3.html.

Besides the glory of the greatest works of poetry presented in our own backyard, we in New Jersey have access to countless offerings in New York City. Another great annual event – PEN World Voices – starts next Monday and runs until Sunday, May 2. I have always loved both PEN’s festival and mission to draw attention to the vast body of world literature and to promote freedom of speech in countries where authors are at risk to do what we all do freely every day.
Pen World Voices Festival
American contemporary literature suffers from chronic naval-gazing, an almost isolationist self-importance that frequently ignores the wider world. PEN’s World Voices Festival includes writers that are unfamiliar to most of us, but whose writings have affected the broader society of global readers and bring a taste and perspective that’s as intriguing as it is unfamiliar.

It reminds me of the scents of cumin, curry and sweet tamarind sauce, the first time ever in my life I smelled or tasted Indian food. It was at the apartment of my friend Swati Dasgupta. We were seven years old and everything about her life was exotic and new – her mother wrapped in silken saris with a red dot on her forehead, their magical appearance in my dull Massachusetts community from someplace halfway around the world. It opened my eyes to new magical possibilities. From that moment I was hooked. Imagine if I’d never tasted anything but hamburgers?

If you have time, take a taste at one of these incredible festivals. You never know where your imagination, your writing or your life might take you.


Leave a comment

Lessons from Poets

Poetry can feel, at times, as rarified as air, precious for its purity, its essentialness, its glittering, fluid, whimsical magnificence. It gives weight to simplicity and simplicity to weight, nourishing on levels more ephemeral and yet more visceral than prose.

As I write my novels, I have often pondered the poetry in my words. All writers work with rhythms, whether they intend to or not. There’s an inherent flow that makes a sentence or paragraph just right, or that forces us to half-consciously cut out a word or add one, that lets us know that there’s something missing right there – not necessarily a bit of action or a detail’s flourish, but a sound, a sensibility, a feeling. We search for it, hoping and trusting that our more prosaic muse will eventually find the perfect mix of meaning and form.

Poetry can teach us how to sift out that pure perfection. It’s like crystal. Like diamond. Dazzling, but hard to come by. Can we dig down that far inside ourselves to uncover those flawless jewels?

Since I first heard Jane Hirshfield read years ago at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I’ve been fascinated with her work. Her free verse moves with cadence and deep meaning, rather than following a prescribed meter or rhyme. Yet somehow she encapsulates the essence of her thoughts – of some of life’s deepest thoughts – in a few carefully chosen words. I often listen or read her work in wonder, longing to distill my own to such purity.

Ms. Hirshfield read again at the Poetry Festival last September. And though I wasn’t able to attend, we can all hear her now, thanks to YouTube. I particularly love her very brief poem, “A Cedary Fragrance.” In an expression so pure, she aims her words with a embroiderer’s delicate needle. As she speaks the closing line, I feel the precision of her thought piercing directly to my wisest mind.

Listen to her words. Enjoy them for their essence. And try to apply their lessons to your own work – embrace that semi-conscious awareness that each word effects your work profoundly, and that rhythms and careful phrasing aren’t merely troublesome necessities, but the most powerful tools of your craft.

Read more about Jane Hirschfield and other extraordinary poets at the GR Dodge website. Or subscribe, as I do, to Poetry Fridays.