Studying poetry in school made me feel dumb, as if the poet was specifically trying to hide the real meaning of whatever it is he or she wanted to communicate in a bunch of undecipherable formats and words. I was irritated that you had to work that hard to figure out what an author was trying to say, and that even if you thought you’d figured it out, you weren’t sure. As a teenager, that uncertainty didn’t seem worth the mental exertion. Yet, I’ve always loved writing poetry. In fact, my family has a tradition of giving gifts along with a poem. Mine are best known for the rhymes involving curse words. There’s just so much that rhymes with shit, shitty and ass!
When you think about it, poetry, just like all writing, is just the creative science of picking from the same words available to all of us and putting them together in clever ways that no one else thinks about. As poet Terrance Hayes said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross yesterday, poems are music with language as the instrument.
A few months ago my new friend Carmen invited me to join her poetry discussion group. Last week we focused on Pulitzer Prize-winning Elizabeth Bishop, a poet whose work you might have been introduced to in the movie In Her Shoes. Cameron Diaz’s character reads Bishop’s poem One Art to the dying English professor. After re-reading One Art, I’m blown away by how eloquently Bishop expresses the way we protect ourselves from loss. Bishop experienced incredible loss early in life with the death of her father when she was an infant and her mother losing her mind and getting taken away to a mental hospital when she was five. For that reason, much of her poetry focuses less on emotion and more on keen powers of observation. Her ability to zoom in on details others might miss is astounding in poems such as The Fish and At The Fishhouses.
Many years ago one of my favorite English professors in college, Camille Roman, sent me a signed book she wrote on Elizabeth Bishop’s work during World War II and the Cold War era. I was so touched by her sharing her work with me and admired the book on my shelf for many years without actually reading it. When my poetry group picked Elizabeth Bishop, I finally read it for the first time, drawn to the comprehensive literary analysis of Bishop’s work and how her writing was affected by world events.
I also watched Reaching For The Moon, a movie about Bishop’s Brazilian years, which gave me further insight into her work as well as showed her painstaking slow process of picking combinations of words and her battle with addiction. You can find it on Netflix.
It turns out that I wasn’t dumb about poetry. I just wasn’t ready for it back in high school. I’m grateful to have been exposed to Elizabeth Bishop’s work and highly recommend Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979.