Wednesday, March 26, 2014


By Pamela

Tucked away in my dresser, behind a tangle of tights and scarves, is a book of poems I contributed to in high school. Some bear my byline; others I wrote for a boy in my class who was too stoned to write his own--my first foray into ghost-writing, I suppose. In college I took an advanced English class and wrote more poems, long since discarded as binding them into a book required more forethought than our professor possessed and, by that age, parents were hardly clamoring to discover what we were writing in class.

Old Barn by Mike on Flickr
Since then poetry has been that distant cousin--someone I seldom see but enjoy immensely when I do. And then Friday night, during Ron Rash's talk at the DMA, something clicked. After sharing his writing process and listing his published endeavors--novels, short story collections and books of poetry--he began to read from his book of short stories Nothing Gold Can Stay. "Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out" features two men in a barn, birthing a calf. Hardly the stuff of poets, but poetry it was:
The men sat on the barn floor, weary arms crossed on raised knees as they waited for the calf to gain its legs. Carson leaned his head on his forearms and closed his eyes. He listened as the calf's hooves scattered straw, the body lifting and falling back until it figured out the physics. Once it did, Carson raised his head and watched the calf's knees wobble but hold. The cow was soon up too. The calf nuzzled and found a teat, began to suckle. 

The cadence in his phrasing--made even more lyrical with Rash's southern lilt--brings a poetic quality to the story that might seem rote in someone else's less-capable hands. Later he read a scene from another story that followed a young girl as she got caught up in the rapids and drowned. While both captivating and heartbreaking, Rash later said he rewrote the scene, which sounded effortless, about 25 times.

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Berg, not because her stories are particularly spellbinding, in fact, I sometimes confuse one story for another, but because her gift of language in describing an ordinary scene (particularly those with dialog) is poetic. Case in point, here's one of her recent posts on Facebook:
It is my habit, most mornings, to come into the living room with my first cup of coffee, to sit on the sofa and read a poem and then hold still, waiting for gratitude. It always comes, when I make space in the day for it. And I am reminded then of the beauty we enjoy despite the despair we endure. So as the sky lightens and a new day offers itself for consideration, I sip coffee and notice small things: a bird on a wire. A sky the color of weak tea, if tea were blue. The space beneath a table. The trumpetish formation of the petals on a miniature daffodil plant.
This accumulation of small, gentle things acts as counterpoint to the insults of yesterday: an account in the paper of child abuse, the worsening effects of climate change, Putin’s bullying; the invention of a watch/computer to serve as “companion” to your smart phone, first incarnation already obsolete. I sit in the quiet living room and watch the birds and the day breaking and rid myself of those other things as though they were burrs at my hem. I leave them lying there. I can’t destroy them, but I can leave them lying there while I go into the kitchen for cinnamon toast, the slices as thick as a small town phone book. And then, body and spirit buoyed up, I can come back and stand before them, hands on my hips, and consider what to do.
Her comment about starting most days with reading poetry wasn't lost on me. Surely her work is influenced by the reading of poetry just as Rash's work is buoyed by the fact that he is a poet who also writes novels and short stories. And so my goal is now to immerse myself in poetry. To lend my ear to the rhythm of the words and phrasing. Susan recommended I start with:

Serendipitously, April is NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month), and so we have less than a week to organize our thoughts and jump in with this to stretch our imaginations and see if we can write a poem a day. If that feels too ambitious, at least READ a poem each day, perhaps commit a favorite one to memory. I know I'm on board. Care to join me?

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