The words haven’t been flowing, and I didn’t want to bore you with a post that clearly didn’t have my full attention. If my heart’s not in my writing, I know as well as you do that it’s just going to lay prostrate on the page, dead on arrival. I want to share words that shape my thoughts and experiences, capturing some small grain of truth, so that you can connect with what I’ve written. With that in mind, I simply waited until something inspired me to get involved in my writing before I published another post.
Coincidentally, a creative writing class is a great place to find writing inspiration. In my current writing class, we’ve been exploring poetry. The culmination of the poetry unit is a weeklong workshop focusing on one poem from each student. Because there are 18 of us, and we only spend a few 50 minute class periods on the entire set of poems, each poem spends a relatively short amount of time in the spotlight. With poems from newer writers, we spend that time discussing precision and conciseness, and ways to ground imagery and metaphor in tangible emotions. With more fully-formed poems, we initially get lost in powerful images and incredibly adept, evocative word choices. Then, with some prompting from our professor—”I know we all want to hug this poem. . . take it on a date . . . ask it to prom”—we take a collective step back, and pick apart every creative decision. We discuss choices that draw the reader into the speaker’s experiences, and make suggestions for improving lines that have yet to reach their fullest potential.
For the majority of the poems we discuss, the speakers’ experiences are widely relevant. Most of the class can at least relate to the experience that the author wanted to convey. This contributes to fruitful discussion in which each students’ perceptions and suggestions generally build upon others, and everyone has a clear idea about where the poem is headed. One poem—a “dangerous” poem, according to our professor—clearly identified an experience that wasn’t common to the entire class. It was a skillfully subtle narrative from the point of view of a young girl in dance class. The speaker conveys her feelings of vulnerability while being measured in front of the class, and the astute reader perceives that more than just the girl’s body is being judged.
The author obeyed one of the golden rules of poetry—show, don’t tell—to evoke an atmosphere of silent judgment. Only the person feeling judged is clearly identifiable. Everything else remains deliberately vague: the specific attributes under scrutiny, the source of that judgment, and even whether the source is external or internal. This, I thought, quite accurately depicts a young girl’s fledgling self-awareness. I was led, along with the speaker, to the realization that others are also becoming aware of her as an individual, and as a young woman.
After the women in class had spent a good five minutes gushing about the skill with which all of these things are conveyed, a man from the other side of the room spoke up. He expressed an inability to pick up on any of the speaker’s emotions, although he clearly understood that they were floating around the poem, if not explicitly stated within it. A few of the women were quick to jump on this suggestion, saying that the beauty of the poem is in its simplicity, so to speak. The male student wished that the emotion was more demonstrative, while most of the female students said that this would be an exaggeration of reality, and would no longer represent the experience accurately. This discussion illustrated a gender-based difference in life experiences, if not a difference in ways of perceiving the world around us.
Choosing to take a silent role in this discussion, I sat back and observed the room. The other students were conveniently arranged in a circle around me, allowing me to observe the spoken and unspoken reactions of each individual. One aspect of our arrangement immediately became clear: all of the women had claimed one side of the room, while all of the men staked their claim on the other. Within these divisions, I also got the impression that students sitting near each other had chosen their spots in order to surround themselves with others who had, thus far, expressed opinions in agreement with their own. When any student spoke, nodding heads on either side communicated camaraderie; alert, rigid faces silently opposed from the opposite side of the room; bodies leaning over desks, encroaching on the center of the circle, expressed hostility. The silent communication was more demonstrative, in many ways, than the spoken conversation.
These seating decisions were agreed upon in mutual silence. We sized each other up, and reached a common understanding via the very same unspoken cues that populated that “dangerous” poem. All of this brings me to a greater appreciation for the power of a well-crafted poem. When a writer can make me feel something without beating me over the head with it, can shape my thoughts without limiting them, I feel that we’ve both achieved a better understanding of what it means to be human. So many of our experiences are shared, and the things we have in common are often lurking just under the surface. In a poem, communicating these commonalities, alluding to the submerged without dragging it to the surface, is a quality that encourages the reader to stretch in order to reach an understanding.
Sometimes, however, qualities as explicit as gender shape us as individuals, and our experiences can differ greatly as a result. In these cases, it’s sometimes difficult for a reader and writer to connect over the unspoken aspects of an experience. We may struggle to pick up on subtleties shared by a speaker whose point of view is very different from our own, although we appreciate these subtleties when they evoke something with which we’re familiar. Even this struggle can bring us to a greater understanding of the human condition, however. Because we learn about others when we actively work to see the world from their point of view, poetry that communicates a unique point of view can help us to get to that place. Thoughtfully reading and discussing poetry that focuses on inconspicuous details can teach us to become more perceptive, and to understand what makes an individual unique. Whether the subject of a poem is familiar or strange, readers grow by seeking to understand that subject from the poem’s unique perspective.
Read more about celebrating National Poetry Month, check out my other posts on poetry, and check back throughout the month for more in this series.