My love for poetry began when I was eleven. A neighbor, an artist, gave me a book of poems. She must have seen my hunger and fed me. The book was archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis. Archy is a cockroach and Mehitabel is a cat in her ninth life. These two live in a journalist’s house, and when the journalist goes to work, Archy hops up on the typewriter and writes poetry. In a previous life, Archy was a free verse poet. He records his thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and Mehitabel offers him many stories from her treasure trove of nine incarnations. Mehitabel has an exuberance for living, (toujours gai), and so does Archy in his grouchy way, but he has a darker, more philosophical vision. He has to throw himself headfirst onto each key to operate the typewriter, and he can’t make capital letters because he doesn’t weigh enough to hold down the shift key. I was inspired. I read and re-read this book. It was surprising, funny, and took on every subject from the mundane to the celestial. The language was ordinary but also possessed its own original elegance. I loved the flow and construction of the lines down the page and was amazed at the lack of punctuation, how it wasn’t always necessary as I had been taught in school. Poetry was liberty. It was wild. I learned from Archy what I would learn again later from Leonard Cohen who wrote: Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers.
I immediately wanted to write it. I remember the day I wrote my first poem, sitting in the living room listening to my parents and their friends talk. It was one of those social occasions where the kid sits there all dressed up and remains quiet. It was raining outside.
Bored, I went over to my mother and asked if I could get a pencil and a piece of paper. I came back into the living room and sat in my chair by the window. The poem I wrote was about the rain. I titled it, “The Rain.” It was fascinating to me, to take what was inside, feelings and thoughts, and connect them with the outside—the rain on the inside and the rain on the outside. I wrote the poem in quatrains—without knowing what a quatrain was—and at the end of every other stanza I repeated: “What’s a poor child to do?”
What can a child do in a world of adults that often seems false, trapped in convention? This was the 1960’s. I didn’t know how to articulate my growing concern about the world that was so troubling. I loved my parents, they loved me, but something was wrong. Many things were not being said, and I felt them. I wanted to be able to name how I was feeling and what I was witnessing, and to do it in an interesting way. I wanted a rhythm to it and some rhymes; I wanted to make pictures in words, with a connection from the inner to the outer landscape. I wouldn’t read Emily Dickinson’s poems until I was in college, but I had the desperate desire to tell my truth and tell it slant. This process would become my way of being in the world.
For years I wrote poetry without any instruction. My father told me he used to find little scraps of paper with writing on them on the floor of my bedroom. When I published my first book, he said he wished he had saved those scraps. That was a sweet idea, Dad, but I don’t think it would have made our fortune. Poetry is a continuous experiment beyond the realm of the marketplace. Alive and ever-changing, shape-shifting. Poetry is beyond anyone’s grasp or control. As a young woman, I adored that about it. So much of life looked like a trap for a woman. Poetry was a place where I couldn’t be hunted down. I wouldn’t let what was wild in me be domesticated out of existence, and every poem I wrote, from a scrap on the floor to a poem published in a literary journal, was an escape hatch.
And yet, poems show us to ourselves; they tell all the truths, the secrets we can barely tell ourselves, so poems are also the opposite of escape.
At first, poetry had nothing to do with schools or teachers, but then I spent many years studying it. One of my greatest experiences in a poetry workshop was a three day seminar led by Jack Gilbert. I filled two notebooks, writing down what he said. Here are a few lines:
Poetry is a living object.
Get stark, primal energy into the poem.
Good poetry is truly caused by something.
Real surrealism has to have truth in it.
Get away from writing cleverly and write from a deeper place.
One of the functions of poetry is to teach people feeling, to reawaken feeling.
I can never get to the end of learning my craft. It’s infinity on fire. And as a fellow poet said to me recently after I complained about my frustrations with my work and about the art in general, “Susan, it’s just a poem.”
What? I spent hours, days, weeks, months trying to get this poem to fly, and it’s just a poem? I thought he’d lost his mind.
But he’s right. And I could relax and start again, ever the novitiate.
When I write, I don’t throw myself headfirst onto my keypad like Archy. But I admire him for it, finding his own writing process and doing what he has to do:
are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
Poetry is the beauty and the burning. It’s silence to sound and seed to sunlight. A way of being intimate with all things, of praising them, a way to think and feel far into things. Poetry pinches us awake, sings to us in strange and familiar melodies. It belongs to everyone.