As an English lit major, poems are familiar friends to me. But some people find them strange and off-putting. Today I want to encourage you, regardless where you fall on the spectrum of appreciating poetry, to sit with a poem and luxuriate in the finely-tuned ordering of words. It’ll be good for your creative self.
I pondered the wonder of poems the other day when I read an article in our local newspaper about Peter Coyote, who recently published a book of poems entitled Tongue of the Crow. You might not recognize Peter’s name, but you’ve probably listened to him talk for hours. That’s because he has narrated many of Ken Burns’ TV series, including The National Parks, Prohibition, and The Roosevelts. Peter lives in a town that nestles up against my hometown, hence the newspaper article about his poetry. I knew of his narration work but didn’t realize he also is a poet.
The newspaper interviewer asked the question you might also want to pose: Why does the world need another book of poetry?
Coyote’s answer: “That’s like asking why does the world need precision, clarity, surprise, beauty and intelligence.” Indeed.
Why Write Poetry?
Peter has written poems all his life, starting at the age of 8. He even moved to San Francisco from the East Coast during the ’60s (yes, he was a hippie) to study the writing of poetry. He concluded that he wasn’t smart enough to be a poet so he left school and went on to become an actor. But he kept writing poems and stuffing them in a drawer. Now is his 70s, he opened the drawer one day and felt sorry for his kids because, when he passed away, they’d be left with all those poems and feel a responsibility to do something with them. So he decided he’d try to get them published.
What kept penning poems, even when he believed he wasn’t very good at it? I believe he answered that question when the reporter asked him: “How do these poems reflect how you’ve evolved over the years?” Coyote responded by explaining how poetry can help you grasp who you are in a given moment. “Trying to figure out who you are is like trying to take a snapshot of a river. It’s hard to know because it’s constantly moving. But I’ve tried to make each moment accurate to my perception of it.” And that’s hard work indeed but greatly beneficial.
The Editing Process
I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about what it would mean to have your poetry edited. Each word has been teased out and worried over as you write; so editing would have to be done with the precision of an Exacto knife.
When the interviewer asked Coyote what the editing process was like, he responded: “Initially, it was humiliating. [We all get that, right!?] He would take a poem that was 12 stanzas long and would find the two stanzas that are the actual poem.”
But, as with all good editors, the writer eventually learns how to see his work more objectively. As Peter put it: “But then…I really leaned how to interrogate poems myself, the way he did. That was the real skill that he taught me…I’m still not completely confident to edit them without Patrick looking at them.” Good man, to realize you never outgrow your need for an editor.
So what’s the takeaway on my “ode” to poetry? I want to inspire you to sit down and try your hand at a poem. (And to take my own advice. I haven’t tried to write poetry since I was in my 20s.) Alternatively, I want to stimulate you to seek out some poetry to read. As Peter said, each poem has tucked within it “precision, clarity, surprise, beauty and intelligence.” We all could use a dose of that, right?
If you have no idea what poet to read, might I suggest a few of my favorites: George Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, or Sylvia Plath.
While you’re reading or writing poetry, challenge yourself, next time you work on your book manuscript, to take the time to write with precision and beauty. Only good things can come from such an exercise.
Are you a poet? When was the last time you framed a thought in a poem? Who is your favorite poet?
How poetry can make you a better writer. Click to tweet.
Why writers should read–and write–poems. Click to tweet.