Poetry In Motion
by K. Allen McNamara
I’ve given a great deal of thought lately to poetry and to walking. I walk my two dogs through Boston almost every day and these walks are gifts that I give myself. Together, we walk roughly three miles, sometimes twice a day, and along the way I’ve discovered hidden bits of poetry in the bronze plaque dedications at the bases of trees, benches, and statues of Boston’s Public Garden, Commonwealth Avenue, and Beacon Hill. These pieces of poetry that have seemingly been tossed beneath my feet are ripe with meaning and are there for me to gather like berries on summer’s day.
Well-known poet Edward Hirsch states “[a] walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. The physical experience activates the imagination...”
When I stumble upon these pieces of poetry, I am as Hirsch so deftly stated: both present in and separate from my body - grounded in my action but adrift in my thoughts. Perhaps this is why the lines resonate with me, because I am both “here and there". My head fills with images from these hidden gems and I find it infinitely jarring when my pups lunge at a squirrel than I would perhaps were I not wrapped in the magic of words. Just as the squirrel dares the dogs to come closer, I too have stepped closer to the essence of the found poetry. Suddenly, with the pull of the leash, I must be present and the spell of the words is broken. I struggle to recall them in their exactness and their rhythm. Poetry is, of course, as rhythmic as walking. There are definite beats in the footfalls of the words just as there are beats in the placement of my feet. But my sudden departure, my misstep, alters the cadence and I am without rhythm scrabbling to recover the melody and my balance.
Poetry, I’ve discovered gets a bad rap. A writing friend once shared with me that although she liked poetry she couldn’t understand it, yet longed to understand it. This is not such an outlandish statement as one might think and, in fact, her statement, which is amazingly honest and without pretense, is something others have also echoed.
I have a theory as to why people utter this lament when it comes to poetry. Yes, their ear may be untrained but it is because they are only half-hearing the words. Recently, I purchased a book of poetry and the author told me: “make sure you read it aloud. Poetry should be read aloud.” At the time, I remember thinking, of course, it’s supposed to be read aloud. How else would you read it? But in this age where we’d rather email or text than talk to someone for fear of having to engage, what the poet was trying to tell me was that poetry needs to be read aloud; in fact, poetry demands it. Poetry needs to be both heard and to be listened to. Two separate actions bound together much like what happens when I go for a walk; I am connected to the world around me as I move through it but I am separate from it as well. I hear the words and I embrace them and then my thoughts drift off caught in their hypnotic song. As poet Robert Pinsky writes, "[t]he medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing."
In this post-holiday denouement, I encourage you to explore poetry by thinking of it as a gift you can and should give yourself; and very much like that walk through the park or through the woods, you will be surprised by what you discover.
For those with students or children who claim not to understand poetry or not like it, I give you: Love that Dog by Sharon Creech. Creech, with a nod to well-known, highbrow works of poetry that many will find familiar if not recognize, entwines the free-verse style of young boy in his poetry notebook with grief and love. Adults, too, will love this book.
For those who are struggling to see the glass half-full, I give you Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. This 2015 acclaimed collection is a popular favorite with good reason: Kaur explores the pain of violence, love, loss, femininity, and abuse juxtaposed with the sweetness that is found in healing and in survival.
Or try Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff. In free verse style, Wolff tells the story of two different girls, one who cannot look away while the other one struggles and together they both move forward. It is a look at the struggle of the lower classes of America and the need for support systems, acts of kindness, and caring. Also consider, Macaroni and Cheese Manifesto: Second Edition by Steven H. Biondolillo, whose unorthodox upbringing branded him not with defeat but undying optimism. You will feel the grit of the city’s asphalt and the struggle of the athlete in his poems. Biondolillo is, incidentally, the poet who encouraged me to read his poems "aloud".
If you're like me and trying to read outside your norm, try these noteworthy poets listed here at LitHub. My to-be-read pile is rapidly growing.
For favorites that will not disappoint: there is Emily Dickinson and her Gorgeous Nothings: Envelope Poems. You will appreciate the economy and the beauty of these scribbled words. NPR has a wonderful review of them.
Or consider Mary Oliver’s Upstream: Selected Essays, which although not necessarily poems, per se, is a poetic look at nature and artistic labor that admittedly evokes the spirit Whitman while encouraging the whimsical and creative fire within all of us.
And if you still crave to understand poetry in a more technical sense - because perhaps you need to see all that is behind the curtain before you can appreciate the magician’s trick or rather the poet’s art then know both Hirsch and Pinsky have written books with you in mind. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch is a book written for both the novice and the expert.
The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky adeptly guides you through the process of listening to poetry and what it is the poet is doing with the language and the breath of the reader.
Poetry is a gift you give yourself. You only need to make time for it, just like that walk.
*quote on photo of bronze plaque is from Frederic Weinstein's poetic Circus: A Novel