This past April I had the pleasure of hearing Al Young, California Poet Laureate Emeritus, speak at a Poetry Night dinner and was reminded of the notes I took on his talk from Poetry Night 2009 where he describe a poem as “words confused with breath of Spirit.”
This is what we are looking for in our writing: the breath of Spirit. When “Spirit” breathes life into our work, be it a poem, a short story, a novel, an essay, or a memoir, we’ve got something that captures the reader’s attention—something that can’t be pushed aside for re-runs of CSI.
Poetry is to the rest of writing as piano is to the rest of music: a single voice—complicated, layered, melodic—poetry blends with and lends beauty to all forms of writing. But poetry isn’t solely about pretty words, and flowery phrases. It’s a system for arriving at the essence of experience, the emotion of experience, that is captured in image. People have lot of definitions of poetry, but I want to emphasize :
Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed
through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so
as to evoke an emotional response.
Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time.
The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual
mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.
This is what I want us to bring to our writing including our prose writing—the nature of poetry—that nature that evokes an emotional response.
Keeping in mind that “the reader will bring something you can never imagine to the page[i],” craft each sentence to maximize the images you wish to convey to allow the reader to unlock his or her experience. This is where emotional response comes from.
Young cautions us to “be careful what you say…your words will float and come back so you’ll have to buy them.”
(Adapted from a talk by Al Young Oct. 2009) Listen to Mr. Young’s poetry.
Prompt: Write a poem, prose poem, flash fiction or scene in the voice of your ancestor. Observe how the nature of language is illusory, that all kinds of things are going besides the language. Dig deep into your collective ancestral memory. This isn’t something remembered, but something stored in your DNA! You have to feel this one, and you have to make the reader feel it. Don’t get caught up in the U.S. penchant for subjective personal experiences. “The I can be so underfoot.[ii]”
Clarification: this is going to be personal, but it isn’t going to be about you—it’s going to be a piece that transcends your experience and becomes everyperson’s. Make sense?