When I was nineteen I wrote a poem called “Tears,” which should tell you everything you need to know about the quality of that work — overwrought, melodramatic, and sublimely tragic. I was mourning a breakup, of course. Poetry, I knew, was the language of love. I had read Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” And so poetry would also be the language of the end of love. I cringe when I think of that poem now. It was so terrible, so artless. I decided to stick with prose and I have never regretted that decision.
Because I am a writer and I teach writing, people expect me to know things about poetry. In truth, I know very little about poetry even though I read a great deal. I am vaguely familiar with various forms — sestina, sonnet, cinquain, ghazal. I am very unfamiliar with the craft of poetics — line break, rhyme, meter, image.
What I do know is that when I read poetry, good poetry, I forget to breathe and my body is suffused with something unnamable — a combination of awe and astonishment and the purest of pleasures. Reading poetry is such a thrill that I often feel like I am getting away with something.
I will never understand why more people don’t appreciate poetry. Even when I am confounded by a poem, my world is changed in some way. Poetry makes me think more carefully about the lyricism and the language I use in my prose. It helps give shape to my writing, helps me bring the reader to the heart of what I want to say. Poetry gives me the strength of conviction to take chances in my writing, to allow myself to be vulnerable.
Take the poem “Trespassing” by Lisa Mecham, a poem about the night wanderings of teenagers: “Then on the plywood floor, it’s just a boy pounding away / and a girl, her quiet cries turning stars into doves inside.” There is so much captured in that moment — we are given a scene, all too familiar, that is uniquely rendered, haunting, aching, gorgeous.
Or “Cattails” by Nikky Finney, a prose poem, a rush of words, a story of love and distance, a whole world, and the exquisite phrase, “she is reminded of what falling in love, without permission, smells like.”
Or xTx, the poem, “Do You Have a Place for Me”: “I will collect your hair / with my mouth / Use the strands / to sew the slices / in my heart.” This was a poem I originally published in a magazine I edited. It was a poem I loved so much that I wrote a story with the same title so I could carry that poem with me forever.
Or Jericho Brown, on the violence black men and women experience at the hands of cops: “I promise that if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me.” I heard Brown read this poem live and found myself on the edge of my seat, my fingers curled into tight, sweaty fists as I tried to absorb the pain wrapped in the intense beauty of his words.
Or Eduardo C. Corral, who rocks as he reads his poetry before an audience, who blends English and Spanish and demands that we, as his readers, keep up. He writes of borders, erasing and challenging those that exist while erecting new ones. And then, there is a poem like “Ceremonial,” full of hunger and sorrow and eroticism: “His thumbnail / a flake // of sugar / he would not / allow me to swallow.”
Or Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who often uses poetry to write of the wonders of the natural world, who writes about being brown in white America, who writes of being a daughter, of being a wife, of being a mother, of being a woman making sense of her own skin. Her poem, “Small Murders,” telling of Antony and Cleopatra, Napoleon and Josephine, how smells were woven through their loves, and a new suitor, admiring her perfume given by another, “by evening’s end, I let him have it: twenty-seven kisses // on my neck, twenty- seven small murders of you.” The poem ends with such an elegant twist of a very sharp knife.
I could write of the poets and poems that reach into my mind, my body, and never run out of words. There is no shortage of excellent poetry in the world. As I sit here, I am surrounded by books by Jonterri Gadson, Solmaz Sharif, Warsan Shire, and Danez Smith. I can’t wait to lose myself in their poetry, to become suffused.