Monday, January 15, 2018

Why a Wordsmith Should Read Poetry

My father was a poet.  He wrote amazing, long, rhymed poetry for all occasions – birthdays, weddings, holidays – and gave them away as presents. 
He read Shakespearian iambic pentameter and Neruda’s long, laborious odes (in the original Spanish) to me before I knew who these poets were.     
During the day my dad was an accountant, but his real love included music and poetry.  I did not inherit his musical ability (you do not want to hear me sing or play the kazoo), but I did inherit his admiration of poetry.
My own poetry is forgettable so I prefer to relish in the poetry that isn’t. 
My Catholic elementary school had a tiny library.  It fit in what used to be the janitor’s closet, but right there tucked among the hundreds of books on the saints and martyrs was Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  She was neither a saint nor a martyr. Her Sonnets to the Portuguese made me break out in goosebumps. Her profession of love to Robert Browning made me wonder if something so bold did not break a Commandment or two.
In high school I discovered e. e. cummings.  Poems did not have to rhyme.  They could take liberties with convention.  I ate up every poem of his, delighting in his puzzling lyricism.
For years I taught Frost and Dickens and Eliot to reluctant readers. I tried to infuse them with the thrill those great, famous poets gave me.  I may have failed but I had fun trying.
For my own pleasure, I read Billy Collins and Nikki Giovanni and Naomi Shihab Nye, and I pretended to like Silverstein and Prelutsky only for my children and students’ sake, but I still have their books of hilarious poetry on my shelves.  
As a novelist, reading poetry is a daily brain exercise, a study of ideas and images, an interesting formation of sentences and lines, all using an economy of words.

All of this may be why my father was fascinated with poetry. There is a common base to mathematics, music, and verse.  They all have an internal beat, a systematic form, a message to be portrayed.  

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