By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
With April, also known in the world of literature as National Poetry Month, about to wrap up for the year, non-poetry folks might expect that’s the end of lyric declarations and descriptions. No more poems.
They’d be wrong.
In the place where I live, poetry is happening daily — and not in a metaphorical or figurative sense. Every day, poetry gets written at my house. By me. I’m not the only one. Inspired by a friend who just completed a one-a-day year of blogging, then turned to one-a-day poems for his 51st trip around the sun, I asked to tag along.
“A poem a day? Every day? That sounds fun,” I typed in a computer message. “Can I tag along?”
“Sure,” he said. And the adventure began.
Writing a poem a day, you might think, should be easy for a person used to banging out full-length stories before that 9 a.m. daily deadline. After all, stories have to be fact-checked and packed chock full of quotes and documentation. They have to be true.
Poems can just be … made up. Right?
Not so. Of course, in the same way it’s always been possible to practice yellow journalism – sensationalistic, paper-selling nonsense that is only marginally true – bad poetry clutters the world. The problem with that? Most of it isn’t true. Think “National Enquirer.”
For poetry to hold power, it must contain the truest kind of truth, made up of equal parts of keen observation, attention to detail, clear, carefully selected language and a willingness to say what it is all really about, somehow. An elegy about the pet who died? Tell me about your dog’s beauty, his personality, the wacky stuff he did. Also, tell me how you feel and how it mattered. But in poetry, as in most good writing, the way you tell is by showing.
“I felt so sad,” doesn’t move us, but “my foot, where he used to rest his head, aches with cold today,” tells the truth in a moving fashion.
Writing a poem a day has proven more of a challenge than I anticipated. Some days, I resort to haiku, the 17-syllable, three-line form from Japan that I once assumed was easy. Ha. It’s like writing advertising copy: get to the point and get there fast. And be darn sure you get there in a way somebody will remember, or why bother?
Other days, I miss my poetry posting, and a day later you will find me scrambling to churn out more than one. I tell myself it’s like exercise, only artistic and soul-sustaining. If that sounds religious, the poetry is showing.
If you aren’t already a poetry fan, you could have been converted at Wednesday night’s “Poetry Coffee House,” sponsored by the humanities department at SCCC/ATS. With candles cocooned in transparent-paper poetry sleeves, free hors d’oevres, coffee and lemonade, the band room at the college transformed into another kind of place. Overhead video displays offered a virtual gallery glimpse at student paintings, drawings and three-dimensional work. Periodic music performed by student Juan Carlos Contreras added a bohemian touch to the evening.
But the poetry was the point of the get-together, and the poems ruled. Competition winners of all ages stood to read their work. One high school student rattled through history with his second-place offering, while two others meditated on the challenges of living a meaningful and joyful life. A Balko ranch hand described the reasons for changing from sheep to cattle herds, and a local English teacher wondered who gets left behind when society changes.
English profs Bill McGlothing and Janice Northerns gave the group a glimpse of how real life moments transform into poetry, by reading their personal responses — in poems, of course — to the offhand comments of a beloved 3-year-old, their granddaughter. And college president Duane Dunn read a piece co-written by Northerns and McGlothing, a poet’s take on corporate and institutional training mottos.
But why does one small — if wildly successful — poetry gathering, held on a Wednesday night in a small city at the Southwestern edge of Kansas matter?
Perhaps because, as judge William Wenthe noted in the program, the poetry contest was “really about abundance. By abundance I mean many things: first, the abundance of poems in this contest, and also the abundance of human spirit, of imagination and of experience. And it is also about the abundance of our own language, which ever renews itself in the expression of poetry.”
With more than 100 entries — the most ever, Northerns said, this year’s contest could be called wildly successful in terms of quantity alone. But I agree with what Wenthe said. Perhaps it’s my personal bias against texting and the seeming loss of basic spelling skills in our technology-saturated world.
Or it could be that I long for the days when people had time for long-form conversation. Maybe, most honestly, it is that I just love poetry, which never fails to delight me.
“Tell the truth/and tell it slant,” commanded that great American poet, Emily Dickinson, more than 100 years ago. She was right. She followed her own advice. What a beautiful thing to encounter so many people, so many years later, who attempt to do the same.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Beginning May 1, Rachel Coleman will move to Seward County Community College/Area Technical School to work in marketing and public relations. However, her weekly column at the Leader & Times will continue.