(The following is a re-run of a column published here twelve years ago, because in June I went to a reunion of high school friends and rather unadvisedly climbed a particularly massive oak tree, resulting in what we recently discovered to be a torn rotator cuff in my shoulder ((who knows where else we might have rotator cuffs?)). This is the kind of mishap which, if it happens to a young quarterback, is usually dealt with by a quick visit to the locker room and a rest on the sidelines for a series or two. But if it happens to an aging musician he blusters through all the Christmas gigs and then has surgery on the 23rd and by the deadline for January’s Meridian column is still typing with only half his hands and thinking with about an eighth of his brain.)
Lovely Linda Columnreader (she will always be “Lovely Linda” in my mind, even if she turns out to be a guy) wrote, “I loved the two (adjective deleted for modesty’s sake) poems in last month’s column.” (Check the archive where you will find two poems about snow and every other Backstage Graffiti column I ever wrote, plus a couple of term papers from high school and a good portion of the Nixon transcripts). “The final one just (emotional verb deleted for modesty’s sake) my heart. How about a book of poems from poet Payne? It would (positive verb deleted for modesty’s sake) our lives, especially if the two from this article were included.”
I was so moved by her (?) kind gesture that I felt compelled to reply in poetic form, thusly (in the rhythm of a limerick):
Thanks so much for encouraging words. ?
Helps us columnists feel less like nerds.?
If my poems could be read?
in a book, like you said,?
some kind soul might point out they don’t rhyme.
Well, If my readers are poetry enthusiasts (why not “enthusiists?” I mean, like from “enthusiism.” Why “enthusiasm”? We don’t say “communasm,” with adherents called “communasts”) then I have no real choice but to offer this month a column on poetry. (Actually, it should be, “If my reader is a poetry enthusiast/ist”–all it takes is one. As soon as some reader writes that they think my economic outlook is kind of inventive, we’ll have a column on economics. This is known in some publishing circles as “Market Research.”)
Poetry has a place in journals (journal promotion being this column’s excuse for existing), but before we get to that, perhaps we’d better deal with a rather basic issue. Rhyme doth not a poem make. We heard a piece last Mother’s Day that went something like,
I know a gal whose name is Mother.?
She is one I love like no other.?
Up she used to get almost every night?
To help Little Sister because Big Brother turned off the night light.?
The way she got each night was up?
Whenever our dog was about to have a pup?
Because she is so kind,?
And when the morning came she said “I don’t mind.”?
She is so cheer-?
Y that I like it when she’s near.?
She is nice and cooks real good and is really nice.?
In my heart what she makes me feel is the opposite of ice.?
Louder than any siren or even a big bomb?
I will shout ’til life is o’er “That’s my Mom!”
My point being that the forging of poetry does actually require a little thought. I mean, if you were to have written something like the foregoing, being a sophisticated grown-up and all, verily even a reader of Meridian Magazine, which ain’t exactly (let’s admit it) a comic strip (I mean, some of the articles in here border on doctrinal, for crying out loud), you have not actually written a poem, rhyme notwithstanding. Mother’s Day may cover a multitude of sins, but, hmmm… I mean, there’s that poem about “It takes a heap o’ livin’.” Most people don’t realize that the poet wrote one more line than any of us know, but it was removed by a kind editor who felt that the poet would find the omission encouraging. The original, as submitted by the poet, ends like this:
“It takes a heap o’ livin’ to make a house a home.?
And it would take a heap o’ writin’ to make this thing a pome.”
This brings up another important matter, the pronunciation of the word “poem.” Many of your fussier types (I’m thinking now of my second grade teacher) seem to enjoy saying “poym,” as in what a character in Guys And Dolls might do to her hair to make it curly. This should, I think, be discouraged. Mainly, somebody who cares about poetry should care (at least a little bit) about rhyme, and there is not a word in our language that rhymes with “poym.” The best you can do is what they call “near rhymes,”
If you know a guy who wrote a poym,?
try to cheer him, not annoy ‘m.?
Criticism sometimes can destroy ‘m.?
If you love him, offer to employ ‘m.
The rule of thumb here is that if a word is so hard to rhyme that it takes two or more other words to pull it off, say the word differently, like in the following.
If you know a guy who wrote a poem,?
don’t converse on xylem or on phloem.?
Sing some nice selections from “La Boheme.”?
If he likes the arts, he’ll prob’ly know ’em.
There. Glad we cleared that up.
Now for poetry in journals. The whole first year of my mission, the only thing in my journal was poetry. (I think there was a prayer in my heart, as there was in the mouth of the young lady in The Fantasticks, running something like “Please, God, don’t let me be normal.” Prose seemed to me like a lower, coarser thing than poetry. Prose was to poetry as Hydrox is to Oreo, as Miracle Whip is to Mayonnaise, as Pay-less is to Florsheim, as K-Mart is to Nerdstorms. Anyway, I wrote a whole year’s worth of none of my posterity being able to identify where I served (because “Selkirk Street, North Perth, plus postal code” is not the stuff of which poetry is made) but all my posterity being quite able to feel what I felt when I was there (wherever they might guess “there” was).
This may actually be a defining objective of poetry, this capturing of the feeling of an event or place or relationship.
A journal can, and should, do that without necessarily being poetry. I think my second year of missionary journal might be more useful, prose notwithstanding, because I got in the habit, during that first year, of wrestling to capture the essence of things, rather than the externals of things.
Here’s some Pretty Earnest Advice: Write what you feel. Remember that rhyme isn’t feeling. Use words that clunk like stone and shine like flags, and use a lot less words than if you were writing prose. Use as few as you dare, and take ugly, flat, and empty words out. Especially empty words. And way don’t worry about whether or not you’re writing lines that might cause Emily Dickinson discomfort. (She once said that she could tell when she was reading a real poem because she could feel the top of her head coming off. Do with that information whatever seems appropriate.) What you write might not be quite poet- “ry,” but at least it’ll be poet- “ic,” and your descendants will melt. Because they want to know your heart, which they will do if you let them feel what you feel.
It may help to remember that the Savior, who quoted a lot of scripture in His mortal ministry, quoted more from the Psalms than from any other source. This was the poetry of David, the shepherd singer who became king. Jesus was David’s posterity. Jesus loved David’s heart, and the fearless and thoughtful and passionate way David shared it.
Now, there’s no getting around the fact that for every purring aunt who thinks you’re a threat to Shakespeare, there are fifteen English Majors who think you’re presumptuous merely to speak English, let alone to attempt writing it. But my question to those fifteen is “Hey, what about that movie ‘Babe‘?” The pig was depressed, as you recall. The farmer danced. Did he dance well? What would the Dance Majors say? He did not dance well. (Listen, I’m an Expert on Not Dancing Well–one could even say, “an Unwell Dance Major.”) Should he then not have danced? Come on! His dancing healed a pig! A talking pig! A compassionate and guileless and even archetypal pig! The next time a Dance Major looks down their nose at your two left feet, just ask them, “Has YOUR dancing ever healed a pig?” That will be the end of the conversation. I promise.
And so with poetry. Just write it.
(Maybe not necessarily publish it, though. I mean, remember how the dancing farmer felt when he realized he was being watched through the windows by all his livestock, not to mention the people who were actually in the room with him, being the cinematographer, focus-puller, dolly grip, director, script supervisor, choreographer, make-up and hair and art and prop departments, gaffer and electrical crew, twelve production assistants, sound recordist and boom-mic operator, two suits from the front office, security personnel, craft services, still photographer, and the pig wrangler. But wasn’t it about the best part of the movie? Or any movie? I’ve changed my mind. Publish it.)