What is a poem, anyway?

Years ago, when I was trying to write a memoir about landscape, place, homeland, I worked for a time in my garage.  The house I lived in was small–two bedrooms–and there was no study.  So I put some plywood pieces together, rescued my great aunt’s old Formica kitchen table, and moved to the garage.

One of the advantages of having a garage for a study is the large walls.  (One of the disadvantages is that it is cold in winter and hot as blazes in summer.)  In the spirit of William Faulkner who plotted his novel As I Lay Dying on the walls of his home in Oxford, Mississippi, I tacked papers on the walls–lines, paragraphs, portions of the “thing” I was writing but refused to be written.  I hoped whatever was swimming in my subconscious (and coming out lines and phrases) would present itself as I looked for the connections among the fragments.  What I found that they did have in common was lyric–a sound and beat and rhythm like song.

That’s what finally led me back to poetry.  Many people agree that a poem is economic in language, may rhyme or not, with rhythmic attention to line and sound.  Sure, like many kids, I’d tried to write a few poems. And again in college in those days of heightened emotions and dire straits.  Again, too, during my first teaching job in Fort Worth, Texas where poems like “Gormet Lover” and “Counting Cattle with the Fathers” teemed with double entendres and jammed metaphors (“the carrots explain their yellow fear”).  The poet Joy Harjo, in a workshop she was leading, once asked us to make ancestral maps of poets who had influenced us. Maxine Kumin was a master of surprising adjective/noun combinations.  When I posted snippets which would become Walking the Llano on the garage walls, I realized the pervasive tone and inclination was lyric.  And that that lyricism came from the rhythm of walking the land, of movement through time and space.

I still have the old Formica kitchen table (and smile when I see its cousins as part of the setting in old sit coms), if not the same garage. I have a study full of books, a regal if worn Ethiopian rug.  I walk each day near my house, in faint rhythm distantly akin to those walks on the llano. And that’s where many lines come from–that and the edge of dreams.  Those four o’clock mornings when a line swims free and you have no net to catch it in–nor do you want to get up, find pen and paper, come wholly awake.

The poems in A Habit of Landscape carry forth as lyric.  Whether about counting cattle, adoption, lost loves, family relationships, the essential arrangement of line, space, syntax work toward the rhythm of being in the world.  There are parts of stories and yet the gloss of surprise, something close to wonder.

Something akin to Archibald MacLeish’s definition of poetry: “A poem should not only mean but be”–here on this gray, tarnished, scratched kitchen table, itself a holder of stories.

  • Gail Hovey
    Posted at 21:53h, 01 April Reply

    Shelley, I love how you connect your memoir to your writing of poetry. I am eager to see the book! This is lovely!

    • admin
      Posted at 01:16h, 01 May Reply

      Thank you Gail. I so appreciate your support and genuine interest. I keep posting these and realize I still can’t get many folks to read them. I like the little blogs, sort of like mini essays. I am thankful you and I have kept in touch–as creative people too.

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