the poet within


Back in the day when I used to hang out on MySpace, one of the single most defining criteria for accepting a would-be friend's request was whether or not their page was littered with bad poems. I am not a poet -- but I am a writer and a perfectionist and a snob when it comes to poetry.

The first written work I ever published, at 14, was a poem about slavery in an anthology of student poetry. (I still have it, but won't subject you to it here, lol.) It gave me somewhat unrealistic ideas about how easy it is to publish and, because I wrote it in a couple of hours, how easy it is to write poetry. Since then, apart from another poem -- about what I can only loosely describe as black liberation as confounded by the profit motive -- that I wrote and delivered at Stanford Black Graduation 2003, I have never published another word of poetry and probably never will.

Since becoming a writer, I have realized how incredibly hard it is to write good poetry. Most poetry I read/hear in passing is too literal, overwrought, and littered with cliches to be any good. I can only guess that most of these poets would probably not call themselves writers, when in fact more discipline is required of the poet than the (fiction or nonfiction) writer.

Novelists might write in four pages what a poet must convey in four words. At heart, I'm not really a poet. I prefer not to distill the meaning out of things, but rather to write on and on (though brevity in any writing is still the goal), evoking something in the reader who will distill her own meaning. Sometimes a few words will strike me that convey something so large that I am inspired to write them down and hope to turn them into a poem someday. It doesn't happen often, but I listen when it does.

I do know some really great poets, and, interestingly enough, most of them don't really call themselves that. They are complicated, multi-faceted, deeply thoughtful people who are usually so busy working out their own shit through words that they don't stop to realize it's coming out as the most magnificent poetry. I'm sure, much to our collective loss, most of their poetry rests in a journal lying haphazardly at the bottom of their closet.

All of this being said, I do think that there's a poet somewhere within all of us. Even in the groundskeeper at the Botanical Gardens who, after giving me a ride over to the Rockefeller rose garden, turned to me and said, "A rose, to many roses."

I live for these unexpected moments of brilliance.

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  1. An interesting analysis... almost poetic in its delivery actually. So many questions bubble up from this piece, an attempt to raise them all would make this comment one very long one but for a start, the most obvious question for me and perhaps the same question i have asked all my life and since I first read my first nursery rhyme ( I believe it was twinkle, twinkle little star) is What is poetry? and especially now with the advent of "contemporary poetry", how is poetry different from "chopped up" prose?


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