Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Poetry Closet

Yesterday, one of the best writers I've run across -- both print and online -- posted this on one of her three blogs, Seedlings in Stone. When I read it, my ears burned.

I've talked before about L.L. Barkat's book, Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places. This is the one I read straight through during the night I spent in the hospital after learning the results of my bike crash -- three broken ribs, a fractured fourth rib and a partially collapsed lung. Since hospitals are no places for rest, I abandoned all hope of sleep and instead read this wonderful book. And she has a new book coming in 2010 from InterVarsity Press, God in the Yard: Tending the Soul in Small Places.

Yesterday, I had an email exchange with L.L. about how I got into this "poetry thing." I've read a lot of poetry over the years but would never have called myself a major poetry reader or even a minor fan. In high school, I liked the English poets of World War I, like Rupert Brooke, possibly because of the Vietnam War going on at the time. I liked the modern poets the best -- T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas -- and have also read a number of contemporary poets -- Richard Wilbur, Billy Collins, John Ashberry and Brendan Galvin. I learned that just about anything written by Wendell Berry sounded like poetry. And my background, training and experience and experience as a speechwriter had required me to be as mindful of words sounds, rhythm, cadence, language -- all the proper domains of the poet. But me thinking about writing poetry? Not.

I can actually pinpoint when this poetry "thing" started: Sunday, July 5. Okay, so it's confession time. I was sitting in church, listening to our senior pastor's sermon on John 3 -- the scene with Jesus and Nicodemus when Jesus speaks to being born again. What caught my attention was one of the overlooked parts of the story: Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. As I listened to the pastor, my mind wouldn't let go of that. It was at night. Nicodemus came at night because he didn't want anyone to see him talking to Jesus.

I started taking what looked like notes (my wife was pleased I wasn't nodding off) but were really images and thoughts and ideas. I listened to what the pastor was saying and let what he said form images in my mind that somehow changed into something else when I wrote (the order-of-worship sheet soon looked like a mess). During the next two weeks, interrupted by my bike crash and hospital stay, I worked on what eventually became this.

Then, a month later, came this, based on the story of the crippled man by the pool who's not fast enough to make it into the water when it ripples. That was inspired by another sermon -- same pastor, same situation, similar scribbles all over the order-of-worship sheet. When I posted the first poem, no one had noticed or at least commented. This second one, though, prompted some comments, including one by L.L., welcoming me to the poetry closet.

Was I in the poetry closet?

I'd been following L.L.'s weekly RAP (Random Act of Poetry) on The High Calling Blogs site. This is a weekly invitation for poets to right about a particular topic, and L.L. had been doing a series on rooms in a house. The final room in the series was the closet, and I decided to try it. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done -- 20 or 30 drafts, constant reworking and fiddling with words, most of the drafts written in long hand until I finally typed it and then kept working over individual words. And this poem is SHORT.

The result was "Testimony (in the closet)." It prompted a number of responses and reactions. I had some comments on the blog, but also emails from people, including at work. Perhaps the best response was from my wife. Just as I was falling asleep, she came in the bedroom with tears in her eyes. "It's my wedding dress," she said.

I've done two more since then, "Knows" and "Summer Light." I'm reading more poetry online, from poets like Marcus Goodyear (see "Eve's Second Garden") and Jim Schmotzer. Marcus and L.L. have "introduced" me (electronically) to another whole group of poets who particpate in the weekly RAP. And then I'm finding incredibly good writers and poets like {this restless heart}.

I suppose this means I am indeed in that poetry closet.


L.L. Barkat said...

Welcome! I'm thinking it's a walk-in, since there are so many of us poking through the cotton shirts in here. :)

I loved this ... "I learned that just about anything written by Wendell Berry sounded like poetry." And how.

Your wife did the best thing. She showed you that a poem's value is in its impact, not just its form. Lovely impact, indeed.

Anonymous said...

i usually write all over the church worship sheet as well...sometimes i can even make sense of it the next day.