Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 8, 2011

Cupboard Doors and Poetry

Last night I had dinner with friends, one of whom is moving. She told us that so far she has a grip on packing well-labeled boxes, though she knows soon she’ll come to tossing things randomly into IKEA bags.  The other friend said she’d heard a good way to pack is by labeling according to where stuff came from. That is the cupboard left of the stove, or desk top drawer. Places you might visualize, and think of going to in a new place. I can see where starting from the outside would be handy, and of course, it’s how most poems start, too. From a simple wooden door or shelf or .. say, a leaf or the surface of a pond. Let the rummaging come later.

I made this connection this morning when reading “Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air,” an essay by poet Mary Oliver in The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing edited by Christian McEwen and Mark Statman, which is filled with great poems and inspiration. In this essay, Mary Oliver writes of the small notebooks she’s carried for more than thirty years in her back pocket. These don’t hold poems, but the beginnings, often, amidst quotes, shopping lists, and recipes. There are notes on birds, plants, animals slants of light she sees while hiking. She writes, “The words do not take me to the reason I made the entry, but back to the felt experience, whatever it was. This is important. I can, then, think forward again to the idea – that is, the significance of the event – rather than back upon it. It is the instant I try to catch in the notebooks, not the comment, not the thought. And, of course, this is so often what I am aiming to do in the finished poems themselves.”

Mary Oliver’s essay continues with examples of ordinary things which observed closely reveal the marvelous. Last night my class, who are writing across the genres, tried composing some poems, and perhaps the most popular entrée for some was writing from pictures my husband had taken outdoors. As people read some of these aloud, I glimpsed something lovely in the first drafts, but also had a sense of something yet to be explored. I suggested, Stick with that. A door had been chosen, and we got peeks of something complicated beneath. Listening to that door, looking longer, will deepen the vision into poems that may take us all from frogs, ponds, and grasses into wild new places.

For the Poetry Friday roundup, please visit Great Kids Books.


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