The Poet Who Wasn't Afraid to Be Different
She Stood Out From the Crowd
Copyright©2002 by Nathan Harms
Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about our appearance. We want to look our best, but we’ve been taught not to draw attention to ourselves. We choose classic black pumps over daring red spikes. We select a plain black tie over a polka-dot ascot. Fashion depends on a subtle balance, but if there’s any doubt we err to the side of safety.
Even men who think they’re tuned out to fashion try to blend in with the rest of the guys. I mean really, who would put a ball cap on his head except a guy who wanted to look like all the other guys with ball caps on their heads? It’s just another kind of fashion—peer pressure mediocrity.
It's the same with our actions. Peer pressure and fashion push us to be inconspicuous, to be like everyone else. We try not to be controversial. We don't want to step on anyone's toes. It's important that we're politically correct.
That’s why the poet who wasn’t afraid to be different made such a difference.
She stood out from the crowd
If we’re like most poets, the clothes hangers in our poetry wardrobe overflow with boring selections of black, grey and beige. These are the safe poems that allow us to work within our comfort zone. They may be praise poems with predictable language and endings. They could be personal poems about subjects that don't embarrass us, poems with easy conclusions.
At the back of our closet, stuffed into boxes, are the sequined sweaters, belly shirts, crimson leggings and crepe angel wings we fear. These are the poems we won’t write because we imagine the gasps of astonishment and snorts of indignation that would result.
If a Bible story prompts an idea for a new poem, it’s safe to stick to the literal facts and arrive at predictable conclusions. In the aftermath of a heart-breaking family situation, it’s more comfortable to describe it in the third person than to type that eviscerating “I.”
But the poet who stood out from the crowd realized she had nothing to offer her readers if a poem about Noah didn’t bring him to life in their minds. So she gave Noah an arthritic wrist and a wife who badgered him with endless insults. Building that ark was an escape for Noah, as well as an act of obedience to God and a conquest over adversity. Who could doubt it took 120 years?
The poet who stood out from the crowd—devastated by her recent marriage separation—wrote, “I hate my husband.” Readers couldn’t walk past her poem without stopping. And in stopping, they saw themselves and their own pain, honestly written.
You’re going to wear that?
It’s tempting to guess what others expect to see, then do our best to wear it. Our decisions are motivated by self-doubt, inhibitions, false pride and fear. It takes courage and a lack of common sense to pin a turquoise brooch on a cerise blouse.
When people read our winter poem they already know that a snowfall blankets the earth. They know that snowflakes settle gently and billow into drifts. Mistakenly—and playing it safe—we give our readers what they already know. We bore them with gentle whiteness.
But the poet who has no common sense knows her readers want more. She gives them snow that commits armed robbery, takes hostages and escapes on foot. Her readers will never look at snow—or the bottoms of their snowy boots—in the same way again.
If poetry is the highest use of language it’s our task as poets to raise it to the heavens and let its words sift from the clouds like praise. Don't dishonor language by using cheap words or using words cheaply.
What does it mean to be different?
An outrageous hat, a mohawk hair style or a giant nose ring could ensure that we’ll stand out in a crowd. But differences in appearance are not memorable or significant. They’re certainly not life-changing.
As poets who are life-changing we don’t shave our heads or wear black lip color. We don’t usually hang out in bistros or grow goatees. We won’t always have our poetry published in church bulletins or Christian magazines. Our pastors won’t always like what we’ve written.
But different and powerful poets deliver authenticity. Our ideas evade predictions. Our language transcends cliches. When we finish a poem we’re a bit uncertain. Have we gone too far? Will readers think we’re absurd or heretical?
If we dare to be different, we sometimes make mistakes. Someone may laugh at us. Someone else may say we’re wrong. But a few readers, previously tranquilized by the sameness of everyday poetry, will be arrested by our words. Their lives and outlooks will be changed because we dared to be different.
Here's our poetry exercise for this month. Take a familiar Bible story and write a poem about it. As you work your way into the poem force your mind to consider alternatives that don't exist in the story as it's written. Ask yourself, "Why; how, what if?" For example: Why was Thomas such a doubter that he had to touch the wound in Jesus's side? What if something profoundly hurtful had happened to the child-Thomas that made him ever doubtful? What was that incident?? How did touching Jesus' wound change his entire life and cause him to re-visit his childhood pain? You don't have to be a heretic to do this exercise; you just have to be different.
If you read this article, please let me know.