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Discovering Poetry: Part Three
Copyright©2004 by Nathan Harms

This is the continuation (Part 3) of a correspondence between me and a Christian writer, Vee, who I bumped into at a local library. Vee is on a quest to learn more about poetry, and our email discussion is an adventure into the makings of poetry, and what it means to be a Christian making poetry.

January 2003

Dear Vee

After rereading some of your first thoughts about poetry, I want to share what I've learned over the years by reading tens of thousands of poems.

When you first begin to read poetry I think it's a good idea to focus on gentle exploring rather than deep reading. You might open a volume of poetry, read three poems, and know immediately that the book has no attraction for you. During this exploring phase, go to the library and check out as many poetry books as you can carry. Read no more than one book by any poet. If you read four or five poems from a book and find it doesn't "connect" with you, close the book and go to the next. Remember the names of the poets where the connection happens and try not to keep reading in a book where you're not embraced by the poems. When you have done this with 30 or 40 poets, you will probably have found three or four favorites.

How do you know when you "connect?" It's a different experience for different readers. For me, it's a sense of recognition, that the poet is talking about something important to me. Perhaps even talking about me. It's a strong emotional experience. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen's lyrics from the song, "Everybody Knows." He sings, "Everybody's got this broken feeling, like their father or their dog just died." It's that "broken feeling" that often signals a connection.

For other readers of poetry there may be more of a feeling of "understanding" of the poet that affirms the connection.

Finally, don't forget anthologies as you explore poetry. They are a genuine shortcut to discovering new poets. One of my favorite characteristics of anthologies is that they are "edited." Editors' tastes are often consistent throughout an anthology. So if I like a few of the poems, I can guess that I will like many of them.

You may find, like I have, that poetry reading develops your sensitivity to poetry. When you absorb a lot of poetry, you unconsciously begin to understand it better. When I pick up a poetry book I feel as though a door opens in my subconscious. A willingness to be open and touched is awakened by the act of reading poetry. I can almost feel that willingness swinging on hinges. But this may just be me, and it may not signal an experience common to all.

Nathan

Hi again, Nathan:

Do you know of a good resource for vocabulary development? I'm working through Frances Mayes' book, and I would like to play with words a bit. I can't seem to find anything to help me out. She suggests sitting with a dictionary and picking out favourite words, but surely there must be a more efficient way of doing this. You know those little word power tests in Readers Digest? Is there something around to provide that kind of practice? This must be something that poets do. Just what is it exactly that poets do do?

Good day, Vee:

I was thinking about your emails yesterday, reprocessing what we've been writing, and the thought came to me that a natural progression of your process is to begin writing poetry. Or at the very least, to find yourself beginning to think poetically.

A wonderful and unpredictable aspect of immersing yourself in poetry is to begin thinking like a poet. Your immersion has the potential to change the way you see the world—and the way you think about words. Many poets practice with words and word games, though not all of them do it consciously. When a poet begins to develop her writing beyond the beginner level, she understands that words have subtle shades of meaning that can completely alter the color of her communication.

While a dictionary may be interesting to some people, I find much greater stimulation and inspiration in a good thesaurus. I do not mean a "garden variety" thesaurus such as is used by elementary school students. My favorite thesaurus is a treasure trove of discovery. By delving into the thesaurus a person can begin to grasp the subtleties of "angry" versus "furious" versus "irate" versus "incensed" and see how each has a face with different features than the others. You populate your vocabulary with characters as distinct as the children in a classroom.

If you're not writing poetry yet, one of the exercises you could do with your thesaurus is "word substitution." This takes a degree of "letting yourself go," but it's fun and worthwhile. Take a significant noun or verb from anything you've written (poetry or not) and substitute a word from the thesaurus to see how it changes things. You could probably start a poem using this method.

For instance, let's imagine you have written the following sentence in a letter to a friend: "I tried to explain how I feel about the danger."

Go to your thesaurus and find an interesting replacement for "explain." Don't be concerned about maintaining the exact intent of the original sentence. Now choose a replacement word for "danger."

Here's what might result: "I tried to illustrate how I feel about the precipice." ("Illustrate" replaces "explain." "Precipice" replaces "danger.")

Now, start from this point and do it again: "I've proved that I reflect a longing for the plunge." ("Proved" replaces "illustrate." "Reflect" replaces "feel." "Plunge" replaces "precipice.")

Try it again: "I'm proof, a mirror, a longing for destruction." ("Proof" replaces "proved." "Mirror" replaces "reflect." "Destruction" replaces "plunge.")

Of course you've changed the entire meaning of the original sentence, but you've also begun to show your literary imagination some of the many discoveries available. There's probably a poem lurking in that revised (thesaurasized?) sentence!

One of the best and most available means of developing vocabulary, I think, is in the editing of our own everyday writing.

Nathan

To be continued…

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