I’ve been doing more reading than writing lately. Novels, magazines, nonfiction: the usual. I usually steer away from poetry, having lost my appetite for this abstract literary form shortly after high school.
Poetry usually leaves me hungrier than when I began. I need complete thoughts. My brain is not wired to appreciate unfinished sentences. Poems are as frustrating to me as someone who leaves you dangling in conversation. “I thought I’d go grocery shopping but the cat wanted out, so.” Or, “I ran into so-and-so today and…(segue to a text on their phone)” “What?” “What?!” “So, what?” I want to say.
But, after reading The Complete Short Stories of Truman Capote, I could plainly see the poetry in his prose and it occurred to me for the hundredth time that good writing often either comes from or resembles poetry. Consider the following Capote gems:
Ottilie was used to boldly smiling at men; but now her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs. – from House of Flowers
The coach was a relic with a decaying interior of ancient red-plush seats, bald in spots, and peeling iodine-colored woodwork. – from A Tree of Night
It was a furnished room in the East Sixties between Second and Third Avenues. Large enough for a daybed and a splintery old bureau with a mirror like a cataracted eye, it had one window, which looked out on a vast vacant lot (you could hear the tough afternoon voices of desperate running boys) and in the distance, like an exclamation point for the skyline, there was the black smokestack of a factory. – from Master Misery
If only I could write like this! I have a few friends, poets who write beautiful prose, Jenn and Mary, to name two. Time to bite the bullet, I thought. Time to give poetry another chance. I asked Mary where I should begin and she suggested I begin by reading (rather than trying to write) poetry. Good poetry. And she lent me her collection of poems that caught her ear for one reason or another. Among them I found examples of stellar writing like this:
Oh flawed species,
who has fashioned spears from saplings,
notched points of flint, sliced
the coral flesh of the salmon,
pounded tapa from the inner bark of the mulberry.
With heavy brains balanced on slender stalks of spine, we have gazed
through ground glass, listening
for the music still humming,
from the violent birth of the universe.
This is a place where lakes are brimmed glasses all
sitting on the same water table, where one hillcrest
has first cousins and second and third, where filled silos
stand like shiny blue Indian totems of fertility and future.
Inspired, I wrote the following, not realizing it was a poem until the words were splayed across my screen:
AT SOME POINT
At some point, you stop trying to keep up with technology.
At some point, maybe, you stop trying to curb your appetite.
You stop trying to zip your lip.
You stop trying to give up coffee, or wine, or cigarettes.
At some point, you stop caring what the neighbors think.
At some point, you stop caring for your body as if it were a finely-tuned machine.
You stop flossing, exercising, and getting outside every day.
At some point you stop looking for the good in others.
And for the good in yourself.
At some point you get lazy and you stop trying.
Maybe never. Maybe tomorrow.
At some point, I might add, I will appreciate poetry. Maybe today.