September 18, 2020 | Narrative
poetry is everything i don’t understand
and other quarantine dilemmas
it is confusing, and
what is the point
what is a poem
what is the aesthetic
is there an aesthetic
what am i not getting here
what am i not rhyming here
“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry
So, the legend is that I wrote my first poem on a piece of cardboard when I was six. “Legend” meaning my mom told me so and “six” meaning I scrawled everything in pink highlighter (I thought it was an aesthetic). Before you roll your eyes, I assure you, I was not a prodigy. I was just a kid obsessed with words.
And who could blame me? Words deserved the clout! Books transported me to far-off places—places where I could be whoever I wanted without having to explain why. Questions let me explore more of the world (“Mom, why don’t butterflies make butter?”). My bedtime stories pinky-promised that all good guys emerge victorious. Of course, I was also obsessed with my library’s Reading Challenge prizes. (A free burger coupon? Say no more.)
So when I handed my mom a freshly-inked piece of flimsy cardboard and heard, “Kaitlan, you’re a poet!” I responded with, “What? Hey, I’m a poet!”
I’m a poet!
At six, that meant carrying a bright red notebook and asking anyone within arm’s length if they’d like me to write them a poem. It meant titling things “Flower
Hower Hour” and “Cat on a Mat” (not “in a Hat”—that would be copyright infringement), and trying out all kinds of big words. “Salvation,” from Bible drill. “Literature,” from a library flyer. “Evergreen,” from my teacher’s wall art.
One time, I barged into my dad’s boss’s office and exclaimed, “Hello! Did you know I’m a poet?” I plopped myself on her chair and then acted as if I was frescoing her portrait, only through verse. When I finished, she asked me if she could have it. “No,” I said simply. “It’s mine!” And then I proceeded to steal her candy.
I could go on and on about my red notebook adventures—because writing was magic to me, and poetry the melodic portal.
But at some point, the magic was lost. I’ve been increasingly confronted by how dry my imagination has run—how I’ve come to celebrate recognition over art. I am spun along the hamster wheel that is college, encouraged to be an output machine. Oftentimes, I don’t feel worthy of taking on the title of “poet.” And yet, the words trail after me like dream residue.
Dan Hill sings, “I’m just another writer still trapped within my truth,” and I can’t help but feel he’s singing to me. I can’t run away from myself, or from the pressure—and the truth is, I don’t want to.
Such is the burden of the artist, one that I have borne since I chose to take a pastime (writing) and turn it into a “profession” (majoring in English). In proclaiming myself to be a writer, I reconstruct my hobby into my work. And this process has been complicated, something like deciding whether or not I should date my best friend. It’s a leap my heart longs to make, but one that simultaneously puts a lot on the line. I’m left with two choices: forever or never. But what if the affection only stays for so long? What if I pollute the love that would otherwise remain?
I do suppose there is a fine line between awe and fear, passion and production.
At what point does magic become monstrous?
“The Ideal” by James Fenton
When coronavirus hit, one of the many things that disquieted me was what I coined the “productivity paradox.” Scattered across the quarantined world were people who, on the one hand, claimed a lack of motivation and, on the other hand, an assemblage of resume-worthy projects. They binge-watched multiple Korean dramas but also interned at intense companies. They created websites, tutored, wrote manifestos. Then they preached it was “necessary to prioritize self-care,” so that even self-care became a productivity scandal. Someone might have even trained a monkey and won a Pulitzer for it (wait—Pulitzers are for books…??).
On my part, this meant that the productivity guilt-monster from campus had followed me home. Here, it took on a new form intimately tied to my daily life, but it breathed down my neck all the same. Things I started for innocuous reasons—learning the guitar, updating a blog, watching Avatar: The Last Airbender—transfigured into one big, amorphous question mark: Were they productive applications of my time? I was writing poetry too, so…was poetry a productive application of my time? I began to think of my creative outlet in terms of checkboxes.
☐ This meant spiraling down a Google search rabbit hole of how to get my poetry published. I sat for hours scrutinizing famous literary magazines, only to feel more disappointed, lost, and insecure.
☐ What did lowercase letters mean? Why did nothing rhyme? How the heck do you translate “upstream, these shining limbs folding”?
☐ I reverted to telling myself that “poetry is everything I don’t understand.”
I mean, I thought I had been writing it for fourteen years—but my work looked nothing like what I saw online. My rhyming limericks seemed like child’s play. Flower Hour? Really? Was I wrong to have called myself a poet at six years old? Was I even one at twenty?
Defeat slowly wrapped around my ankles. I shut my computer, surrendered to another season of Avatar, and concluded that my work would never be publishable. The sticky need for “productivity” was overtaking my creativity, and I couldn’t run away fast enough.
“Although the Wind” by Izumi Shikibu
One day, as I was regurgitating my insecurities via Messenger, my friend texted that “the best artists are those who aren’t afraid to share from their hearts.” “You are UNSTOPPABLE,” she wrote. I’m not sure why, but three words have never moved me so much.
“I am unstoppable,” I said to myself.
And I was transported back into the body of a six-year-old—which is to say, the same hand, the same mind, the same imaginative potential—that once proclaimed unawares, “I am a poet.” Or maybe I wasn’t transported back in time at all; it was simply a matter of reclaiming myself. Of acute self-awareness.
Serendipitously (or providentially, I’ll let you make that poetic choice), another friend texted me a video about William Sieghart’s Poetry Pharmacy. The video features Helena Bonham Carter, Lucius Malfoy, and the Great British Baking Show host, all reflecting on the beauties of poetry. And as I sat there on my living room couch, simultaneously listening to the fish tank and Bellatrix Lestrange recite verse, I began to break down all the erudition of wordplay, all the inaccesibility caused by “artistic” competition, that I had built up over my time at Brown.
Goodbye, classroom formality. Goodbye, essay-to-essay deadlines. Goodbye, Zoom mute and unmute. Goodbye, you pressure of production.
Because: poetry is not a product. Poetry is a practice, and a poem is an experience—with no prerequisites. Once we put the arrogance of “needing to understand” behind us—instead, approaching words with feeling and nonknowing—we become unstoppable. We are filled with an unspeakable lightness, and we grow aware of what makes us beautifully, (un)certainly human.
Poetry is everything I don’t understand, wrapped in empathy and given a silhouette. It is the half-dream, the almost-makes-sense, the words on the tip of my tongue.
“What even is poetry?” my brother asks me one lazy afternoon.
“Here, read this,” I say, handing him my iPhone, open to the Notes section. “It’s a poem I just finished.”
He skims it. “I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Read it slowly, without trying to understand.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Here, give it to me,” I say. “Just close your eyes and don’t try too hard. See where the words take you.”
He gives me a look of concern, as if to say, “Alright then, you English major.” But he closes his eyes in compliance, and I read the poem aloud.
“What do you see?” I ask him after the last line.
“Wow…I don’t know. Read it again.”
This time around, he opens his eyes. “I don’t know…it’s like…a bzzz, bzzz, a soft glow, getting brighter and brighter…”
“…And then, pop.”