Unashamed Writing

Authentic writing from the gut - the studio of a self-taught writer

If you want to understand poetry … memorize it

Today, as I was doing some research on Emily Dickinson, I came across this video featuring Lynda Barry. It’s not long, just about eight minutes but, in case you don’t have the time to watch it, here’s the main idea: if you truly want to understand poetry, don’t just read it. Memorize it. Like a song. Better yet, memorize it using music. You’ll come to see its fluid beauty in ways that merely reading it can not reveal to you.

I agree completely.

I love poetry but that hasn’t always been the case.

A long time ago, as a child, I liked it very much. It always came from my grandmother in the form of simple verses that I found both funny and comforting. Something that tickled my imagination and I didn’t even know why. Nor did I have to.

Then school ruined poetry for me. All of a sudden, what was simple and fun, had to have some kind of deeper meaning that I wasn’t able to see. Why did a tree have to be more than a tree? Why couldn’t a river be just a river? And what if my tree was different than the teacher’s tree? Why would I get a bad grade for that?

I dreaded Poetry classes and I was glad when they were over. I didn’t have to make up forests out of single branches anymore.

Almost twenty years passed before I read another poem. I was at my usual hangout, Barnes & Noble, when I came across a book of Rumi’s verses. Two hours later, I was still reading. If you’ve read Rumi before, you know how I felt: awed. Speechless.

Unlike the verses of my youth, these poems didn’t tickle my imagination. They set off explosions. They made me feel things I couldn’t understand. Made me want things I couldn’t even name.

That night is when I fell in love with poetry. Since then, I’ve been reading it daily. I don’t like all of it. I don’t truly understand most of it. But I don’t feel that’s a bad thing. Also, I’m learning not to judge a poem by my first impression of it. What, at first sight, may seem obscure, self-indulgent, or plain dumb, can come back to me out of the blue and strike me as beautiful. Even brilliant.

With school and its strange grading system long behind me, there is no pressure for me to figure poems out anymore. Nowadays I find that ,sometimes, a tree is still just a tree. But sometimes it isn’t. A tree can also be a beginning. A life. It can be love. It can be many things. And I love that.

Here are a few more things from Lynda Barry’s video. Insightful bits from a smart and funny writer.

  1. Poetry is a living thing.
  2. You can’t wear poetry out.
  3. Poetry “unfolds”, the way a single drop of food coloring spreads into and changes the appearance of an entire bowl of icing.
  4. Poetry travels through time. People can’t do that. Poetry does.
  5. “Poetry […] is the stuff of mental health. And we ignore it at our peril.”

Beautifully said. I’m going back to my book of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Before I do that, I’ll share with you some pictures of her handwriting (in case you watched the above video and wondered how bad that handwriting could have been.)

emily dickinson handwriting emily dickinson handwriting 3


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