Saturday, September 27, 2014

Old Moons Bespectacled from My Childhood

I’m going to talk a bit about poetry.

Okay, okay, don’t shrink back in horror; don’t fake a fever. It’s a total myth that poetry is hard and boring and uppity.

Here’s proof that you encounter it every day and ENJOY it.

The obvious one is in music. Lyrics (even bad ones) are poetry. People have favorite songs they sing in the car, in the shower, to their puppies. Guess what you’re doing when you do that? You’re belting out poetry!

You see it everywhere. Greeting cards. License plates. Advertisements employ it. It may not be great poetry but it’s accessible and memorable (and who’s to say not great?) Sample of one of the best: Raid kills bugs dead. It’s got it all, a strong action verb, horror and a great end delivery.

Poetry gets harder when it employs too many words that confine it and distract from the point, when it uses difficult words (who wants to go to the dictionary every three seconds?) and when it rambles self-indulgently, with too much self-consciousness and without a sense of self control. Mostly this stuff is avoided by the masses. Even the classics. And what about classics? Just because it’s labeled as one does not necessarily make it something you must like or define as good. That’s up to each individual. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean scholar if you don’t want to be. You don’t have to snobbily say you love Spencer’s “The Fairy Queene” or Milton’s “Paradise Lost” if you really can’t relate or understand. If you truly like them, that’s fine. If you don’t, you don’t. You can still love poetry. There are no rules. Simply, if you don’t like it, change the channel. Screw what the critics say. Thinking you must like something because critics or teachers say it’s good or else something is wrong with you is...well, wrong.

I’ve been writing poetry since age 12. I’ve been reading it, too, everything I can get my hands on especially when I was younger. Confession: I only really love about 10 percent of everything I’ve read. I’ve read a lot. I majored in Lit./Writing at UCSD. Believe me. I’ve been exposed to tons of it. And I'm grateful for that background because education is about discovering what you love and don't love.  But loving only 10 percent of poetry means that I am “meh” about 90 percent of it. That’s a huge lot of poetry! And yet, I am a poetry lover. I love it, I write it, I sing it, I read it. When I find the good stuff that makes my heart grow three sizes in one day (yes, even Dr. Suess was a poet,) I feel like I’ve won the lottery.

My brain is trained to think in the language of poetry. I trained it that way. I think maybe I was born that way but I forget. My mom is credited here with helping me 'think' maybe I had it all along because she read to me and my brother when we were little. Some of what she read to us was children’s poetry from “gardens of verses” and “treasuries of poems.” Even at age four they filled me with so many feelings. My mother reading to us ignited the poet in me even at that age. I never forgot that. Later I exercised that poetry muscle by training. I did it on purpose because that was how I wanted to be and think. The best training was when I discovered translations of ancient Japanese and Chinese poetry. Those poets really knew how to write a poem, a real poem about heart, feeling, longing, life, the Earth, the skies, love…but without being super obvious about it. Their poems truly stand the test of time. They taught me that instead of saying “I cried piteously” to look for an image that might 'show' that instead of telling. Like: “my sleeve is wet with tears.” Those poets, and their more natural styles, taught me about complexities in simplicity and I read them over and over again.

After college I started over in my poetry writing, banning rhyme and form (my choice; form is not for me except haiku, but others make different choices and love form and that’s okay!) I realized I am more moved, shattered, amazed by little events, personal and seasonal, than I am by world events. So my poems are not about anything so grand as politics and world order. I am a dreamer and my dream worlds are odd and alien and escapist. And that’s okay, too. I have feelings inside for which there are no proper English words. So I think of images to convey them. Put all that together and I end up filling my journals with lines like these which I posted to a friend’s Facebook page today:
leaves fidget in the sunset streets
pressure of gold winds
I wade
deep cool trails of ghosts
no one can see the thousand distances
that inhabit my October veins

Sometimes I might throw in a starship or robot or vampire (instead of the ghost) because, well, I truly never grew up. Weird? No. Remember: no rules. Everyone is free in poetry to do their own thing. It’s not about being published or acclaimed, it’s just about opening up to an authentic self and true wonder unencumbered (as much as possible) by the outside programs and expectations of others that can ruin everything. You like leather and lace, toss some into your poems. You like bluebells, sprinkle in those, too. You like zombies, same thing. Snails, leaves, porn, picket fences or pickles.

Whatever you love, that's what you should write. Maybe I keep writing the same poems over and over again; maybe my stuff is truly self-indulgent. But I don’t care. It’s like the best drug.

I’ll end with a poem I wrote talking about what I write. I’ve written tons of poems like this. But this one gets to be here today because it is most recent…like five days old.

Interviewer: Describe Your Poetry

My answer:

I have written of
the old moons
   bespectacled from my childhood
drifts of meteor ash
all the gold and crackling grasses of Earth
bodies of light
empyrean seas
crests of star-waves
stygian mermen with tongues of salt
all the relic Decembers
all the tomorrow worlds
   airless and so silent they roar
the owl determining night’s depths
glazed-green lightning
the sorrow of storms
strange and ridiculous voids
ghost winds crying
ghost moons trailing frail light
the dreams of star-riders
spinning torn from the sun

Wendy Rathbone, author of the poetry collection, Unearthly,  as well as the novels Letters to an Android, Pale Zenith and more.


  1. I love the way you define poetry, in a much more personal way than the unwieldy term of "stream of consciousness."