The holidays are here to give shape, purpose, color, and reflection to the winter season (or in the southern hemisphere to the summer season.) Each of us celebrates with traditions unique to our families, our neighborhoods, our faith, our country. I thought it might be time to make note that those same things make our poetry uniquely ours. I was told or read while in college that a person couldn’t write a good poem except in the language he or she learned to say “Mama”. I shared that story with my friend Hector Gutierrez in my poetry workshop.
Hector’s parents were born in Mexico and spoke Spanish at home. As one of five children, reared in Texas, he was eager to be an American speaking English and knowing slang. Hector finished college with a minor in English and a major in Engineering. He related to me he had “spoken” Spanish at home but never learned to read or write it. Our conversation triggered a desire in him to learn to read and write in his “first” language. He studied, read, and began writing in both Spanish and English. It broadened his vocabulary, his sense of self, his understanding of who he was in the world, in his family, and gave him a personal history he could share with his children. I can’t say if his Spanish poems were superior. I always thought his English ones were excellent.
Clearly whoever said we have to write in our first language in order to write well doesn’t know the poetry of our dVerse community. So many among us speak many languages and write beautifully in English and other languages too. Perhaps the point of that phrase, however, may be that our mother as well as our mother tongue, our family, our home, geography, and experiences form our voice. Part of what makes us who we are is the rhythms of the speech we have heard all our lives, the regional phrases or usages that bring a specific meaning to us, the coinages of friends, family and peer groups.
I don’t think this kind of usage and diction is unique to poets; but, I think poets often want to use “lofty” language, multi-syllable words, more rarely used words and phrases than writers of fiction. They may think that everyday speech is too low for poetry, think that one should sound like Keats or Shelley to achieve fine poetry. Poetry may use homey words and phrases and its use can, and in the best of poets, does become quite lofty indeed.
Several poets may live in an adjoining community and use that same set of words very differently. Take for example Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Lowell (there are a number of fine poets from New England and Massachusetts). Each employs various common dialects and usages they know and would hear in their neighborhoods, among family and associates; however, each of their voices is unusual, their word choices much different, their topics wildly varied and yet each is recognizable as being from New England.
We can hear differences in cadence when reading Dylan Thomas who was Welsh with a kind of music in his work that we hear in the speaking voices of the Welsh, while Yeats and Seamus Heaney employ Irish words, usages, and images galore in their work and yet their worlds are as different as the country around Londonderry and the city of Dublin. Deeply affected by Yeats work, Heaney spent his adult years in Dublin, too; but wrote of country life, building his metaphors literally out of the ground. I use these poets as examples because all of these poets found a way to exalt their common speech and language into poems of deep relevance and universal truth.
When I was studying poetry in college I had a professor who grouped poets regionally. The Fugitives were Southern writers with a strong sense of its beauty and its violence and injustice. The Western poets, the New York poets, all presented in groups, the black poets along with protest work of the 60s, and the fledgling work of the post Sylvia Plath women writers. No two poets alike, yet sharing many things in common. All of them strove to be different, unique, while painting similar scenes, pleading for justice, explicating their take on nature, describing changing mores and culture, finding a philosophy in the personal.
There are many different techniques a poet uses to create a work. There is rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia, dissonance, assonance, metaphors and extended metaphor, similes, but perhaps bringing it back home, hearing the words of parents, grandparents, neighbors, and children is the best way to keep the vocabulary personal, to make the story richer and at the same time universal. In this time of peace and thanksgiving, perhaps it’s best to consider those simple rhythms, and simple gifts of speech we’ve always known because they live in our memory and in our hearts.
Today’s challenge is to search for a new poem, uniquely you — using the words you might say to a neighbor or friend, keeping it familiar and seeking to make it distinctly you, about you, in your vernacular. I think by now you know to post your poem on your blog, copy that blog link below on Mr. Linky, read and comment on your fellow poets and enjoy. Thank you for coming by today. I’m grateful to everyone at d’Verse Poets for sharing their work and themselves with me through these years. I feel as though this is my extended family and I’m wishing each of you the blessings of the season and a healthy, prosperous and successful new year!