Bath time is Daddy time.
I cherish those private moments where I get to play and chat with each of my kids.
My three-year-old daughter and I have teatime during her bath. Her tea is the best in the world, by the way. Her secret? She adds bubbles to her exotic oolong.
After her bath, I wrap her in her robe. Slather her in lotion. And begin the process of brushing the tangles out of her long, black hair as she bounces randomly from one request or question or thing within arm’s reach to the next.
Let’s grab that image of me brushing her hair and hold onto it for a moment.
A lot of people say they don’t get poetry.
But what’s to get?
Poetry is an experience to enjoy in the same way music is an experience to enjoy.
It is not a puzzle to solve.
When some encounter a poem, it’s as if they believe their job is to wrestle it to a chair, bind it and torture a confession out of it. (That’s certainly what some well-meaning teachers do.)
Again, let’s hold onto that image of someone beating a poem into confession.
When we say something is poetic, we typically think it is poetic because it offers layers of meaning.
However, this is misleading.
At its root, the poetic is about a specific everyday experience that happens to connect in some way with the universal experiences of humanity and nature.
That’s why, like music, poetry is something to be experienced, not solved. The only “meaning” that exists is whether or not your experience of the poem was meaningful to you.
I’m currently crafting a poem that hinges on me brushing tangles from my daughter’s hair (remember that image?). Through the medium of poetry, the act of brushing becomes a father’s futile attempts to remove the tangles out of his daughter’s life as she squirms and struggles for independence.
In poetry, a single word or phrase, deftly employed, is the door that transports us from the literal to the figurative. From the everyday to the universal or mythic. From the transactional to the transcendent.
So what actionable takeaways does poetry offer poets and non-poets alike?
The first is collecting. The second is connecting.
Start collecting everyday experiences.
Like a father brushing his daughter’s hair.
Collect images. Like that weathered “See Rock City” birdhouse you remember in your grandmother’s backyard. Or that old barn you used to play in.
Collect sounds. Like that CSX diesel horn you hear in the distance as you lie in your bed at night. Or the crickets and cicadas. Or the distant hum of the highway.
Collect smells. Like how your favorite coffee shop surrounds you as you walk through its doors.
Collect feelings. Like how it feels to flip your pillow over to the cool side on a hot summer night.
When you sit down to begin crafting your prose or verse, peruse those collected fragments and begin the process of connecting them to the mythic, the universal and the transcendent.
I primarily use Evernote to capture images throughout my day, using tags like “poem lead,” “poem image” or “poem theme”. When I go old school, though, I use index cards.
As I begin drafting early stage poems, I pull out those images and begin making connections. Typically these begin as similes: “Looking at the Great Wall from a watch tower at Badaling was like looking at an ancient Chinese scroll painting where the Wall keeps going beyond the edges of scroll.”
After this exercise, I begin crafting the literal layer of the poem using lyric or narrative verse. And, finally, I hone and tune the poem to allow for figurative leaps.
Most of my early image sketches turn out to be dead ends. But they allow for those serendipitous moments that bring transcendence and birth a poem.
Oh yeah! Remember that image of someone tying up a poem and beating a confession out of it?
It happens to be an image used in a poem by Billy Collins, one of America’s most popular living poets. He served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate. You can read that short and powerful little poem here: “Introduction to Poetry”.
And if you “don’t get” poetry or like poetry, it’s not your fault. Honestly, like music, there is a lot of crappy poetry out there. All it means is you haven’t found a poet you like yet.
In addition to Billy Collins, give the poem “Dorie Off To Atlanta” by Mark Halliday at try.
How do you collect and connect images in your craft?
Collect images throughout the day today. Write down things you see, hear, taste, feel and smell. Don’t judge it. Just write it down if it’s interesting to you.
If you would, please share two to three images in the comments. And let’s work together to find some interesting connections.
For example, if you write “a sole chocolate chip muffin behind the counter” as one of your images, I (or another reader) might write: “That muffin is like a kid at the high school homecoming dance.”
Let’s work through this and see what happens! You may get a promising lead for a poem or story.
Keith Jennings is a writer and poet in Atlanta, Georgia. His blog, Keitharsis, explores creativity, roots and what he refers to as the “portfolio life”. In addition to literature, his passions are his family, backpacking, reading and music.