When words surprise

Hi everyone,

Do you ever surprise yourself by how quickly and easily you dashed off that last poem? Sometimes I do. And it worries me. Taken on average, poems don’t roll off our assembly lines without blemish. We may focus on meter at the expense of metaphor, narrative that still begs for similes and telling idioms, convenience over struggling for assonance and internal rhymes.

Best thing to do when those “easy” ones come along is put them aside for a while and return with a critical review. At this stage I’m searching for a fresh way to say it, a surprise for the reader, a more unique voice. I want my muse to earn a 20% tip.

I just took a few books down from the shelf to see if I could find examples of what I mean. It didn’t take long. For example, here’s Douglas Florian, (INSECTLOPEDIA, Voyager Books, 1998) in his poem, “The Caterpillar.” About the caterpillar he writes:

“She eats eight leaves at least/To fill her,/Which leaves her like a/Fatterpillar.”

Douglas is a master at juxtaposing unexpected sounds, fabricating words that make perfect sense, and just plain having fun playing with words, as in the double use of “leaves.”

In Valerie Worth’s delightful book, ALL THE SMALL POEMS AND 14 MORE (A Sunburst Book, 1994), she charms the reader in the poem, “sun,” by describing the burning sun in her opening stanza but then presenting it in a different light:

But it will still/Lie down/In warm yellow squares/On the floor
Like a flat/Quilt, where/The cat can curl/And purr.

Isn’t that a marvelous image? Here’s another Worth-y example. In “tractor,” she compares an old tractor poised in the shed doorway to a grasshopper. Tricky? Sure, but she pulls it off with flair.

But with high/Hind wheels/Held so still
We know/It is only waiting,/Ready to leap –
Like a heavy/Brown/Grasshopper.

Next I opened N. M. Bodecker’s, SNOWMAN SNIFFLES AND OTHER VERSE (Atheneum, 1983) and immediately fell in love again with his title poem in which he describes how a melting snowman’s drippy nose leaves snowdrops as a reminder that he existed.

until you wake/and find one day/the cold, old man/has run away,
and winter’s winds/that blow and pass/left drifts of snowdrops/in the grass,
reminding us:/where such things grow/a snowman sniffed/not long ago.

In “possum,” we learn:

The possum’s tail/is called/prehensile,
and is/her usefullest/utensil.

Clever rhyming, not to mention arranging syllables to remain true to the meter while also maintaining perfect, puckish sense.

Constance Levy is another favorite poet of mine. In A CRACK IN THE CLOUDS (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1998) she concludes a trick of the wily seagull (“Seagull Tricks”) like this:

You will soon be/“un-sandwiched”/as I was today.

“Spring Watch” opens with this marvelous simile.

As tight as misers/grip their gold,/that’s the way/these leaf buds hold.

Barbara Juster Esbensen describes “First Day of School” in her book, COLD STARS AND FIREFLIES (HarperCollins, 1982). Note: I’m deleting parts of the poem to focus on her great descriptions and personifications.

No more barefoot/days . . .
/Inside the school-shoes/my toes are stiff/and afraid of the dark.

The sidewalk is bright/With sun . . .
/We can’t feel its rough/skin/through our soles now
/and it really doesn’t know us/anymore.

As is frequently the case I quote from poetry because poems are short and examples of excellence are easy to spot. But poetry doesn’t hold the franchise on good writing. Nor does good writing belong to people who have attained some sort of legal age that entitles them to a permit to use imaginative language. Ruth Culham shared this poem written by a second grade student.

Ruleless Playground

Poetry
is a ruleless playground
no adults saying
do this
do that!
poetry
is a ruleless playground
you can do…

anything you want.

A journal provides a place to collect examples of our language beautifully expressed. Kids in school are often told to “steal’ words and expressions they like. It’s good advice for us too. If you don’t already have the habit, I recommend it.

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