Book Club: My Musings on Poetry

poetry word in mixed vintage metal type printing blocks over grunge wood

“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” ― Leonard Cohen

What does poetry mean to you?

When I was a little girl and read the books of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, I thought all poetry had to rhyme. My idea of poetry was quite simplistic.

As I got older, my ideas of poetry advanced. I learned poetry didn’t have to rhyme. In fact, it often didn’t. I also learned of various styles of poetry—sonnets, haiku, limericks—to name a few. So for a while I thought of poetry was a writing format with a lot of rules and regulations and something a wee bit pretentious.

However, a few years ago I covered a slam poetry event for high school students sponsored by Still Waters Collective, an organization that mentors talented young writers and speakers. This event blew me away, and reminded me that poetry could be whatever you wanted it to be and wasn’t pretentious at all.

“To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” – Robert Frost

Who are your favorite poets and why? Name some of you favorite poems and why?

Well, I mentioned Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, but I also got to give a shout out to three ladies whose appreciate like Maya Angelou, whose classic “Phenomenal Woman” never fails to lift my spirits.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Huffington Post has nine other inspirational poems written by Ms. Angelou I also love.
Then there is Sylvia Plath, Mad Girl’s Love song really speaks to me when it comes to love and desire.

Mad Girl’s Love Song

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

I often wonder what else Ms. Plath could have written if she hadn’t met such a tragic demise.

And then there is my love for Dorothy Parker, the patron saint of all witty women too smart for their own good.

“A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” ― W.H. Auden

Have you ever written poetry? Why or why not? (You can share your original poetry if you want to)

Back in the 1990s, as I inched my way back into the world of writing, I participated in a local poetry writers group. Though I wasn’t in it for a very long time, it did get the writing juices flowing. I didn’t think of myself as a poet, especially compared to my fellow writers, and I turn my talents to non-fiction writer working as a copywriter, research writer, freelance journalist, publicist and editor professionally, personally and academically.

Interestingly enough, I found some of the poems I wrote while in this group and was pleasantly surprised that a good deal of it wasn’t as cringe worthy as I thought. Sure, some of it was pretty damn good.

And last month I attended a poetry workshop at my friends Nora and Elaine’s Buddhist temple in Chicago. I was at first hesitant to participate because of my lack of experience writing poetry. I thought maybe I could just sit back and observe. No dice. I actually had to write something, which I did and I had so much fun and learned so much, not just from the teacher but from my fellow students, too. Everyone’s poem weaved such eloquent and creative tapestries of words. I felt humbled to be around such rich talent.

Now I don’t envision myself a poet but this class (and the discovery of some of my old poetry), once again challenged me as a writer and inspired me in ways that go beyond the written word.

“There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.” ― Gustave Flaubert

Anything else you would like to add?

It’s funny; ever since I asked people to give me their thoughts on and experiences with poetry, I am starting to see poetry beyond actual poems. I see poetry in music, words I read in various books, dialogue in both movies and TV shows, various quotes, and just from everyday conversation. I see poetry in visual art and innovative crafts. I see poetry through fashion and style. I also see poetry in my love of food when I read my cookbooks or discover a new recipe or make a meal. I’m finding poetry in the natural world around me, whether it’s the blooms of lilac bushes, Lake Michigan, the twittering of birds when I wake up in the morning, or a glorious sunset as I end my day. I see poetry in the physical world of dance, yoga, and athletics. I find poetry in prayer, meditation and just simple silent contemplation. I guess I just find poetry in living life!

“I think that were beginning to remember that the first poets didn’t come out of a classroom, that poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, ‘Ahhh.'” That was the first poem. – Lucille Clifton

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Book Review: A Boy Named Shel by Lisa Rogak

As a child I adored Shel Silverstein’s books, The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, among others having a special place in my heart. In fact, I think I treasure them now more than I did when I was a little girl. I always had an inkling Silverstein did more than write children’s books and my inkling proved true when I read Lisa Rogak’s biography A Boy Named Shel.

To call Silverstein a Renaissance man is putting it mildly. Not only was he a prolific children’s author, he was also a cartoonist, singer/songwriter, screenwriter and playwright. He also led a rather interesting personal life.

Born to a Jewish family and raised in Chicago, Silverstein attended Chicago School of the Fine Arts but was soon drafted into the Army. While in the Army Silverstein began to draw cartoons and later, once he returned to Chicago, he drew and published cartoons for several magazines.

But it is after he began to get his cartoons in Playboy when Silverstein’s multi-layered career really began to shine and lead to greater success. He also began to write songs, mostly of a folk variety and formed his own folk group. But one of his most famous songs is the country/novelty song “A Boy Named Sue,” which became a huge hit for the late Johnny Cash. Silverstein’s songs were also sung by Judy Collins, Dr. Hook, Marianne Faithfull and Emmylou Harris. Silverstein co-wrote many songs with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, both remained lifelong friends with Silverstein.

Silverstein also wrote a great deal of scripts for the stage, film and television at times co-writing scripts with others, including David Mamet. One of the most popular television programs Silverstein wrote for is the Generation X classic “Free to Be…You and Me.”

Professional success led to personal success, especially when it came to the ladies. To put it bluntly, Silverstein was a playa, and many of his experiences as a playa were due not only to his success, but to him hanging out a great deal at the Playboy Mansion. Despite being a bit of a man ho, many of his carnal conquests remember him fondly for when he was with a woman he really made her feel special and he was often honest with them, claiming he was not the type to settle down.

Still, Silverstein did have children, a daughter and a son, and though he loved them he wasn’t exactly the ideal father. And as I read A Boy Named Shel, I learned as much as Silverstein was revered by the children who read his books, his relationship with children (both is own and those of his friends) could be described as complicated.

In fact, complicated pretty much sums up Silverstein as a human being and a creative individual. At times he was a total bon vivant, the life of the party. At times, he was very reticent and private. He was meticulous when it came to his writing and drawing, but often dressed like a homeless person. When it came to his children he experienced both tragedy and triumph. He could be both kind and cruel.

And other tidbits I learned about Silverstein included eschewing driving after being in a bad car accident. He was nominated for an Oscar. He wrote travelogues and was quite the globetrotter. And he lived all over the country.

All of this living in one life should have made A Boy Named Shel a scintillating read; but as I kept reading this book, especially as I neared the end, I found myself bored. Rogak writing style is dull and lacks a certain punch that keeps you wanting to learn more and more. She is way too repetitive and dry, which I soon found rather insulting to Silverstein’s legendary legacy and his output as a truly original artist that entertained audiences for decades and continues to entertain nearly twenty years after Silverstein’s death. Perhaps, this book would have served better as an article. In the end I just mourned that Silverstein never wrote his own memoir.  Now that would have been a book.

Still, I am grateful I learned more about Shel Silverstein. I will never stop loving those children’s books that delighted me as a bookish little girl, and am now inspired by Silverstein’s creative output to sharpen myself as a Renaissance woman. Perhaps, if you read A Boy Named Shel and connect with his work
, you, too will feel inspired.