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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Retro Review: The Poetry of Dorothy Parker

Dorothy-Parker_1504166c 

“I was just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute.”—Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker was probably one of the sharpest, wittiest women of the 20th century. She wrote everything from screenplays to short stories to literary criticism for Enough Ropepublications like Vanity Fair, Vogue, Life, and the New Yorker.  But as April draws to a close, I want to concentrate on Dorothy Parker’s poetry.

Parker sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914. Even after she honed her writing talents on other projects, she never stopped writing poems. She published several tomes of her poetry, and I was fortunate to find a couple books featuring her poems at my local library, Enough Rope and The Collected Poetry of Dorothy Parker. Even though most of these poems were written nearly a century ago, they still hold up today and are relatable to modern audiences. Collected poetry DP

Like so many ladies, Parker was often bewildered when it came to romance and relationships. And she summed up this bewilderment in this brief and perfectly stated poem:

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying—
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

Only a few short lines, but says so much. Unfortunate Coincidence is both timeless and timely. In fact, while reading Parker’s poetry I couldn’t help think how well she would have done on social media, using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to post her poems to a global audience.

Among her other love-based poetry, I also love the following pieces of perfectly posed pithy poems:

General Review of the Sex Situation

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman’s moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?

Pictures in the Smoke
Oh, gallant was the first love, and glittering and fine;
The second love was water, in a clear white cup;
The love was his, and the fourth was mine;
And after that, I always get them mixed up.

Men

They hail you as their morning star
Because you are the way you are.
If you return the sentiment,
They’ll try to make your different;
And once they have you, safe and sound,
They’ll want to change you all around.
Your moods and woods they put a cure on;
They’d make of you another person.
They cannot let you go your gait;
They influence and educate.
They’d alter all that they admired.
They make me sick, they make me tired.

And the following poem reminds me of past suitors who always treated my writing as a “cute little hobby.” Somehow my feelings are more artfully stated in Parker’s poem Fighting Words than a profane response like, “Fuck you.”

Fighting Words
Say my love is easy had
Say I’m bitten raw with pride,
Say I’m too often sad—
Still behold me at your side.

Say I’m neither brave nor young,
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue,—
Still you have my heart to wear.

But say my verses do not scan,
And I get me another man!

And then there are a lady’s platonic relationships, and she had a poem aimed at “frenemies” long before Carrie Bradshaw and Co. came up with the concept.

The Leal

The friends I made have slipped and strayed,
And who’s the one that cares?
A trifling lot and best forgot—
And that’s my tale and, and theirs.

Then if my friendships break and bend,
There’s little need to cry T
he while I know that every foe
Is faithful till I die.

And what about America’s preoccupation with self-reflection and self-help? Why, yes. Parker wrote a poem those things, too.

Inventory
Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and foe.

Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

But eventually the concepts of love, friendship, the power of written verses, and a maddening fixation with oneself grows tiresome. What else is there? Why, fashion, of course! And Parker knew the charms fabulous frock.

The Satin Dress

Needle, needle, dip and dart,
Thrusting up and down,
Where’s the man could ease a heart
Like a satin gown?

See the stitches curve and crawl
Round the cunning seams—
Patterns thin and sweet and small
As a lady’s dreams.

Wantons go in bright brocade;
Brides in organdie;
Gingham’s for the plighted maid;
Satin’s for the free!

Wool’s to line a miser’s chest;
Crepe’s to calm the old;
Velvet hides an empty breast
Satin’s for the bold!

Lawn is for a bishop’s yoke;
Linen’s for a nun;
Satin is for wiser folk—
Would the dress were done!

Satin glows in candlelight—
Satin’s for the proud!
They will say who watch at night,
“What a fine shroud!”

Sadly, Parker’s finely-honed wit and vast writing talent thinly veiled her struggles with depression, drinking, divorce, not to mention career woes and a lack of self-esteem, which made her very dismissive of both her talents and accomplishments. Yet, somehow she was able to find a humor in the gallows, and commented suicidal thoughts in one of her most notable poems, Résumé.

Résumé
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Dorothy Parker died nearly forgotten in 1967, but became legendary and an icon to anybody who appreciates salty good humor with mad writing skills. She is a true icon and inspiration to ladies of letters, including this one. Of Parker’s work The Nation described it as “caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity”. Dorothy Parker, you were so much more than a “little Jewish girl trying to be cute.” You are a heroine to every girl and women who bravely picked up pen and paper and put thoughts into words.