It happens every semester in my Introduction to Literature class at Santa Monica College. The students' faces look like they just witnessed Icarus plop at their feet, bones cracking, his wing's hot wax spewing across their arms. I'd just announced we'll now spend five weeks in poetry.
For their first assignment, besides giving them reading, I ask them what they think of poetry. Most of them don't like it. They don't get it. When I tell them that in a few weeks they'll have to write a poem using poetic devices, they are at the top of Colossus, staring down at the steepest roller coaster track of their lives.
I'm happy to say that by the end of the five weeks, they all seem to be energized. Some of them even feel poetry is their favorite genre. That's because they've learned they don't have to like every poem on earth and Poetry doesn't have to have a capital P. Sometimes a poem is about a small good moment. Yes, poetry is often layered with multiple meaning, but once you're looking, you will see. They see.
I love teaching poetry because it reminds me that in my own writing, being concise, choosing words well, is everything.
One of the poets I sometimes use is Gerald Locklin, who I met when I was teaching in USC's Master of Professional Writing program. He's a tall, thin man whose gray hair and beard are thick, Papa Hemingway on a diet. We sometimes sat silently together in the faculty lounge busily preparing for our classes, his in poetry, mine in short fiction. The first day we chatted with each other, he handed me two books of his poems and said, "Here. Keep them. Maybe you'll like a few things."
The books sat on my bedside table a while, but once I lifted his collection Wedlock Sunday and Other Poems, I found myself laughing and nodding. His poems are often small moments recorded in what seems a quick jotting, and then you realize that their casualness seduces you into seeing truths. Since then, I've come across his work in collections, such as Garrison Keillor's Good Poems.
Gerry has earned a firm place in American poetry with over three thousand poems, stories, articles, reviews and interviews published in periodicals. He is the author of over 125 books and chapbooks of poetry, criticism, and fiction. He's also been a professor for over forty years.
In an interview, when asked for advice for young poets, he said, "I would advise poets in any age to study what they don't necessarily feel like studying, not just what seems easy or reinforces the stage one is already at. In other words, study the ancient poets, study the history of poetry in the English language. Study the history of metrics, study art, music, and the related arts, study languages, travel widely (or just stay home like Thoreau or Dickinson and study intensely your near surroundings). Become conversant with many discourses, those of the library and those of the street. Use your ears. Listen. Don't think you're already there, that you have nothing to learn. Forget about whether or not you are a genius--it may be a valid concept but it's either dangerous or useless."
For a sample of his work, I offer this one, which I found online:
The Best Year of Her Life
When my two-year-old daughter
sees someone come through the door
whom she loves, and hasn't seen for a while,
and has been anticipating
she literally shrieks with joy.
I have to go into the other room
so that no one will notice the tears in my eyes.
Later, after my daughter has gone to bed,
I say to my wife,
"She will never be this happy again,"
and my wife gets angry and snaps,
"Don't you dare communicate your negativism to her!"
And, of course, I won't, if I can possibly help it,
and, of course, I fully expect her
to have much joy in her life,
and, of course, I hope to be able
to contribute to that joy-
I hope, in other words, that she'll always
be happy to see me come through the door-
but why kid ourselves-she, like every child,
has a life of great suffering ahead of her,
and while joy will not go out of her life,
she will one of these days cease to actually,
literally, jump and shriek for joy.
© 1988 Gerald Locklin
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