April is national poetry month and since poetry has always been a great help and boon to me emotionally, I celebrate it.
When I was twelve or thirteen or so, I discovered Zibby Oneal’s novel A Formal Feeling, a title borrowed from the first line in an Emily Dickinson poem that goes by the same name and casts light on the story’s themes. (It’s a wonderful book, by the way. I highly recommend it to YA readers, young and old . . . I mean, er, older. :D)
After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
– Emily Dickinson
My dad had a love for Irish poetry and songs and old English verse, plus I was a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s verses for children, but Emily’s “A Formal Feeling” was the first poem (that I remember anyway) to strike a chord of recognition deep within me. By then I was already acquainted with sorrow—and for me, her words captured a truth that was difficult to put into words. She conveyed what sadness felt like and expressed a process I was learning.
I don’t know how many times I reread the poem as a teenager (or have done so as an adult), but it continues to be one my favourites.
Another piece that meant more to me than I can probably explain without a lot of melodrama is “First Ice” by Andrei Voznesensky.
A girl freezes in a telephone booth.
In her draughty overcoat she hides
A face all smeared
In tears and lipstick.
She breathes on her thin palms. Her fingers are icy. She wears earrings.
She’ll have to go home alone, alone
Along the icy street.
First ice. It is the first time.
The first ice of telephone phrases.
Frozen tears glitter on her cheeks-
The first ice of human hurt.
I suspect you, having read it, know the phase of life I’d entered—first love, first heartbreak, yes . . . but I always felt the poem spoke to something bigger than one isolated break up. It was the disappointment that resonated with me: the girl, for the first time, recognizing that people weren’t always what they promised—and/or weren’t as honest or straight forward as she was.
I could share many, many more poems that influenced me or comforted me (or just made me laugh; not every poem I love is sad!), but I’ll spare you for now.
I suspect you have your own poems or songs (and what are lyrics if not poetry?) that, no matter how long ago you came across them, still have profound meaning to you. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve even penned a stanza or two (or more), whether you consider yourself a writer or poet or not. Most of us have. There’s something in the human spirit that yearns to give voice to the emotions that move us and the passions that make us us.
It’s definitely true for me. Despite all my affection for essays and letters and my love of fiction, when overcome by happiness—or weeping, wordless sadness or white-hot coiled rage—I turn to poetry to help me vent, express, or attempt to make muddled sense of my mad joy and intense pangs and desires. Perhaps you do, too? If yes, I’d love to hear about it. (Or better yet, share a poem you love—your own or someone else’s—here. Please!)
Now circling back to it being national poetry month—and my desire to celebrate it.
If you’ve written poetry before but stopped for some reason, or if you never have but would like to—or if you’re a prolific pro looking for ways to invigorate and refresh your muse, honour those stirrings. Join me and Joan Conway this Saturday (April 25th) for an afternoon of poetry exercises and inspiration.