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Saturday Newsletter: April 14, 2018
I clutched my pen and began to write
Illustrator Joanne Cai, 13, for ‘Drifting’ by Emma Peterson, 11, Published March/April 2016
A note from Emma Wood
What is a poem? What can a poem do? What makes a poem good? These are three questions I was considering this week with a group of students at UC Santa Cruz who are working with me to put together our July/August issue. As we talked about poems and read poems, we realized that many of us had grown up hating poems—that there had, once upon a time, been a teacher who had sat us down before an Emily Dickinson poem and said: What does this mean? One student said that “poetry feels like a riddle, and I hate being tricked.”
I am a poet now but growing up I wasn’t, and for a long time, I felt this way, too. I preferred poems that had a clear meaning or message. Anything else made me feel stupid. I didn’t know what it meant. But the more I read both in and about poetry, the more I began to love, and even prefer, poems that had no clear meaning or message, poems that evaded my understanding but that made me think or wonder in new ways, about new things. Poems that suggested instead of told, that traced a line of thought without a final drawing in mind.
“poetry feels like a riddle, and I hate being tricked”
When we thought about poems in class this week, we all wrote our own definitions. Some people thought about the form or the shape of a poem. A poem has lines, they said. But this was misleading because a poem can also be written like a story, in sentences and paragraphs. Some mentioned rhyme and rhythm. In my definition, I wrote that a poem is the saying of the unsayable. Maybe. It’s hard to write a definition of poetry. One of my favorite definitions was written by a third grader: “A poem is an egg with horses in it.” I love that definition because it captures the mystery—and joy!—of poetry.
A poem should be a pleasure, a surprise, a gift. Not a puzzle, a riddle, a trick. Think about how you experience a painting or photograph: do you look at it then immediately think—but what does it mean? Of course not! You look at it and you smile, or maybe you turn away—it’s not interesting to you—or maybe you step a little closer to look at a small detail. You admire it, enjoy it, observe it! This is how you should also aim to read poems. To approach them as you would a painting, with an open mind and an open heart, not primarily with your intellect and certainly not with fear or anxiety. If you want to look more closely at the poem, as you would at a painting, if you want to analyze or interpret it—that’s wonderful! But you don’t have to. The brain is a mysterious organ, even to scientists, and I believe we can understand a poem on a visceral, emotional, even unconscious level. That we can understand a poem, in a way, without intellectually “understanding” it.
“a poem is an egg with horses in it”
This month, National Poetry Month, I encourage you all to read as much poetry as you can. You can start on the Stone Soup website, where we have partnered with the Academy of American Poets to create a small anthology of “poems for kids.”
Subscribers can also explore the poems in our archives, including the poetry portfolio in our April 2018 issue.I also encourage you to write your own poems! This weekend, try writing a poem like Marley Powell’s “Sounds,” which is included in full below. In “Sounds,” Marley wrote a series of sentences connected only by a single idea—and that single idea is sound. When you’ve written your poem, please submit it to Stone Soup with a note telling me about your experience with this writing experiment!
My iguana cage is silent.
Just two weeks ago it was alive with sounds.
I wish we’d just throw it out.
The other night I heard a helicopter fly over my head.
I hear a lot of helicopters at night when I’m trying to sleep
but this one was different.
I was at UCLA and it was late at night and it flew
over my head and I ran away from it but then it landed
on the top of the UCLA emergency room parking lot
and I was glad the awful noise just stopped.
The answering machine picks up and says I would like
to know if you can join Kaleidoscope on Sunday night.
I don’t recognize the voice but I know it has something
to do with school.
I hear my stomach gurgling.
It sounds like a washing machine.
The siren of a police car wakes my cat up.
The sound of a blue jay squawking is stopped by
a loud shriek.
I wonder if my cat got the bird.
A dog is howling like a werewolf next door.
The thought of that makes me shiver.
I hit my pen against the table like a drumstick.
I’m drumming to “Love Me Do.”
It’s suddenly so quiet.
The French people to the left of us are not home.
The Japanese people to the right are asleep.
I don’t like it.
The only sound I hear is the tap tap tapping of my foot
on the floor and the rap rap rapping of my pen
on the table . . .
Paul McCartney’s voice sings in my head.
I can’t believe he can sing so deep and so high at the
Stone Soup’s Advisors: Abby Austin, Mike Axelrod, Annabelle Baird, Jem Burch, Evelyn Chen, Juliet Fraser, Zoe Hall, Montanna Harling, Alicia and Joe Havilland, Lara Katz, Rebecca Kilroy, Christine Leishman, Julie Minnis, Jessica Opolko, Tara Prakash, Denise Prata, Logan Roberts, Emily Tarco, Rebecca Ramos Velasquez, and Susan Wilky.