Making a Gesture Toward Poetry
I must admit I’m feeling a hint of impostor syndrome here, friends. Should I preface this by saying I am not a parent? That I’m not (regular) teacher? And since I’m not TulsaKids’ ideal reader, I’m scratching my head as to how I can be an ideal author of ideas for you – the real influencers and change-agents of Tulsa’s kids.
Ok, there’s my disclaimer. From here on out (for the rest of the month) we’ll pretend I do have something to offer you – which has nothing to do with me per se, but with a 3,000 year old artistic medium called poetry.
Allow me a moment to indulge you with a story of how poetry changed my life, and let me make a case for why using poetry can enrich your life, your relationships with your kiddos or grandkiddos, or the legacy you’re leaving with students.
How I fell for poetry.
I was falling out of love. Or, to be clearer, my love was slipping through my grasp. I was in high school – my hormones were a river running rapid running. My boyfriend was moving alllll the way from Tulsa to Norman to go to college, and my life, as I knew it, was over. He wanted space, which left me empty. My best girlfriend tried to console my plight with notes, songs, and poetry. I used the metaphors, imagery, personification, and magic (for lack of a better term) of poets. These songwriters and bards filled me. Their stanzas gave me a new vocabulary to describe my loss. Using this language was kind of a game of fake it till you make it — until, eventually, I wasn’t faking it anymore. I made it past the fog of heartbreak and arrived on the other, sunshiny, side.
Skip forward several years – many other heartbreaks in high school and college/many more poetry anthologies consumed – and now I’m in my master’s program at Oklahoma State, perusing an MFA in creative writing. Now, I had already developed a habit of reading, but writing poetry (the good, honest, and thought-provoking kind) was still a challenge. In order to prepare for a life of (what academics call) “publish or perish,” I made it a habit to write a poem early in the morning (before my conscious brain could catch up to my subconscious and elliptical mindset. Then I would teach class, attend class, or work in the afternoon, and come home late to revise my work.
More days than not, a funny thing happened. When I returned to the poem I had written in the morning, I would hold the page to the light and say, “Who wrote this!?” Surely it wasn’t me who had these judgements; cliché and stereotypical ideas; trite images. But it was true. I was, for the first time ever, learning who I truly was. I realized that poetry could deliver an inner life to a reader – which was a terrifying and electrifying experience.
Poetry as mirror.
People do have inner lives, but they are sometimes poorly expressed and often rarely known. Sometimes we have no language by which to bring it out into the open. Two people deeply in love can look at each other and not have much to say except “I love you.” It gets kind of boring after awhile—after the first ten or twenty years … When we read poems from the past we realize that human beings have always been the way we are. We have technological advancements undreamt of a couple thousand years ago, but the way people felt then is pretty much the way people feel now. We can read those poems with pleasure because we recognize ourselves in them.
Skip forward several more years and here I sit in my office of the MUSED. organization – Tulsa’s poetry and collaborative arts nonprofit founded by my partner and I in 2015. The mission of our organization is to “make people better readers – not only of poetry, but also of our thoughts, our actions, and our social responsibilities.”
Sidebar quickly. In the mean time I sold life insurance and anunities — and found a delightful correlation between poetry & sales — wave at me in the comments below if you’re interested in talking about how our “sales of poetry” (or any of our corporate development workshops) can improve your companies bottom line. I digress.
If we put a mirror up to our inner selves, we will have a very interesting conversation about how we can all be change-agents in this world. Being the most enlightened and evolved versions of ourselves prepares us teach a new generation of people who can use their thoughts and voices as tools, instead of tooling weapons or selfies. (More on this later this month.)
We can’t talk all day about cake without eating cake, right? So, I shouldn’t talk the talk without reading-a-rap, right? Here’s a poem by George Oppen. ( A prominent American poet, one of the chief exponents of Objectivism, a school of poetry that emphasized simplicity and clarity over formal structure and rhyme.)
I love poems about poetry; and I love the gesture this poem is making toward the craft –
By George Oppen
The question is: how does one hold an apple
Who likes apples
And how does one handle
Filth? The question is
How does one hold something
In the mind which he intends
To grasp and how does the salesman
Hold a bauble he intends
To sell? The question is
When will there not be a hundred
Poets who mistake that gesture
For a style.
Oppen is pretty snarky, tongue-and-cheek, and brilliantly simple. He takes us all the way back to our origin story in the first line when he references an apple – as if poetry as been here all along, and has been offering a hand to us. Poems help us keep things (the filth caused by the things we hold). Poems help us get rid of things (what the salesman – because we are all salespeople – sells.) Somewhere in the middle is the role of poetry – trying to make sense of the world and find a place for ourselves, our movements, our gestures, our style, our meaning.
Next week we will investigate the role poetry can play in the life of infants and toddlers – who are (arguably) the best poets. In the meantime, try to pay closer attention to the language you use. Each day we are faced with sound bites and catchphrases that deaden and trivialize our language. Does it seem the widening gulf of our differences are eroding civil discourse? What does the future of communication look like? Are we still able to hear each other? (Jack Kerouac famously says, “Don’t use the phone. People are never able to answer it. Use poetry.”)
Thanks for reading. Now, go use poetry.
P.S.–Images from this blog were taken by Samuel Smith during MUSED. POP events —
Hosted in Tulsa’s best bars, restaurants, galleries, and event spaces, POP is a monthly “poetry-on-poetry” reading and writing series. Emily Dickinson says, “I know it’s poetry when I feel the top of my head open up.” We hope this series opens the minds and muses the inspiration of our community. We perform famous poems from the past and invite our audience to write and perform poems of their own. We eat cake, we drink, we get to know complete strangers in a wonderfully intimate way.
Victoria McArtor holds an MFA from Oklahoma State University, is a former adjunct professor for the University of Tulsa, and is co-founder of a poetry and collaborative arts nonprofit, MUSED. Her work can be found in over a dozen literary journals and magazines including World