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Hippie Squared: Jack and Jill Up Poetry Hill

When I started the Three Line Lunch project, my daily poetry post on this site, Ernessa asked me if I’d write here in “Hippie Squared” about how the average Jack or Jill could access their poet within.

I promised her I would, and then procrastinated on it, because it felt a little presumptuous. But since I do write something I dare to call poetry, every day in fact, and so far the Poetry Police haven’t made me stop, I guess maybe that’s some sort of minimum qualification to offer a few words on the matter.

Let me boil my own philosophy down to two main points, and then I’ll go back and expand on them a bit:

How to access the poet within:

1. Notice your life.
2. If you can talk you can write.

Now let’s take a step back for a moment.

What the hell is a poem, anyway? What are the rules?

Well, I’ll tell you—the rules are pretty loose these days. So I say: take full advantage of that fact. A poem no longer has to rhyme—but it can. It doesn’t require metaphors, similes, alliteration, all those traditional poetic effects—but it can use them if it wants. It doesn’t have to be in a particular rhythm or a certain number of lines—but it can be.

All poetry used to be spoken or sung. All those tricks helped people keep poems in their heads. One definition of poetry is: memorable speech. Over the centuries, as writing came along, poetry became literary. The mnemonic devices of form became less important, until now in literary journals free verse is most common—no rhyme, few rules. Of course, now we have a counter-movement of “slam poetry” and spoken word, where rhyme and those other memory/sound tricks are coming back into play.

But the truth is, there are no Poetry Police. So if you make up something that you call a poem and somebody tells you it’s not, unless they’re flashing a badge I wouldn’t worry about it.

Poetry’s in the eye of the beholder to some extent. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly where it should be.

Here’s what a poem is to me: I once heard about a Japanese custom that I like. My old friend Angus told me about it, and I’ve never heard about it anywhere else since, so I don’t even know if it’s true, but I like it, so I don’t really care. If someone’s driving along, say, in the countryside, and they see a lovely view, they’ll stop and erect a couple of sticks, flanking the view, and run some twine between them, framing it. It’s a way of saying to the next passing traveler, here’s something beautiful—stop for a moment and notice it. (Now right away I wonder: does everyone in Japan drive around with a pile of sticks and a roll of twine in their car? Or are there special twine stations along the roadways? How does this really work exactly?)

To me, that’s what a poem is: Something you noticed, framed in words. Grab a moment, seize an image, capture a thought, transplant a tender emotion. “Notice this,” you say—“because I noticed it.”

Everything that you notice in your life is a poem for the taking. It may remain forever unrealized, but it’s there, and it’s yours, if you care to make such use of it.

It doesn’t have to be “poetic.” It doesn’t have to be about love, or death, or God (but it can be). It only has to matter to you, and only a little bit. Only enough that you would remark on it—and write it down. Or write it in your head and commit it to memory. You can even write a little poem in your head while driving–just three lines, maybe. A poem doesn’t even have to exist on paper to have life in the world, as long as you hold it in your head and speak it to somebody sometime (you can recite it to the Poetry Police when they pull you over for writing in your head while driving–if it’s good enough, they’ll always let you go).

So how do you access the poet within? Notice your life. Honor it with your attention. What you see, what you feel, what happens to you, if it sticks with you for even five minutes, is the stuff of poetry. And the more you look for that stuff, the more you will find it. Because there’s something in every moment you live that’s worth a poem if you only pay close enough attention. And no matter how seemingly prosaic it is, if you write it down with enough faithfulness to the details, to how it made you feel, to what it made you think about, to simply what it was, through a kind of transformative magic it can become poetry.

If you can talk, you can write. If you can tell a story or a joke, you can write a poem. Put a few simple words together like spindly little sticks with twine strung between them, and you’re almost there. It may not quite be a poem, but if you pay attention, if you tell it like you mean it, if you tell it like you would at a party surrounded by a circle of listeners, or like you would by candlelight over dinner with your lover—with all those great details that make them care—then you’re probably there.

Just write it like you’d tell it. Then, if you feel like it, take a step back, and think about how it sounds. If you want to make it a little more musical, fine. Sometimes that’s good to do, sometimes maybe not—it can distort your meaning or enhance it. Add in some sensory detail, if you think it will help. Have a little fun with it. Play around a bit. No need to get all deadly serious about it.

Let’s use my three-liner from yesterday as an example:

A Good Sunday Morning

I love to arise in the still partly dark. Faithful old Red slips off bed, hobbles to kitchen.
I grind beans, brew black, French-pressed; cut strawberries over oats, which Red
Finishes. Reclined in leather, Red curled nearby, I finish Ender’s Game.

What’s so poetic about that? I got up early, made myself some coffee, and finished my book. Why do you care? If you do, it’s because I do. Enough to capture the details that make it vivid. You smell the ground coffee beans—at least that’s my aim—and you taste the coffee. You feel that early morning feeling of being the first one up, before the sun has even fully arisen. You may know what it means to have a loyal dog accompany you from room to room. You know the comfort of reading a good book. You know all those things, but I’ve put them together and given them to you, in a magic little envelope that for lack of a better term we might as well call a poem.

There are a few poetic tricks in there, but not many. “Dark” echoes “partly.” “Red” rhymes with “bed.” “Beans” alliterates with “brew black.” “French-pressed” has a cool sound to it. Somehow that stuff can help, but let’s not get all worked up about it. It’s not strictly required.

So a poem’s a magic little baton of communication passed from mind to mind. It can also be a piece of transformative magic—but it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s look at a couple of simple models. How about that famous William Carlos Williams poem about the plums—right here—go ahead, read it, I can wait.

There are no metaphors there, no rhymes, no poetic figures of speech. But man does he make you taste and feel and want those plums.

And then there’s this one by Richard Brautigan. One of my favorites:

The Winos on Protrero Hill

Alas, they get
their bottles
from a small
neighborhood store.
The old Russian
sells them port
and passes no moral
judgment. They go
and sit under
the green bushes
that grow along
the wooden stairs.
They could almost
be exotic flowers,
they drink so

Like Williams’s poem, Brautigan’s uses simple language, without rhyme, but it does something quite magical: it turns winos into flowers. It makes the sad lovely. But it’s not about something grandly “poetic.” It’s about the daily. Just what Brautigan saw walking through his neighborhood. What moved him enough to reflect on it enough to write it down.

If you care to, you can do this too, or something like it all your own. I know you can.