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How Poems Happen

And why, like dustbunnies, they're easy to sweep away.

By Barbara Kingsolver
Anyone who has written a apoem knows that it comes like a blessing out of the deep blue. Barbara Kingslover describes how it happens to her. I have never yet been able to say out loud that I am a poet.
It took me some 30 years and several published novels to begin calling myself a novelist, but finally now I can do that, I own up to it, and will say so in capital letters on any document requiring me to identify myself with an honest living. "Novelist",I'll write gleefully, chortling to think that the business of making up stories can be called an honest living, but there you are. It's how I keep shoes on my kids and a roof above us. I sit down at my desk every day and make novels happen: I design them, construct them, revise them, I tinker and bang away with the confidence of an experienced mechanic, knowing that patience and effort will get this troubled engine overhauled and this baby will hum.

Poetry is a different beast. I rarely think of poetry as something I make happen - it is more accurate to say that it happens to me. Like a summer storm, a house afire, or the coincidence of both on the same day. Like a car wreck, only with more illuminating results. I've overheard poems, virtually complete, in elevators and restaurants where I was minding my own business. When a poem does arrive, I gasp as if an apple had fallen into my hand, and give thanks for the luck involved. Poems are everywhere, but easy to miss. I know I might very well stand under that tree all day, whistling, looking off to the side, waiting for a red delicious poem to fall so I could own it forever. But like as not, it wouldn't. Instead it will fall right while I'm in the middle of changing the baby, or breaking up a rodeo event involving my children and the dog, or wiping my teary eyes while I'm chopping onions and listening to the news; then that apple will land with a thud and roll under the bed with the dust bunnies and lie there forgotten and lost for all time.

Poems fall not from a tree, really, but from the richly pollinated boughs of an ordinary life, buzzing, as lives are, with clamor and glory.

There are dusty, lost poems all over my house, I assure you. In yours too, I'd be willing to bet.Years ago I got some inkling of this when I attended a reading by one of my favorite poets Lucille Clifton. A student asked her about the brevity of her poems (thinking, I suspect, that the answer would involve terms like literary retrenchment and parsimony ). Ms. Clifton replied simply that she had six children, and could only hold about 20 lines in memory until the end of the day. I felt such relief, that this great poet was bound by ordinary life, like me.

I've learned since then that most great poets are more like me, and more like you, than not. They may be more confident about tinkering with the engine, but they'll always allow that there's magic involved, and that the main thing is to pay attention. I have several friends who are poets of great renown, to whom I've confessed that creating a poem is a process I can't really understand or control. Every one of them, on hearing this, looked off to the side and whispered, "Me either!"

We're reluctant to claim ownership of the mystery. In addition, we live in a culture that doesn't put much stock in mystery. Elsewhere in the world, say in Poland or Nicaragua, people elect their poets to public office, or at the very least pay them a stipend to produce poetry, regularly and well, for the public good. (Poles and Nicaraguans evidently have their own ideas about the nature of an honest living.) Here, a poet may be prolific and magnificently skilled, but even so it's not the poetry that's going to keep shoes on the kids and a roof overhead. I don't know of a single American poet who makes a living solely by writing poetry. Identifying your livelihood as "Poet" on an official form is the kind of thing that will make your bank's mortgage officer laugh very hard all the way into the manager's office, and back. So we're a timid lot, of necessity. At the most, we might confess, "I write poetry sometimes."

And so we do. Whether anyone pays us or respects us or calls us a poet or not, most of us feel
a tickle behind our left ear when we catch ourselves saying, "You know, it was a little big, and really pretty ugly." We stop in our tracks when a child pointing to the sunset cries that the day is bleeding and is going to die. Poetry approaches, pauses, then skirts around us like a cat. I sense its presence in my house when I am chopping onions and crying but not really crying while I listen to the lilting radio newsman declare, "Up next: the city's oldest homeless shelter shut down by neighborhood protest, and thousands offer to adopt baby Jasmine abandoned in Disneyland!"

There is some secret grief here I need to declare, and my fingers itch for a pencil. But then the advertisement blares that I should expect the unexpected, while my elder child announces that a shelter can't be homeless, but that onions make her eyes run away with her nose, and my youngest marches in a circle shouting "Apple-dapple! Come-thumb drum!" and poems roll under the furniture, left and right. I've lost so many I can't count them. I do understand, they fall when I'm least able to pay attention because poems fall not from a tree, really, but from the richly pollinated boughs of an ordinary life, buzzing, as lives are, with clamor and glory. Poetry just is, whether we revere it or try to put it in prison. It is elementary grace, communicated from one soul to another. It reassures us of what we know and socks us in the gut with what we don't, it sings us awake, it's irresistible, it's congenital.

One afternoon, while my one-year-old stood on a chair reciting the poems she seems to have brought with her onto this planet, I heard on the news that our state board of education was dropping the poetry requirement from our schools. The secretary of education explained that it takes too much time to teach children poetry, when they are harder pressed than ever to master the essentials of the curriculum. He said that we have to take a good, hard look at what is essential, and what is superfluous. "Superfluous," I said to the radio. "Math path boo!" said my child undaunted by her new outlaw status.

This one was not going to get away. I threw down my dish towel, swept the baby off her podium, and carried her under my arm as we stalked off to find a pencil. In my opinion, when you find yourself laughing and crying both at once, that is the time to write a poem. Probably, it's the only honest living there is.

Beating Time

Commemorating the removal of poetry as a requirement in Arizona's schools, August 1997

The Governor interdicted: poetry is evicted
from our curricula,
for metaphor and rhyme take time
from science. Our children's self-reliance rests
upon the things we count on. The laws
of engineering. Poeteering squanders time, and time
is money. He said: let the chips fall where they may.

The Governor's voice fell down through quicksilver
microchip song hummed along and the law
was delivered to its hearing. The students
of engineering bent to their numbers in silent
classrooms, where the fans overhead
whispered "I am I am" in iambic pentameter.
Unruly and fractious numbers were discarded at the bell.
In the crumpled, cast-off equations,
small black figures shaped like tadpoles
formed a nation, unobserved, in the wastepaper basket.

Outside, a storm is about to crack the sky.
Lightning will score dry riverbeds, peeling back the mud
like a plow, bellowing, taking out bridges,
completely unexpectedly.

The children too young to have heard
of poetry's demise turn their eyes
to the windows, to see what they can count on.
They will rise and dance to the iamb of the fans,
whispering illicit rhymes,
watching the sky for a sign
while the rain beats time.

  Barbara Kingsolver is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her works of fiction include The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven, Faber and Faber Ltd. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, USA.
© 1998 Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted from Another America by Barbara Kingsolver, Seal Press Seattle, WA.

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