How to Write a Poem
Our ordinary speech is full of poetry: "She had eyes as deep as the ocean." "The kitchen looks like a cyclone hit it." "My mother's voice could wake the dead." Few of us write poetry, but many of us made up poems when we were children. I was no exception, and I expect that you, my readers, were not exceptions either. I'd like to tell you a little about how I came to write poems and then open the possibility to you.
I consider it great good fortune that I learned about poetry young. In a prophetic baby photograph, I'm holding Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. I couldn't read then; that came later, in church. I can still see the black letters making the words I followed across the white pages as we sang hymns, or as my father, who was a minister, read aloud lessons and psalms. It was from psalms I first learned that poetry is more than just rhyming words or lines that stop halfway across the page. In psalms, rock turns to water, mountains smoke with a fire of thorns and melt like wax. "All the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears," reads Psalm 6. I looked forward to church, and that spoken language, as a place free of the noisy chaos at home, where I was the oldest of a brood that eventually grew to nine.
When I was 15, my English teacher, Miss Wells, asked each of us to write a poem. I wrote about the shoot of a daffodil breaking from earth in early spring. I can still see bright green contrasting with the rich black soil. I forgot that poem when I wrote in college; there I imitated what I read, trying to rhyme like Shakespeare, using high-flown language like Keats, and dropping capital letters like e.e. cummings. It was not until my twenties that I learned poems could come out of my ordinary young female life.
The year I was 22, I dropped out of graduate school and moved to New York City. "I'm going to write," I told an older woman friend, a writer, when she asked about my plans. I had a job, a hotel, a promised sublet, I told her, and the dream of a novel in my head. Take some of home with you, she advised. She seemed old and wise, so I packed a few of what she called "transitional objects": two tiny antique Persian vases I had inherited and a tattered patchwork quilt from my grandmother, white with lime green circles and bright red stars.
The job was half-time and left hours for writing. I was hanging on to a boyfriend who lived in Chicago, and he had promised to join me. I set up my typewriter on a table in front of the tall French windows. When I sat down to write, nothing came to me but fear. I was 22. I had had an abortion I'd kept secret from my parents. The boyfriend was drunk or stoned whenever I called him; the hotel was filled with strange people. The day I was finally able to write, I kept getting up to make sure the door was locked. Silence, and then everything in the room seemed to vibrate. The chest of drawers hulked forward as if it were about to topple, the Persian vases seemed ominously lit from within, and when I looked at my grandmother's quilt I started to cry.