By Susan Wagner
If this were a map
It would be the map of the last age of her life,
Not a map of choices but a map of variations
On the one great choice.
From the poem, Dreamwood by Adrienne Rich
When you tell people you write poetry, they either are intensely interested or bored and indifferent. Sometimes, out of politeness, the latter will ask a question and I’ll try in that limited time to promote the reading and writing of poetry. I always hope to leave people with a willingness to be open to reading poems.
Those interested in poetry but who don’t write, often feel poetry is a mysterious process they never could follow. After all, it isn’t like the visual arts which can often make sense to the eye through form and color. People may not be gifted themselves but at least it’s understandable.
This is not always so of poetry. Even when you know the meaning of the words used, the meaning of the totality may be ‘over my head.’ It may be true and it’s this perception that poetry is difficult that keeps people from reading it.
If you browse through poetry anthologies or biographies of poets, very often the work becomes more understandable because there is context. Reading about Gwendolyn Brooks recently, I was struck by how her work reflected her time and the politics of the country. Her example is a useful one to us because it demonstrates a full commitment to herself and her work. She made a clear decision to write about what was important to her, to be a poet of substance and to not shy away from what would be difficult or politically correct.
Poetry, the writing and reading of it, is an intense choice. Because it is a shorter form, it can lay bare our hearts quickly and deeply. You’ll hear some poets say that is the reason they prefer friends and family not read their work. The passion of the poem may frighten them or it may shine a light on family issues that the family may prefer to avoid seeing. And sometimes friends and family may just think the writer is an oddball. Coming from a family that read only nonfiction or hard science fiction, I can attest to being made to feel like an oddball.
Yet, at some point, I made a decision to give myself the freedom to be passionate, to write what was truly in my heart and release it into the world expecting nothing in return. I read poetry, I studied poetry and I wrote poetry that had meaning to me. I continue to study and learn and every step I take in that direction makes me a better writer. I apologize to no one for this, even if something hits close to home. I choose this every day. And if need be, I will keep some poems safe in a drawer awaiting the day when the light is just right for them to be seen.
My one great choice was to be fearless in life and to become a fearless writer. I made that choice long before I ever left high school. There were times in my life when I didn’t write at all but they were short and miserable. I need writing to breathe. Whether I write in journals, on computers or on the backs of envelopes, I write whenever I can. I have stacks and boxes full of my writing that I may never have the time to look at again. Many have quite interesting ideas just languishing. Not so my poems.
Good, bad or indifferent, I save my poems and keep them close to me. I try to capture the perfect words to express how I feel. If I cannot, I still save the poem. I have poems I have worked on for years for which I still have hope. They are like sad little puppies awaiting a loving home. Not ready for their place in the world, they swirl about in my brain, always looking for that one thing that will make the difference. Someday, I hope, each will move on and I’ll have even more time to start other poems.
Being a poet can be heartbreaking. Mass killings, wars, poverty – these subjects need brave souls to put into words what we feel or what we think we are committed to in this life. Poets have that terrible luxury because we all recognize someone must. There have to be people who are passionate about describing what they see and feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes others. Truth needs to be seen and heard, which is why being a poet can be a daunting task.
I am committed to writing poetry as I am committed to my husband, with the same sense of devotion and divinity. I have never once regretted my one great choice and I cannot imagine that at this late date I would ever choose something else.
I urge everyone to commit – to writing if you want to write or to something else that you feel passionately about. Let us see and feel the passion. We need it.