Poetry as Survival

In an interview with Terry Kennedy at Story South,
poet Christine Garren states that

most poets, whether they catch a publishing break or not, are writing because they must–because the poem’s creation answers an emotional or spiritual need that they associate with survival

These words speak to me, not only because they give me courage to continue writing, but also because they aptly express the kind of poetry I most love to read: poetry that must be written.

This sense of urgency or need is an ideal, of course. Some poems end up being exercises. Lately I’ve been writing formal sonnets, and I’m not at all sure anyone will want to publish them. But I write them because I feel drawn to this almost 700-year-old form. Writing in form, or attempting to, is my way of connecting to those who have gone before me. Why not follow Shakespeare’s steps for a time, even if my boots are clunky compared to his handmade calfskin slippers?

After reading Christine Garren’s collection Among the Monarchs, it is apparent that she has created her own, organic form that has grown from the stirrings of her lyric mind.

The speaker tells nothing, but rather implies moods, scenarios, and events as though we were listening to her thoughts and memories as they occur to her while she is sitting in a field, her back against an apple tree.

There is implied abuse, rape, abortion, break ups, illness, death, but nothing is pinned down in exact narratives. We are not voyeurs of suffering as we read these poems–we are companions or even a part of the speaker’s own psyche. Reading this collection enveloped me in a world that required me to sit in a room by myself and re-read. I felt compelled to enter and re-enter this tender, imaginative mind.

In the Story South interview Garren goes on to say, “When I care less about what an audience may think, I am able, it seems, to write a stronger poem.”

Part of what lends the poems in Among the Monarchs their lightness and airiness is the form in which they are written. Many of the poems consist of a mere eight or nine lines, but the lines are long, many containing eight or more beats per line, as well as sentence fragments and more than one sentence in a single line.

These strategies work in the poems’ favor. Garren’s unique, free verse style displays her gifts as a writer–she has her finger on the pulse of inner rhythms. She is listening to the poem that must be written, not the poem she thinks someone else wants her to write.

And therein lies the mean trick of being in a formal writing program. As a student, I need to remember that learning from my teachers and studying the old masters will help me hone my craft, but in the end, if I want to write in my own voice, I need to lie in a field, or at least pretend to, and let the imagery float past me, reaching up a hand from time to time and brushing the thoughts across the page.

In the meantime, I am going to hole up in an air conditioned room and dive again into Among the Monarchs. With triple digit high temperatures in Atlanta, it’s too hot to lie in a field.

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