Beth SK Morris, “Poetic Sensibility”
Let me start by saying, I’m no expert on the subject of how to write a good poem nor can I offer you a working definition of what good poetry is supposed to be. No BA in Literature or Creative Writing, no MFA, so if you want to stop right here, I’ll understand. What I can share with you is some of the most important things I’ve learned in the process of writing my own poems, the comments of other artists and poets whose words have molded my own poetic vision, and the poetic sensibility that has seeped into my brain over a lifetime.
I came to be a full-time poet after a long career in Speech, Language, and Communication Science, but poetry has always been an integral part of my world--as an avid reader, and more importantly, as a listener. My young ears were filled with the sounds of Mother Goose, vinyl records of Will Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets from the Old Vic Company, the Gilbert and Sullivan Songbook (my mother’s lullabies)-even the radio and early television commercials like this Texaco offering from the Milton Berle Show (which I can repeat by heart some fifty years later):”…Our show tonight is powerful, We’ll wow you with an hour-full Of howls from a shower-full of stars .We’re the merry Texaco-men, Tonight we will be showmen, Tomorrow we’ll be servicing your car!:” Elegant iambic meter, interesting alternation of open and closed vowels, alliteration of the consonants (m, f, s, sh), even a surprise ending. Good stuff! Whatever poetry is, it enters our consciousness through its music. It’s innate human activity. When I was working with adult stroke patients, one of the men I saw regularly at the stroke support group was severely damaged in the language area of his brain, but he and I would have long “conversations” using one or two expletives and a host of intonation patterns that were still in-tact. The music of a poem stays with you, so I think this must be at the top of our list when we write and review our own work. A good poem should aim to become part of our aural history.
The lyricist Steven Sondheim once said, “[The] Artist brings order out of chaos. Gives a beginning, a middle, and end to a world where there is no beginning, middle, or end.” The same is true for poetry. Each poet creates a singular world in every poem she writes. The reader should come to an “ah,hah!” moment at the conclusion of a good poem deriving a sense of total satisfaction from the poem’s completeness. One of my criteria for judging this very subjective “completeness” characteristic is quite simple: when I get to the end of the poem and say to myself, “Well, she said it all. I think I’ll just put my pencil down and never write another word again!” The last lines of Melville Cane’s poem, I Have Seen, always bring out this response in me: “…And once On a wild black road I saw a summer moon Weave a web of gold Out of a humming stretch of telephone wires.” Billie Collins tells us, “Don’t look at what the poem means. Look at how it feels, where it’s going, how it gets from its beginning to its end.”
Close to this sense of completeness is the wisdom we derive from having heard or read a good poem. Elizabeth Alexander describes poets as the “truth tellers.” I love her image of the poet as cartoon artist, drawing “bubbles” over people’s heads to uncover what they are really thinking. “The truth of a poem,” she says, “is much deeper than what actually happened.” It’s like the “tee-shirt” game you may have played in your Psych. 101 class. What’s on the front of the tee-shirt is your façade facing the world while the back of your tee-shirt reveals who you really are. Good poems don’t tell us what we’re supposed to think; they reveal truth. The actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman may have said it best when he described what he looks for in a movie script: “When a writer can deftly describe the human experience in a way that you didn’t think could ever be put into words.” Elizabeth Alexander adds: “Poetry is diving into the wreck, not the story of the wreck.”(italics mine)
Speaking of telling the truth, the final aspect of good poetry that I find to be the most difficult for me is risk-taking; the willingness to hang out over the edge. A few years ago, I had the privilege of being a participant in Marie Howe’s workshop at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Her book, What the Living Do, contains many poems about her brother living with and ultimately dying from AIDS. I, too, had a close relative who died of AIDS but until that workshop, I had never given myself permission to write about it. Marie gave me the courage to do just that; stop worrying about what family members and my community might think, get my own hang-ups out of the way, “dive into the wreck.” Ian McEwan (Atonement) says that poetry “. . .step(s) out of the daily narrative of existence (into) self-annihilation.” It is a work-in-progress for me, but the two poems I have submitted at the end of this article speak to this final quality of good poetry- vulnerability and fearlessness. They will both appear in my forthcoming book for Bridle Path Press, Nowhere to be Found.
Beth SKMorris is a “poetry transplant” having earned a Ph.D in Speech, Language, and Hearing Science. She has received awards from the Poets of the Palm Beaches, the Writers Network of South Florida, and the Poetry Society of Virginia. Beth’s poems have appeared in The PEN, Avocet, Poetica, on-line in Bridle Path Press and anthologies by White Oak Press and the International Library of Poetry. Her first chapbook, In Florida,was published in 2010 and her forthcoming collection, Nowhere to be Found, will be published by Bridle Path Press.
"Still Life on Red Tablecloth" by Georges Braque
(Norton Museum, West Palm Beach, Florida)
“Still Life on Red Tablecloth;” the title
tempts us to expect what we have always
expected: familiar objects, dependable scenes,
set down by the painter to comfort, please,
reassure us; satisfy our need for safety,
tell us-- ‘things that are, are.’
But it is 1936. The world in-
verted, Braque’s table tilt-
ing, gravity defied. Har-
mony and order from dis-
harmony, disorder; balance
in chaos, shards of color blend-
ing, solids dissolv-
ing to lines, lines to circles. Sub-
lime rhythms in perfect space, div-
ided, yet complete.
No geometry wasted, the Artist call-
ing out to us through time,
‘Risk, you will not fall,
Leap, to hold your footing,
Diverge, you will endure.’
For Ruth: a Memorial Prayer
He died of the thing she could not mourn.
He died of the thing she could not speak.
He died of the thing she could not share
Not even with her childhood friends.
She, who never left the house
without her girdle, stockings,
high-heeled pumps, makeup,
hair perfectly groomed, came
to his funeral in a moth-eaten
sweater, dirty house coat,
Forcing herself to keep faith with her God, she sat through
the Shiva, her week of mourning, unkempt, unwashed,
so different from the last time. Twenty years before
when her husband died, the house was filled;
people bringing food, sharing stories, almost
a party, except for rabbis coming and going,
intoning prayers at their appointed times.
This time, she stayed in the living room
alone, next to us, the left-over children,
but we were not enough. After seven
days, she began to contract; body
first, her spine fractured piece
by piece, then her laughing,
blue eyes lost their color,
became opaque with suffering. The mind behind them
followed from nursing home to hospital bed calling,
“mama, mama,” until her mother came and took
her: last one off the dance floor, giggling partner
at the race track, lover of sun and sea, straining
her soup through a handkerchief
to purify the feast…
Pray for her.
Pray to remember who she was.
Pray that she is somewhere dancing and laughing.
Pray for the son beside her, dancing and laughing, too.