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The Powerful Nutrition of Poetry

4596177185_e692464be6_zThe late great Ray Bradbury once said that a writer should read one poem, one short story and one essay every day. Most of us don’t read many short stories any more, but we read a lot of essays (often in the form of blogs).

Poetry is like the superfood of writing education. Reading it daily is one of the best possible things any writer of any ilk can do to improve the quality and precision of her work. We shy away from it sometimes, sure we can’t find poems that will hold meaning for us in the modern world, but believe me, there is a poem for every moment, every project, every mood and idea you’ve ever thought of.[pullquote]Poetry is good words, good phrases, like vitamins A and C and E, like minerals for your paragraphs.[/pullquote]

I’ve been on a kick of memorizing poetry. I happened to hear Mary Oliver on a podcast, talking about her work, and she read a few of my favorite poems. I stood in the garden, listening, starstruck, and thought, I need to have these poems in my head all the time.

So I started memorizing them. I began with Wild Geese, which is an exhortation to look outward, upward, let go of your loneliness and shame and breathe in the life all around you. “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, repenting,” she says. And, “No matter who you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination. It calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.” Read the entire poem here [1].

Who doesn’t recognize some piece of those emotions? We’ve all felt shame, and loneliness, and felt apart from things. In these few short lines, the shame is brushed aside, the loneliness and despair embraced, and we fly free with the wild geese “who are on their way home again.”

Such economy of language! Such a wise, understanding voice! When I memorized it, I broke it into several pieces and recited it aloud to myself on my morning walk with my dog, over and over until all the pieces stuck. Not easy, but a very simple practice, and one that bears big benefits. I’m on to some other things now, but once or twice a week, I offer that one up to the sky, letting it sink more deeply into the folds of my imagination.

The first bit of poetry I memorized was Shakespeare. I was fourteen and obsessed with the Zefferelli film of  Romeo and Juliet, which had been rereleased in my town. My father took me because it was rated R. Then my mother. My grandmother. Probably an uncle or cousin or two. I saw it ten or eleven times before it left town again.

Awash with it, I memorized all the lines from the balcony scene. Much of it is still there: “But soft, what light from yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun.”

I forced my sister to read it with me, over and over, until now, many decades later, I can still call up those elegant, beautiful words, hear the cadence in my head, in my own voice. Shakespeare’s genius of alliteration and humor and iambic pentameter burned right into my writer’s brain, in my own voice.

It is said that if you record affirmations and play them back to yourself, you’re more likely to believe them to be true. I think this is also true of poetry. If you hear it in your own voice, you’re going to internalize it more completely, and you will learn to phrase your own words with precision and freshness because you’ve poured all those nutrients into your brain. Good words, good phrases, like vitamins A and C and E, like minerals for your paragraphs.

Poetry also leads to story ideas in surprising ways. Some years ago, I happened to see a movie about Federico Garcia Lorca. It was one of things I stumbled over at the video store or something—I remember watching it alone on a Saturday afternoon, enchanted and crushed by the story of the Spanish poet. I’d already been on a Spanish poetry kick, reading Pablo Neruda and an entire list a bilingual old man brought to me, carefully divided into old world and new world poets.

But Lorca electrified me. His poem, Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, a cry of grief over the loss of a friend to the bullright, uses repetition to create the sound of a ticking clock:

At five in the afternoon.

It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready prepared
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone.

Read the rest of the poem [2]

The poem sank into me, so heartbreaking, so rich. I was going through a fairly hard time myself, grieving my marriage, writing a book that was heartbroken, and Spanish poetry provided a thread of beauty and loss that gave me a spine for the book.

Obviously, we don’t all like the same poets—but all of us can find poets we love. Look to music, perhaps—Bruce Springsteen’s Used Cars [3], or Tupac Shakur’s Brenda’s Got a Baby [4]. Take the music away and read the words aloud to yourself. Look for poetry from people of color and from other continents and cultures. Look for beat poets and maybe amble through the Cavalier Poets. Read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Go to the Academy of American Poets app, Poem-A-Day [5] and read some new work there.

When you find some work that speak to you, memorize it. Keep saying it to yourself until the words sink deep into your brain, into your connective tissue, and let it teach you how to be a better writer, one word a time.

And then maybe when we’re old, all that will be left of our brains will be the lines of poetry we’ve settled there, deep in those folds. One can only hope.

What are some of your favorite poems? Do you read poetry aloud as a regular practice?


About Barbara O'Neal [6]

Barbara O'Neal [7] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [8], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [9].