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My Earliest Poetry Experiences + An Exercise + A Poem

Shel Silverstein wrote the first poems I remember reading and they were frequently silly, but it was a silliness that kept me reading all of his work, some of which, is not so silly. Between Silverstein and MAD Magazine, I cane to enjoy language that had a sense of humor, even if it came with gross-outs. While I was a teacher, I posted a poem every week in my room. Up until the last year, I still posted “Where the Sidewalk Ends” the first week of school. 

I loved horror movies and monsters, so Poe was naturally interesting for reading and research projects, especially after doing so many on sharks because if Jaws. I’m sure my teachers were happy to read something else, even if it involved sleeping in graveyards and drug addiction. I loved the sound and rhythm of his poems, something many Modern critics despised. He also wrote with a strong narrative, which I enjoy, but feel like I have never done.

Langston Hughes was important to me for his imagery and that he was writing about the real world. Besides Jim Henson, Hughes is the first author I knew with a social conscious. I could understand his words and I could understand his images, but I knew there was more to it. As young reader, I liked that he would write about festering sores and rotten meat, things that I had experienced, but didn’t know could be in poetry. 

I found Emily Dickinson later than the others, maybe even in high school. On first read, I was baffled. I’d never read anything like it, but I knew I liked it. I’ve gone back to the poems over and over again and they are still rewarding. 

When I get stuck in my writing, I will go back to writers like Dickinson for inspiration. It’s rare that I can use the poems I model on theirs, but it gets the muscles flexing. Below is one I wrote not too long before we had our first child. Besides watching Eraserhead and trying not to pay attention to all the Mayan calendar hoopla, I was prepping for fatherhood, by reading and writing poems. Feeling stuck one day, I decided to have Dickinson help me out of the rut. 

The Exercise:

Take a poem and pull a line from it to start your own.  It’s a way of giving you something to start with as inspiration. That’s what I initially did here, and then likely because of all that MAD reading, I decided to stick as close as I could to the original. I used similar rhythms and rhymes. Even if the poem doesn’t work, you can still learn about the model poet’s composition. I probably did this exercise in a workshop.

Here’s what resulted.

Frequently the woods are pink —
Frequently are brown.
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.
Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see —
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be —
And the Earth — they tell me —
On its axis turned!
Wonderful Rotation!
By but twelve performed!

My exercise:

And the Earththey tell me
(after Dickinson)

Sometimes the ale is white.
Sometimes the ale is brown.
Sometimes the men undress
before they swim and drown.
Maybe the unrested mind
revelates, burns, and screams.
Or maybe the unrested mind
is colder than it seems.
“And the Earth—they tell me”
in 2012 will burn.
I have bought new swim trunks.
Some men will never learn.

Categories: Inspiration Poetry Writing

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Stephen McClurg

I like red peppers and Jan Švankmajer movies.

1. Current Listening: Lots of soul from Muscle Shoals

2. Current Viewing: A Hard Day's Night (1964).

3. Current Reading: H.G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet

3 replies

    1. Cool! It’s fun and gives me somewhere to start. Sometimes it’s just useful as an exercise. Nothing wrong with that. Hope it goes well! I found Cinnamon Peeler–never read Ondaatje’s poetry.

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