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Does Poetry Matter? Be poetic. Love deeply. Keep going.

poetry does matter

I am the poet of the hashtag #desire. If you Google “#desire” you’ll see my poems, or me, on the first page or two of results. So what. I can almost hear you saying it. So the-fk what. Tell me how poetry changes anything? Tell me how disconnected words and images can do anything but confuse? And maybe you’re saying, “I hated poetry in school, I probably hate it now. Much less write it.”

Okay. I’m going to start slow and build up to my poetic manifesto. Or Manifesto of #desire.

POINT ONE: We think in words. We often don’t think in sentences. So saying to someone

“I love her.”

While plainspoken and straight-forward lacks the energy to convey what you’re hoping to say. By saying something like:

“her smile made me feel a whole wave of yes, yes, yes”

Well, something about the image, the smile, the washing of the yes, yes, yes, like waves. So in this example, the words have become sounds, and abstract ideas of why we find this person so attractive, we’ve even got feelings in there. Because “love” is pretty over-used. We even say it about people we don’t care for.

POINT TWO: Sometimes when sentences fail us, we can break it down into ideas, thoughts, random bits of information. And since this scattering of ideas is more like our natural thinking, we can build up, additive language, a wash of words that represents how we are feeling, or what we want to express without the care of a comma, or the persnickety period. We can let the whole thing rush out in a flurry of abstract letters and concepts, and give no care to the meaning, and thereby get closer to the meaning than if we had tried to explain it.

she touched my chest
with a finger
lit up by the closing rays of our last day together
and whispered how she didn’t want to leave

I love the flow of punctuation-less writing. I like keeping the “I” to its diminutive friend “i.” Something feels more personal about it, more vulnerable, less proud, more exposed.

POINT THREE: By giving in to the rush of words in your head and giving them a voice on the page you become more familiar with your thoughts. Your connection between the head-filled-with-words and the heart-filled-with-emotions becomes more fluid. You begin thinking in love poems. What a wonderful by-product. Flood your brain with love poems and you spend more time thinking about love, and objects of affection, and feelings of love. Ah, is there any better reason?

POINT FOUR: Poetry is rare. The poems you wrote on Valentine’s Day to your 5th-grade crush are quite different from what you are capable of today. The rare part is we are taught what bad looks like, and at some point, we got the idea that our poetry was bad. We lost the imagination for losing the words without thought to structure or form, just letting the letters rip, see where it leads us. And perhaps we went down some dumb paths. We tried some poems and they sucked. Well, that’s also the point. When you write sucky poems, you get to feel what that disconnection feels like. You begin to understand how far you have gotten from feeling your authentic feelings. And then, even putting them down on paper. Sharing them is even more difficult. Because in 5th grade the girl laughed rather than swooned. And the afternoon’s study at the rhyming dictionary was crushed by her smile.

“I liked it,” she might have said. Ug. Death to a poet’s heart.

POINT FIVE: The poetry has got to be for you first. Unloosen the belt, unhinge the mind a bit if you like, and let the random thoughts flow onto the page, or into your favorite writing program. Don’t give any mind to the form or function. This is more about building up a relationship between your heads stream of consciousness and your heart’s desire to be understood. At first the poetry is for you. It can be a part of your “journaling program” or your “morning pages” (see The Artist’s Way). What we are going for, initially is the slow methodical death of the internal editor that says to you, “Poetry is dumb. And your poetry is awful.” There is no time to share it in these early days and weeks of expression. Don’t rush to share your newfound gift. You may feel it coming on, you may write a poem that is sure to make your partner or mom or girlfriend smile, but I advise you to keep the early poems, the early poetic experience to yourself. As you are learning to run, and learning to be vulnerable with yourself, it might be easy to get discouraged by the missed or ill-tempered complement.

POINT SIX: Finding your poetic voice. If you stay with the writing and releasing your inner inhibitions you may find yourself starting to think more about language and the expression of words. And there’s a lot more to write poetry about than love. Hate sometimes finds a clear expression in the unfettered verse. As you strip some of your writing of form and punctuation, you might find the process becomes easy. You might find yourself composing lines as you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. Or texting lines to yourself for later. This is a huge victory. As your world becomes more poetic, so does your life.

In Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul, he explores the experience of people going through very difficult times. Death of a loved one, divorce, depression. And one of the ways he frames the healing process is to know that this “dark night” is transformational, you are being transformed by the pain and suffering. AND… he goes on, if you can see the “poetic” or better yet, “express the poetic” of the situation by writing some of the experience down, you may find the beauty in the pain even before you are out of the pain. By making the experience poetic, we join the thousands of great writers who have expressed their struggles. And we see that our struggles are not unlike theirs. And that there is poetry, even angry poetry, to be expressed as part of our healing process.

If you can find the poetic voice of your soul, you can begin to unweave your pain, see it in an artistic and fascinating light. Be amazed at how hateful your anger poems can be. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t ever send them out. Anger poems can be really wounding to others. And if they are not received as “beautiful” you might be shamed into not releasing this most unpleasant and yet poetic voice.]

POINT SEVEN: Completing the mind-word-body-write connection will give you more tools to express yourself. Getting out what you’re feeling is a lot of the process of getting over it. Falling in love is a lot about deciphering the abstract notions of love and the actual person who might be much less poetic. But by enhancing the creative and poetic heart, you are beginning to live more passionately. Or at least more linguistically attractive. Again, this is about you and your writing. Not about what you get from it, or if you get praised for it.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke suggested that the young man only write if he could not prevent himself from writing. Only to write for his own passion and enjoyment and not get caught up in the trap of “is it good enough” or can I call myself a poet.

The Poetic Mind is a strong mind. Finding the way to access your thinking at a more abstract level, I think, gives you access to more pure and direct expression. It’s hard to say “I love you” in a new way. But it’s easy to begin with little things that make you say, “Yes,” and go from there.

Be poetic. Love deeply. Keep going.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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