Most of us have written poetry at one time or another, usually when riding the wave of a particularly powerful emotion such as “Wow, I’m in love!” and “Wow, I think I’ve been dumped!”
But just as planting a tomato vine or two doesn’t make a farmer, writing a line or 20 of earnest verse doesn’t necessarily make a poet.
I’ve only known a few real poets in my life, on a personal basis. Altadena poet Linda Dove is one of them.
Her first collection, In Defense of Objects, was published in 2009, and is in its second printing. Dove gave a reading at the Claremont Library this past weekend. Her husband and 5-year old daughter were among the crowd of admirers. So was I.
Hearing a poet read his or her own work gives it the added dimension of -- voice, of course, but more importantly -- tone and emphasis. That is, if the poet actually likes speaking in public, which I assume Dove does, given the quality of her performance and her background. She holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature, and has taught literature, poetry and creative writing at colleges in Michigan and Arizona.
Her poetry is racking up a number of awards and award nominations, including the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize, the Pushcart Prize and the Beyond Baroque Award.
From the other side of the podium, appreciating poetry is not strictly a spectator sport, which probably accounts for the limits to its appeal. Poetry demands concentration, attention; otherwise you really won’t get anywhere with it.
It’s kind of like rock climbing, where you follow the leader. You trust the leader knows the way and how to get there and where to pound the bolts, but the actual climbing is up to you. Then, once at the summit, you realize you’re in familiar territory after all; it’s the angle that’s fresh and unexpected.
Given this, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s difficult to pluck just a couple of lines from a Dove poem and do them justice out of context. But try this:
What amounts to wonder lurks in things,/whole or broken, near, as distant as the gray/gargoyle where the eye’s balloon comes to rest./Rusted keys, horseshoe, rust itself, color of burnt/sienna. The word itself: burnt sienna.”
(In Defense of Objects)
I promise not to make this a poetry lesson, and couldn’t do so if I tried. But here’s what the lines mean to me: What of the past informs the present? How much of a long-gone someone is captured in a something. Do objects hold a story -- the craftsman house, the Hoosier cabinet? The picture of an ancestor. The memory of your grandfather’s hand; the words: My grandfather’s hand.
Poetry can lead us on a long trail, sometimes back to where others started or left off. We may realize something within our grasp, and choose to hold it tight.
Oh, and poetry just might run in the family. After the reading this weekend, I chatted with Dove’s daughter as we hung out at the snack table.
“What’s your favorite food?” I asked. “Yellow!” she said.