That the Powerful Play Goes On and You May Contribute a Verse

“Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring…

…What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” –Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


Here’s the thing about poetry. Poetry does not have time for your b.s.

Poetry is not here for your shenanigans. It does not care about your posturing. It demands distillation, crystallization, honesty; it insists that you decide what you’re going to say and then pushes you to get to the business of saying it. It’s not going to set a word limit (for which Dante Aligheri and John Milton were profoundly grateful, no doubt), but generally speaking it’s going to start giving you the “wrap it up” gesture if it catches you pontificating. Poetry wants to you get in, get done, and get out. Wheelbarrow, rainwater, chickensDONE. Heavens, mother, blackred rosesOUT.

Today is World Poetry Day, and I’m guessing about 50% of you just threw up a little bit. Because you’re imagining poetry of the “OH thee, OHHHH thou” type, or you’re having flashbacks to videos of people screeching into microphones about how their mothers never loved them, or you’re feeling vaguely traumatized by daffodils and can’t really place why that is (hint: you’re thinking of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud“, and I’m right there with you. Ugh.).

But fear not, we’re not here for Poetry 101. There are people significantly better qualified than I am to teach that course, and you’ve probably already had it anyway.

Instead we’re going to think about poetry as a way to live your life. Your entire life. (The other 50% of you just threw up. Sorry ’bout that. Stick with me–I promise I’m coming to a point here.)

The world has spent a lot of time in the last day or so talking about a Person Whose Name I’m Tired of Seeing Now, who passed away late Tuesday evening. You know the one I’m talking about. Big garish signs. Hate speech. Church in Topeka. That guy. I wrote an open letter to him here the other day, thanking him for the lessons I learned from watching him, but I’ve realized that I left one off: He’s a great–er, effective, ’cause I’m not comfortable saying anything about him was “great”–example of picking your passion and running with it. Sprinting. Tearing across the plains like you’re being chased by wild dogs. And while I do not agree with even one word of the things he was shouting as he sprinted, I kinda have to admire–actually, nope, we’re not using that word either, so let’s go with “acknowledge”–the focus behind his delivery.

This was not a person whose brand (as they say in marketing) was at all muddy. He was crystal-clear: you knew what he believed, what he stood for, what he thought, and what his opinions were about pretty much everything, whether or not those opinions seemed to have much sense. Or morality. Or sanity. I digress.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about when I say to “live your life like a poem”. Poetry (a much pleasanter topic than that other guy) demands the same sort of laser sight. Yes, there are myriad forms and variations to the structure of the stuff–you probably got to spend all sorts of time talking about sonnets and free verse and rhyming patterns and “metric feet” (which, yes, sounds like someone is very confused about how measurement systems work)–but generally speaking, for a thing to be poetry it needs to have a directness. You don’t get the 65,000 words of the average novel; for that wheelbarrow poem I mentioned earlier you get 16. That’s “sixteen”. Words. Total.

So you can go about your life pulling yourself in 64,000 directions, trying to be everything to everyone and do it all with style and grace and impeccable mascara, or you can take the time to sort out what it is that matters most to you and spend your days living that message at 100%.

Yes, it is ok to have more than one Thing That Matters Most; and yes, it is ok to wear many different hats. But I think it’s a good exercise, if nothing else, to pause occasionally and think about yourself as though you were about to be immortalized in verse: if your biographer had, say, the 14 lines of a sonnet to sum you up, would they have any idea where to start? Is there a message that shines through you every day of your life? Is it clear, once a person has gotten past the getting-to-know-you small talk, what it is that you’re about?

This isn’t a pass-fail thing, gang. It’s ok to say “Nope” to those questions, and it’s ok to say “Yes, but my Most Important Thing may change tomorrow”. It’s ok to have different key messages at different times of your life. It’s ok to evolve.

It’s ok to revise your poem, over and over, as you go. It’s ok to scrap your first few drafts altogether and write new ones, or to have different verses for the different phases of your life. Heck, if you’re doing particularly interesting things that each warrant their own section, go ahead and live like you’re starring in an epic by Homer (he’s the guy who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey). But take the time to winnow out the proverbial chaff. Shake off the things that are unimportant to you. Decide who you are and what you stand for, and place that front and center.

Cut the extra words, and live like a poem. ‘Cause a poem ain’t got time for your b.s.


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