A poem in your pocket

Dear lovely reader,

Poetry is language in its purest art form. I’ve heard other people use the same analogy – if a short story is a snapshot, a novel a movie, then a poem is a painting. Each brush stroke an act of artistry. And yet, even among my writer and reader friends, I know only a few who seek out poetry.

I’m not sure why there is so much resistance. I think people are intimidated by it, or bored. They think of the sing-songy rhymes they had to memorize as a child, or they come across modern poems that are so obscure and inaccessible that they are like meaningless abstract paintings. Randomly choosing a poem as a representation of “poetry” is like pulling a book off the “C” shelf in a bookstore and thinking if you don’t like it, you don’t like fiction. You could end up with a Clive Cussler, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Willa Cather, or Orson Scott Card. What are the odds you are going to love whichever one you pick?

But I wish writers in particular would read more poetry, because I think it has the potential to seep into the brain and influence the way we put our words together. Most of today’s fiction lacks poetry of language. I read dozens of novels ever year, but I’m lucky if one of those has this kind of attention to the rhythm, sound, and surprising potential of each word. The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham rings with the poetic voice I long for, as does Tinkers by Paul Harding. But these lyrical novels are few and far between.

When I’m struggling with my own fiction writing, I often read poetry. It fills me with such admiration and inspiration.

Here are a couple of examples.

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put  me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still” –
Still! Could themselves have peeped –
And seen my brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the pound …

— Emily Dickinson

And from one of my favorite modern poets:

Tibet is rock and mineral
hard sparseness polished
by stark wind
buffeted by bright sunlight
carried as talisman
and pain …

— Julie LeMay (also known as my mom)

And from Olena Kalytiak Davis, another of my favorite modern poets:

Your thoughts have hung themselves from nails
like workshirts.
The sky has stopped
offering you reasons to live and your heart is the rock
you threw through each window
of what’s deserted you, so you turn
to the burnt out building inside you: scaffolding
overhead, the fallen beams,
the unsound framework …

When I read these lines out loud, I hear the music of the words and feel their rhythm like a bass beat against my heart. It’s the magic of language, and I never tire of it.




  • Sue Mathis says:

    A few years ago I went to a poetry reading at Fireside Books because my friend, your mom, was going to be reading some of her poems. I wasn’t much into poetry, but thought I’d go just to show support for her. While she was reading her poems, I had this warm, fuzzy feeling come over me. I can’t explain why, but it was an incredible feeling. I realized that I liked poetry, especially hers! I thought, “Try it, you’ll like it!” an appropriate phrase!!

  • Eowyn Ivey says:

    Oops, that’s embarassing. On Olena’s poem, I just noticed my typo. It should have read “fallen beams” rather than “fallen beans.” I fixed it on the website, but those of you who have subscriptions will have it wrong in your email version. Sorry about that.

    And Sue, thank you for sharing that memory of mom’s poetry. I always enjoy our book club’s poetry month.