Bringing the words to the page

posted in: The Journey | 4

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I started writing poetry out of yearning. As a gawky, awkward teenager, I scribbled love poems into a spiral-ring notebook with an owl on the cover. To whom were these addressed? No one in particular, just some romantic dark-haired stranger who would appreciate my use of the words “indigo” and “luminous.”

I understood from reading poetry that in some ways a poem is a spell, a method of bringing forth a person or a place with words carefully chosen. My early poems were spells to conjure this mystery man who would sweep me out of my boring existence and into some enchanted life of passionate adventure. I might even be late for Algebra class.

I still think that love is one of the strongest engines that can power poetry. Many poems of despair are propelled by the absence of love or the harm of someone or something loved. The poet is saying to the reader here is something that I love, let me describe it to you so fully that it will be part of you as well and you will protect it. Or perhaps this is the pain of the destruction or betrayal of the beloved.

Maybe my view of the spark that brings words to page is too simplistic.  Seamus Heaney wrote, “The crucial action is pre-verbal, to be able to allow the first alertness or come-hither, sensed in a blurred or incomplete way, to dilate and approach as a thought or theme or a phrase. Robert Frost puts it this way: ‘A poem beings as a lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.’ As far as I am concerned, technique is more vitally and sensitively connected with that first activity where the ‘lump in the throat’ finds the ‘the thought’ than with ‘the thought’ finding ‘the words.’ That first emergence involves the divining, vatic, oracular function; the second, the making function.”

Am I so far off the mark to think that love (in all its varieties and vagaries) might be the “lump in the throat”? And if it is, why does our culture seem so invested in cynicism tromping over top of love these days? Why is enthusiasm or passion or adoration so passé? Is it because we worry that we don’t deserve to “have nice things”?

One of the reasons that I envisioned a February online workshop “Writing Love” was my desire to give people tools to connect that “lump in the throat” with the words to express it. Love can look so many different ways, but by creating the spell that honors it, calls to it, invokes it, perhaps we can push away those boundaries of cynicism and darkness. Or at least, I want to. I want to balance the despair with a handful of light, not unthinkingly, not ignoring the breakage, but mindfully choosing to see the beauty as well.


You can still sign up for Writing Love, here on this website. It starts on February 1st and lasts four weeks.

4 Responses

  1. Heather Derr-Smith

    I love this post! We are writing about the same thing this week, love. and your workshop sounds divine!! oh my gosh, Brava! I love what Seamus Heaney says above about dilate/dilation. That’s an amazing word for poetry. And the frost line too. You’ve given me so many little gifts here to think on. Thank you!

  2. Anne Caston

    I believe EVERY poem is a love poem. So there. Let’s be champions of poetry AND love. Thanks for this lovely post, Erin!

  3. Erin

    Thank you, Heather! I’ve been reading a lot of Seamus Heaney’s prose lately and am really inspired by it.

  4. Erin

    Yes! Maybe we should talk about a panel for UAA on love poetry.

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