I was hit by a lightning bolt this week. Figuratively, not literally. Generally when people talk about making changes because they've been hit by a lightning bolt, they are usually speaking of a change for the better. But my lightning bolt seemed to strike all the way down to my roots, to the foundation of how I write poetry and what I have come to think of as my "voice." It is the process of years of work on poetry, since I wrote my first structured abab verses early in grade school.
In eighth grade, I wrote a poem for our English class, "The Roaring Sea," which was a complete departure from my previous work, with no rhymes whatsoever. It did have a structure: each verse was five lines, with the first line being "The sea roars," and the last line "the roaring sea" with the previous line enjambed into the fifth.
I think this had been sparked by our teacher, a young man with whom I quickly became infatuated. His teaching style was far-ranging, as if he were constantly opening more and more doors into areas of learning that I had never imagined. He taught science and history as well as English. I wish I could remember what poem it was that caused my volte-face at that young age. The only poem I remember studying in eighth grade was Emily Dickinson's "Train," which has plenty of enjambment as well as slant rhymes which became an important part of my poet's toolbox. But it does still have a four line mostly iambic structure with slant rhymes at lines 2 and 4.
In high school, I experimented with free verse, but still wrote some poems with iambic lines and rhymes. I wrote a few in Spanish, and when I spent an entire semester in college studying T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," I started sprinkling Spanish into my English poetry. When I took a poetry workshop from poet Colette Inez at the New School in New York City the year before I was married, I was introduced to so many new ways to write poetry that, like Casey who waltzed with the girl with the strawberry curls, my brain nearly exploded. I did a great deal of experimenting that year, and at the end of the class, Colette told me I could send her a few poems from time to time and she would critique them. I took her up on her offer, and for 40 years, until she died, our correspondence and friendship flourished and my poetry matured. I didn't take every suggestion she made about my writing, but I thought each one through, and her interest and comments made me realize that poetry was my forte, although as a young writer my goal was to write the Great American Novel. I remember an evening when I hosted a dinner for my employer (who was from Ireland), his wife, and his youngest brother, who was a writer. He had already had a book of short stories published. I was fascinated talking to him, but I wish now that I had asked him if Irish writers dream of writing the Great Irish Novel--or if they think that James Joyce has already written it.
Over those 40 years when Colette was cheering me on, I tried many forms of poetry, but seldom used formal verse. I wrote one sonnet (though I think I could call it a sonnet only because it had 14 lines) and one pantoum, which was not very successful. Yet, I believed Robert Frost's comment that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Though I am a rebel at heart, I did see that playing tennis without a net would be some other game.
I gradually realized that the poetry that for me sounded right was usually iambic pentameter, and that every line ended with a word that would rhyme (or be a slant rhyme) with a word at the end of another line somewhere else in the poem, but that it would seldom fit into the confines of a formal structure. The process of finding rhymes would open up new avenues of expressing myself, but I wouldn't feel fenced in. I was talking to my business partner about the work I'm doing on my chapbook, "Portal of Light," and she expressed concern that I have to work so hard at it. I tried to explain that I love the energy of the process, and she indicated that it seemed very convoluted to her, but that it did seem to emerge from the kind of person I am. Of course, she was a journalist who ran her own publishing company in Vienna before coming to the United States, and I said that was a very different sort of writing. She said she always told a story rather than just reporting on the bare facts. I wouldn't have been affected by what she said except that to show her how much better my poetry was after I worked on it, I read her a couple of lines from the chapbook as it is currently and then read the lines from the original poem. She told me that she prefers the original, that it is more straightforward and can be more easily understood. To be fair, the lines I read to her may not be the final version, but as I reflected on what she was saying over the next couple of days, I felt as if a thunderbolt were slowly electrifying my spine and sending charged pulses up to my brain. I'd like to read her the original version of one of the poems that has been published and see what she says about the difference between the two, but it has been a very unnerving couple of days as I have been asking myself if I need to look more profoundly into how I write. I feel almost as if I were questioning who I am, as if tectonic plates beneath my feet were suddenly starting to shift radically, leaving me off balance and deeply anxious.