Today, I've asked Micha Boyett, talented author and award-winning mother (so her children say), to answer the question, "why poetry?" Micha (pronounced "MY-cah") is a grand writer whose new book Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer, explores how to live an monastic life within the hustle and bustle of our contemporary society. (Go pick up a copy.) Micha received her MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, where she studied poetry. In other words, when it comes to poetic license, this woman has some clout. Enjoy.
I sit in the teacher’s chair before a carpet packed with five and six year olds, all sitting crisscross applesauce. They stare at me with expectation. I am August’s mom, the real-live-author, there to tell them about poetry.
“A poem is like a painting or a sculpture made out of words,” I say. “Have you ever had a big feeling and it made you want to cry really hard or hit something?” About eighteen hands shoot up at this question. (Me too, kids. Me too.) “Poetry takes a big feeling or a big idea and shows it in a small, careful way.”
“Sometimes I have big feelings.” (All the time. Big feelings are my best friends. For better or worse.) “And when I have them, the best thing I can do is put the feeling into words. I understand my feelings better after I write them into a poem.”
Five of the Kindergarteners are waving hands with vigor because they really need to tell me all about their big feelings and all the times they’ve hit their siblings. I nod my head with compassion and try to move on. “Poetry is like a painting because it says something big in a small space. Poetry shows us the world around us in new ways.”
I stare at my son who is beaming because his mom is sitting in the teacher’s chair. He is beaming because I am an expert in something, even though on the way to school he assured me that poetry is super boring.
“Yeah, buddy. Sometimes it’s boring for me too,” I said. “But sometimes it’s magic.” I’m sure he rolled his eyes in the back seat. But, right now, he’s bursting with pride in me.
It’s true, what I said to him in the car. I love poetry because of the magic. I love it because sometimes I need to be given new words and new images and new gentle rhythms. I need to be reminded of the beauty of this world, and poetry gives me a different vision. Poetry adjusts my lens, my paradigm. It helps me notice what is more real than the to-do lists and anxieties of my daily life.
The world is both exquisite and foul. It is both wonderful and tragic. And poems somehow give me the space to hold the weight of the bothness.
Poetry gives me the form to hold the wild sweetness of my son on that carpet in his Kindergarten classroom, gazing at me with pride and love. Poetry gives me the form to acknowledge that I can hold his innocent pride in me and still recognize the coming loss: that he will grow up, that this moment will pass, that he will mature and become a man. He loves me desperately in this bright moment but soon (so soon!) he will fall in love with another woman and make a life with her. He will have a job and responsibilities and he will have to remind himself to send me a happy birthday card. His blonde hair will go brownish and eventually grayish and I will die and (please God) he will bury me with tears.
I think this as I speak about poems to the twenty-one children in his classroom. Somehow, I hold the desperation of his sweet innocence, and the truth of his growing up. Somehow I feel it in a moment as I speak.
Poetry tells me there is room to hold the mystery of this. Poetry gives me a way to say it.
I speak to his class about William Blake who wrote words two hundred years ago. “Can you guys believe that he wrote a poem two hundred years ago, before we were alive, and we still read it, even though he’s not even alive anymore?”
They cannot fathom two hundred years. I cannot fathom it either. How do I dare to consider eternity?
We pass out copies of Blake’s “The Tyger,” which I have printed in large font next to a black and white image of the ferocious creature. We stop with each stanza so I can explain the big words. I define symmetry. “Hold out your arms and draw an invisible line down the middle of your body. Look how your arms are the same on each side!” We discuss the scary feeling of seeing a cat’s eyes in the dark and compare that to Blake’s description of the tiger’s fire eyes.
We wonder out loud about what it could mean for stars to shoot spears and weep. August and his friends are sure that “when the stars threw down their spears” it meant that a bad hunter was trying to kill to the tiger and the stars were protecting him. (These San Francisco boys have passionate feelings about caring for the animals.)
I listen and wonder with them. I want them to feel the mystery of this poem, of poetry in general. Because sometimes there aren’t answers. Surely Blake knew what he meant by the stars/spears image but, honestly, I’ve never been quite sure. And even though the language is high above these Kindergarten-sized brains, I know this to be true: Kids understand mystery and the otherness of the fierce creature in Blake’s poem. Kids may not know what a furnace is, but they know the creepiness of a brain fashioned inside glowing fire.
When we spread out through the room, back to seats and tables and crayons, the kids write their own poems in which, based on Kenneth Koch’s amazing prompt in his book Rose Where Did You Get That Red?, they are invited to ask questions of any kind of creature they want. I walk around the room helping the children sound out words.
One boy writes his poem to a megaladon. Another writes “Cretur! Cretur! Why are you so gloomee?”
About twelve different girls write their poems to unicorns. (How did these girls collectively zap each other’s brains with the shared unicorn idea? I’m amazed.) My son calls a cobra snake “wis” and “fritng” (wise and frightening). And each time I see them working to put pencil to paper, struggling to get the questions out of themselves and into the world, I feel the magic of poems.
All great art should say the big truths with economy and beauty. Every word of a poem should be necessary, just as every stroke of the paintbrush on canvas, or every cut of the clay in the sculptor’s hand should contribute to the story, the experience, the presence of the piece.
We need big feelings set in small spaces. Our world is too loud and too fast and, most likely, it will continue to speed up as these children grow. We need the quiet ferocity of poems, the room they give us to recognize the truth in the wild motion of our lives. Poems are like prayer in that way: an invitation to slow down.
Yes, poetry is sometimes boring. But, mostly, that’s because we are too frantic to trust the poems, to wait with them, to ask them questions. When we stop to listen to a poem speak, when we take the time to sit with their quiet mysteries, sometimes we are invited into the magic.
Micha (pronounced "MY-cah") Boyett is a writer, blogger, and sometimes poet. A former youth minister, she's passionate about monasticism and ancient Christian spiritual practices and how they inform the contemporary life of faith. She recently released her first book Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer. Boyett and her husband live in San Francisco with their two boys. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at michaboyett.com