Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Poetry of Awareness

"Sun Breaking Through"
- on an ordinary day -

Yesterday I cracked open what is likely one of my very favorite books of poetry: The Kingdom of Ordinary Time - a recently published collection of poems written by Marie Howe, the Poet Laureate of New York State.  Ms. Howe believes that all poetry is always about ordinary events that take place in ordinary time. A poem simply “catches a glimpse” of a world of extraordinary beauty and wonderful surprises always available in each and every moment of our everyday routines.

I recently heard Marie Howe give an interview about her poems of ordinary time. In the interview she described what happens whenever she teaches “poetry” to college students and how they all come to her expecting she will talk about literary style, proper grammar, perhaps rhyming techniques. Instead she begins the semester by asking everyone to take out a piece of paper and simply jot down something about what they may have observed  on the way to class that day. For the most part, almost no one even remembers what they observed, most were oblivious to it all. They were listening to their iTunes, driving aimlessly, sitting before class texting a friend or perhaps surfing the web.

She tells them that the only assignment these future poets will receive at this point in her class is to carefully observe whatever “comes to them” in the ordinary events of their lives and to describe what they observe. She tells them not to embellish, no metaphors or flowery poetic language, “just describe life as you become aware of it, then come to class and share what you have observed.”

Professor Howe talks about the wonderful thing that always happens when her students grow into “awareness”- in a few short weeks they all turn into poets. She observes:

By the fourth week or so the students come into class
and onto their desks pours all this wonderful stuff,
And it’s so thrilling, I mean it’s really thrilling and everybody can feel it.
The slicing of an apple, the gleam of a knife, the sound of the trashcan closing,
the maple tree outside, the blue jay.

About half-way through the course Professor Howe tells her students that, if they wish,  they may now employ metaphors in writing their poems, but no one wants to. They tell her: Why should we compare what we see to something else when the beauty we observe is the thing itself?

Wow, what a wonderful lesson to have learned – ordinary things and ordinary events are all the beauty we ever need.

A celebrated poet Laureate, Marie Howe, simply observes:

You become a poet when you become aware of
the events of everyday moments in everyday life.

We often think of poets as people who have exceptional gifts and talents, people with an uncanny ability to carefully fashion sentences, craft elaborate metaphors and devise exotic rhyme patterns; and while some poets are able to do this, the real “magic” of poetry is to simply be “aware of what is,” to catch a glimpse of the mystery of each moment and describe it. Each and everyone of us can do this, no matter who we are or what language we speak or even if we are unable to read or write.

I sit outside in my garden with a cup of coffee – it’s just an ordinary summer day in the desert as I happen to catch the morning sun just as it breaks through a little opening in the palm trees and I snap a picture of it – such beautiful poetry.

It’s thrilling, I mean it’s thrilling.  

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