Beauty appears in the same way to both beholders, but to one it is dumb, and to the other it speaks. Or rather, it speaks to all, but only they understand who test the voice heard outwardly against the truth within.
—St. Augustine (Confessions X.6.10, translated by Maria Boulding)
For a long time, I did not love poetry.
I read poetry. I memorized poetry to get me through a job that left me weary from boredom. I tried to understand poetry. But I didn't love it.
I loved words. Any words. Words in books, words in songs, words on the shampoo bottle. I loved stories — long ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. I loved metaphors. I even loved select poems. But I did not love poetry.
Poetry drew the veil between someone like me, an amateur reader, and the literary holy of holies where sacred readers snapped their fingers over microbrewed beers I couldn't swallow, analyzed form and technique, parsed allusions like inside jokes.
Remember that game we played in junior high? The one where at the beginning only the dealer knows the rules and dishes out penalty cards to individuals who break the rules until they catch on? Poetry left me the lone player who still didn't get the rules.
Why did the poet break the line there? Why is this random line tabbed over four inches? Why is one stanza five lines long and the next twelve?
What happened to good old iambic pentameter?
Determined to understand, I bought The Waste Land. I forced myself through readings and re-readings of poems in my literary journals. Some poems held something for me, but I was still missing out on something — missing the point, maybe, or trampling over some subtle reference.
In the land of poetry, words handed me over for thirty pieces of silver, and I gave up.
This is how I came to love poetry:
First, I became a mother.
Before, I had always been working toward something: degrees, auditions, publications. The routine and discipline of scales and Hanon, of daily word counts, of Greek exegeticals measured my passions.
In motherhood, I delight over roly-polies and airplanes. I waste hours listening to the rhythm of a child's sleep, hungrily breathing in the scent of each exhale. I get muddy making pies in the backyard. In motherhood Chutes and Ladders and tea parties measure my passions. In motherhood, I stop envisioning the future of my life.
Then one evening, I excised myself from motherhood, or so I thought, to attend a critique group at Art House Dallas. We read short stories, a philosophic essay, and memoir excerpts. Then we came to the poet.
I don't remember his name, nor do I have a copy of his poem that sent me head over heels. Someday, I hope to thank him for his part in this mess.
Did he read his work or did someone else read his work? I think someone else read it, but in my memory, he read the work with musical diction that reminded me of a Bach fugue (Augustine said, "When a true account is given of past events, what is brought forth from the memory is not the events themselves, which have passed away, but words formed from images of those events which, as they happened and went on their way, left some kind of traces in the mind through the medium of the senses" [Confessions XI.18.23], and the memory here has taken on a life of its own). The poem, in fact, twisted and inverted and played like a fugue. In my memory, I fall in love each time.
I had no idea what the poem meant. Not that it was nonsensical, but it didn't make sense to me — not in a way I could articulate.
It pulled me and spun me and sent me flying through the heavens, skating around stars, tumbling with meteors.
The poem, as far as I could tell, had nothing to do with motherhood, but it was saturated with my motherhood. The delight of roly-polies settling in the cracks of my palms, the beat of sleeping babies heavy on my chest, the coolness of mud squishing through my fingers echoed in the poem.
It was magic, and I didn't care that I didn't understand the magician's tricks. I turned a blind eye to the sleight-of-hand.
I tell an old tale. Once upon a time, I tried (and failed) to understand jazz, memorizing jazz scales, researching forms and historical movements. A friend told me to ride the line like a roller coaster. Closing my eyes and throwing up my hands (though in real life I ride roller coasters gripping the bar in front of me), I rode, my stomach flipping at the descents, my spine pinned to the seat on the loops. Now jazz throbs through our house like string theory.
There's a poem in this — lines about listening and playing, about embracing without understanding, rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn.
I'd like to say that everything hinged on that night, that my life turned upside-down, but I returned home to dirty diapers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and stained clothes soaking in Oxiclean. I'd like to say that I opened my Norton Anthology that night or the next day, that I returned to my literary journals with new sight. That was how it was with my love affair with jazz — hot and heavy, and almost two decades later it hasn't cooled. But I didn't read another poem for some time after that night.
I think it was better this way, though. The poem — or more particularly, my experience with the poem — needed to ferment like my yogurts and sourdoughs. There may also be a poem in this, in the quiet love that grows and bubbles in the rich wetlands of flour and yeast.
Motherhood forces a slower rhythm to my passions. No longer can I practice piano or write daily. But motherhood also teaches me about nurturing things, about the art of the slow rise (in sourdoughs and in children), watching a child learn to walk or form letters on paper or maybe even grasp the wisdom of listening to his parents. (I'd like to say it teaches me patience, but let's not stretch things.) A few weeks ago I spent an entire nap time on one line of a poem. I read a poem like this, now: the poem and I, we stumble together, patiently, patiently, finding our balance, a few steps here, a couple there, until at last, with arms jutted out and knees stiff we walk across the room.
Motherhood teaches me about ambiguity (again, in sourdoughs and in children). I don't always have to understand the forms for them to matter. It gives me permission to have a personal relationship with the poem. I read a poem like this: we play hide-n-seek, or snuggle, or run around the house chasing giants. We fall laughing in tickle fights or cry together over disappointments, and I might not be able to articulate what this type of play teaches or which personality this poem exhibits (INFP?), but it takes up space inside me and becomes part of me.
Historical contexts, nods to other poets and poems, modern and contemporary forms, I hope to learn these things with time. But I'm in no rush. True, sometimes the poetry sits neglected in the back of my fridge. Then, just before the yeast starves, I loosen the lid, scoop in flour and water, and breathe in the apple cider vinegar scent. I let the new flour bubble and rise before making the levain to knead into a loaf of sourdough. This, too, must ferment and rise. True, sometimes it doesn't take. The sourdough remains flat no matter my coaxing, or the bottom burns. (Motherhood also teaches me to give room for instinct, to scrap what doesn't work for my family despite what the experts say.) So sometimes I read a poem like this: a bread that refuses to rise, or is too tough to chew, that cannot even be transformed into croutons, that is tossed, and I return to the mother dough, stir in more flour and water, start again.
Bread forms from four simple ingredients: water, flour, salt, yeast. It requires not much but time and attention, and it gives the stuff of life.
This is how I fell in love with poetry. I became a mother, and the poetry gathers life and nourishes me.
Heather A. Goodman reads, writes, and kneads sourdough with three children and her husband in Plano, TX.