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On Poetry

            I keep trying to push at my boundaries lately, to see if they are still solid brick or becoming something more flexible over time, and one of the boundaries I’m trying to move is the one that keeps me at a distance from poetry. I used to write poetry, and I even got some of my poems published way back when. I don’t remember what the toggle was, between poetry and songs and plays and novels and essays and short stories, but I wrote all of them at different times and often at the same time. I had (and still have) a form of Hypergraphia, an obsessive need to write. I used to write on my bare legs during summer classes in college, when I ran out of room on the page where I was supposed to be taking notes.

            I went through a phase of trying all of the forms of poetry I could find – Tanka, Haiku, Sonnet, etc. – and the rules were reassuring, for a while, and then not at all. So I tried to create my own forms, experimenting with meter and rhyme schemes and lower case letters and spacing on the page. I spent years at it, waiting for something to click into place and sound right and true, and it never really happened. I don’t know if I failed to reach the heart of poetry, or if poetry was just the wrong shape for my heart, but it left me feeling like only slivers of my story were visible, as if the best I could do was to present a broken mirror to the world.

            But recently there have been subjects that seem to beg for poetry. I tried to write about my Paw Paw trees and the Carolina Wren in poems, but they turned into essays, insistently, over and over again. I couldn’t seem to translate myself into the vocabulary and shape and size needed. I feel like there’s a mystery to poetry that I can’t crack, a rhythm I can’t find, or create.

I love what poetry can do: how it can say so much in a few words and inject wisdom so quickly, in so few images and words, into our collective blood streams. Not every poem succeeds, but the good stuff feels like a lightning strike.

We read a lot of poetry at my synagogue, and the prayers themselves are often poems, or poetic prose, trying to capture that lightning of an Aha moment, so that in a relatively short service we can be reminded of why we live our lives the way we do. Prayer feels relatively meaningless, to me, without a community to sing and say it with me (either in person, on zoom, or in my imagination), because it’s that communal feeling that brings God, the idea, to life. And I think the same is true with poetry, for me. I need to imagine other people reading and hearing and thinking the poem at the same time in order to hear the echoes in the words.

“We’re listening too!”

            But I want to write poetry, not just read it. I want to be able to contain my thoughts and feelings in those manageable boxes, and have those small jewels to share: beautiful and perfect and under control. I thought, maybe, that I could freewrite, in order to get the ideas out of my head, and then find the poem by cutting the excess away. But all I could do was to take my clumsy, oversized self and chop away limbs until I fit inside of the box, and then I didn’t recognize the poem at all. Worse, I hated it for the monster it had become.

“Monsters? Where?!

            Prose gives me more room to stretch out, and to put the puzzle together in my own way, but still, poetry sits there on the shelf, waiting for me, glaring at me, wondering why I am still so far away.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

83 responses »

  1. You should definitely try your hand at poetry again. You are such a skilled writer!

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  2. Keep working on your poetry. Sometimes it has no rules other than the ones you give it. Just write what you feel inside.

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  3. Trying to understand some modern poetry with metaphors and whatnots is like trying to decipher the cryptic crossword clues in the Sunday Times newspaper. I just don’t get it.

    I prefer to write poetry that can be understood and I like to read the same.

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  4. I agree with A.L. Kaplan. Make up your own rules. If it sounds good, you’ve achieved what a poem should do.

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  5. I am in awe of people who can write poetry. You can do it again, Rachel. And you were published! Get to it, girl!!

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  6. Poetry ideas are rampant in my brain. I am an amateur but I enjoy writing poetry. You should right what feels good to your heart. Take the ideas off the shelf and have fun. You are a magnificent writer.

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  7. Don’t table the idea of writing poems about your Paw Paw trees and Carolina wrens. In a forest of oaks the grove of Paw Paws can be easily overshadowed the same with the wrens in a bush dotted with colorful cardinals, blue jays, and goldfinches. A poem would give voice to the wonderful and noteworthy attributes of both these subjects Maybe the year ahead will give you more time to spend with both subjects which in turn might bring pops of poetic inspiration.

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  8. Sometimes reading poetry that you love helps ignite the inspiration. You have the urge ready and waiting.

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  9. As an adult woman who was called Jezebel (as well as various names of other wicked women) as a child, and the deep wounds the name calling wrought, and someone who had a deeply abusive father, it will be very difficult to read, but I will find a time I am feeling strong enough, and treasure the experience.

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  10. For me, the key to cracking the poetry “code” if you will was the writing teacher who said poetry is about images. It was simple, but it unlocked something for me. I stopped feeling like I needed to write essays and explain everything, and I stopped thinking of poetry as a puzzle for the reader to have to solve. I do not know if I am “good” enough to be giving any poetry advice; I certainly haven’t been published or anything. But I do feel that my own poetry got markedly better after hearing that, although I have no objective measure for better. I would also second the suggestion to read more poetry if looking to improve your poetry writing.

    I have a huge admiration for fiction writers! Having to come up with plot, characters, setting, dialogue…the stringing together of images for a poem feels so much easier to me in comparison!

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  11. Rachel, your prose writing often seems poetic to me with your use of images like:
    wrong shape for my heart, slivers of my story, a broken mirror to the world, small jewels to share. Any one of those images could bring about an aha moment.
    My spiritual director once suggested I try writing poetry. At first I scoffed and resisted, but about 6 months later a “poem” came to mind (when I was not trying). You are such a talented writer, so please stay open to what presents itself to your imagination.

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  12. I don’t want to overanalyze, but I was struck by your wanting to contain your feelings in “manageable boxes… beautiful and perfect and under control.” In “Writing Down the Bones” and other books, Natalie Goldberg talks a lot about losing control, that the loss of control is the essence of poetry. I don’t know about these thing myself; I read very little poetry and the stuff I write is pretty bad. Also I have never felt I lost control when writing. But I totally encourage you to continue writing poetry if it brings you joy. And I agree with the comment that said your prose is often poetic. I look forward to your blog every week!

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  13. Whenever I see poetry – unless it’s exceptional – I tend to remember Douglas Adams words about it in The Hitchhikers Guide, when describing how bad Vogon Poetry was. It still makes me giggle now.

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  14. Poetry can reflect the individual and cover a multitude of emotions. Every reader will take something different from it as to me, poetry makes its on footprint on the mind.

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  15. I think the thing about poetry is to keep at it. You may not like the finished product but go back in six months, look at it again and tweak it. There’s nothing that says you have to leave things ‘as is’. I write a LOT of ‘poetry” and I’m sure it’s not great stuff. It’s fun for me to do though and to me, that’s the POINT. And in my opinion? Don’t overthink the ‘rules’ so much. That’s not a criticism mind you. I envy those who actually know the rules and better still follow them. I can’t do that. It’s too constricting and I’m not very educated about what the rules are in the first place. Poetry comes from within our souls in my opinion and trying to make it fit a structured form kills the creativity and spontaneity that true poetry has. I’m sure you’ll do an AWESOME job, so go to it!

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  16. Should you want to fool around with poetry, and feel that having a form to follow might be useful, you might enjoy writing haibun, which combine prose with poetry (traditionally, haiku). A short poem following the prose can deepen understanding of the prose paragraph or contrast with it.

    I don’t write haibun often, but occasionally they work best for what I am trying to say. Or perhaps your dogs speak haiku? Anyway, I think it’s fun to play with words. I think writing poetry is fun even when it isn’t “good”.

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  17. I used to read a fair bit of poetry, but I have never been able to write it to my own satisfaction. This is my favourite poem, and every time I read it, I realise I could never get close.

    Not Waving but Drowning
    By Stevie Smith. (1957)

    Nobody heard him, the dead man,
    But still he lay moaning:
    I was much further out than you thought
    And not waving but drowning.

    Poor chap, he always loved larking
    And now he’s dead
    It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
    They said.

    Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
    (Still the dead one lay moaning)
    I was much too far out all my life
    And not waving but drowning.

    Best wishes, Pete.

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  18. We all love a good limerick. Unappreciated form. “There once was a dog named Cricket…”

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  19. Poets have a special gift. Most of us are relegated to the audience. 🙂

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  20. I go back and forth with form. I think that right now these short essays(called blog posts)are coming easily. There is a condensation in poetry that can be tricky. Instead I seem to have compressed my prose at the moment. The fun continues for us both, doesn’t it?

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  21. As a hormonal teenager I wrote a lot of different types of poetry to try to express all the strong feelings I experienced. The ability to write good poetry left me as things settled down. I hope you can find your muse again, since the desire to write it seems to still be strong within you.

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  22. It is very hard for me to read and understand poetry. I feel great when I can understand some bits of a poem. Shavua tov, Rachel!

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  23. I totally get this. I am astonished that I can’t write a single poem worth reading. Why is it so difficult?

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  24. Personally I find poetry so much easier than prose or essays. I love to read poetry aswell whereas I find it hard to concentrate on a book.

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    • I’ve heard that before, about poetry and flash fiction and flash essays; they allow you to connect for a few paragraphs and feel recharged, even when you don’t have time or energy for something longer.

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  25. You are talented and I know your poetry will flow.
    Rachel, please read my son’s article mentioning Persian poetry.
    https://thehill.com/opinion/international/543782-through-nowruz-biden-can-set-the-tone-for-us-iran-relations

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  26. Some writers write prose poems. Later return to poetic forms.

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  27. Oh how this resonates with me. As a girl when told to write a poem for homework at school, I would just dash some ideas into my book. I’m not saying it was any good, but now I just cannot focus on one idea or thought or concept. A few years’ ago I worked in a team and we started to share daily haikus. It was brilliant. We just wrote our lives in little 17 syllable chunks. Some were lyrical, lots were funny, a few were sad or angry. Again, I don’t think there was any merit in it and some of the team were keener to take part than others, but it really didn’t matter. And then our team was disbanded along with our little haiku archive. I do have a copy somewhere. Perhaps I need instruction, or orders, or possibly a bit of discipline. To use your analogy, I can’t work out the bits or the boxes so just ramble on – like this.

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  28. Things can start out as essays. I don’t worry too much about literary styles. Free forms are my easiest way to put it together– although a friend of mine turned me into an occasional haiku man. And sometimes those monsters you never intended to end up with– sometimes they can be viewed by others in a creative item for their own imagination. Anyway– keep plugging away with all your writing, Rachel. Hug and pet your dog for me.
    Art

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  29. “I love what poetry can do: how it can say so much in a few words and inject wisdom so quickly, in so few images and words, into our collective blood streams. Not every poem succeeds, but the good stuff feels like a lightning strike.”

    You put it well – I love how powerful and poignant good poetry is. I wish I was better at reading it, too… I don’t often read poetry on my own because I wish I had a teacher to help me pick apart all the nuances and meanings that I’m sure I’m missing.

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    • I’ve had to learn over and over that if I can’t appreciate a poem, or song or work of art, it’s not my fault. Either the work of art itself hasn’t done the work of reaching out to me, or I’m not at the right point in my life for that work of art.

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  30. You have hypergraphia?! You and Shakespeare.

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  31. Your book, Yeshiva Girl, sounds like a book dealing with very important issues. I look forward to reading more of what you are doing.

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  32. I love poetry so much and respect it so deeply, that the only way i can share any of what i write is by declaring it not-poetry. I understand what you’ve written here on a personal level.

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  33. Frankly I don’t religion helps poetry although some psalms are poetic.

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  34. Rachel, I agree with your longing to write poetry. I often wake up in the middle of the night with a couple of poetry lines. If I don’t jot it down, it eludes me in the morning. I love rhyming poetry because it’s easy to remember and flows of the tongue, but it’s VERY difficult to express yourself in rhyme. There in lies the challenge. You have inspired me. I’m going to get motivated to write my poetry again. I’ve also wanted to put together a book of my artwork and poetry inspired by each piece. Write, my friend… write!

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  35. Rachel, this post resonated with me—a lot! I consider myself a prose writer. I can compose little rhymed ditties with little effort, and I love to write acrostics. But I’m very tentative about writing the kind of poem you “liked” today, suffering from a kind of imposter syndrome: “look who thinks she’s a poet!” So your affirmation means even more to me because I’ve just read your post.

    And I hope what I’ve just told you encourages you to plunge ahead. Maybe we’ll never be Emily Dickinson, but we can spread our wings a bit anyway. And who knows what may happen with practice?

    Cheers,
    Annie

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  36. I too love to write poems! I don’t know what it is but maybe it’s because I’m not so good to talk. It’s easier to “talk” with pen. You can discribe so well your feelings!

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  37. Wow!!! This post resonates with me a great deal. I have different reasons and seasons for what I write and when I write. I can understand the mystery that writing poetry brings to one’s mind and imagination. I fell in love with poetry as a young teenager, and it has stayed with me for all these years. I love this post!!! Great write and an excellent read for all of us.

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  38. For me, poetry ebbs and flows. I cannot force it as it is a force within itself, when it comes it pours out of me. I cannot rain it in, place expectations nor boundaries upon it, it is a torrential downpour of words with its own rules and I am merely its scribe.

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  39. Try forgetting the rules, Poetry is not about rules, It is about expressing ideas – philosophically or even aggressively – depending on your personality. Metrical poetry such as Haiku is fine as an intellectual challenge – but that’s all.

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  40. Your words are very poetic, I think your overthinking it. Just write. You’re a natural Poet.

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  41. Your description of the essence of poetry (and the gut wrenching relatable frustrations of an author) is captivating and so very accurate! Very well said. Keep writing in any way that feels most authentic to you.

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  42. Reading this post without a shape already feels like a poetry to me aghhh. You got so much more to offer dear, dont ever stop.

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  43. ” I feel like there’s a mystery to poetry that I can’t crack, a rhythm I can’t find, or create.” – I think that’s what makes poetry so intriguing. It’s a quest to say things in ways no one else cannot, and no two poets are the same.
    “Not every poem succeeds, but the good stuff feels like a lightning strike.” – I like this statement!

    Reply

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