A Poet First
A. D. Barncord Doerr
As a graduate student in my forties, who desires to be an art therapist, I often try to balance my left-brain learning of psychology and behavioral science with right-brain learning in the studio arts. This has led many people to assume, inaccurately, that I was an artistic person who later became analytical, instead of the other way around. Truthfully, I did not fully embrace my inner visual artist until I was in my thirties. However, my inner science geek was in full swing by age six (to the annoyance of my first grade teacher, who did not appreciate me taking over her science lessons with my enthusiasm). Yet, to say I started out as an analytical person would also be slightly inaccurate, because I was a poet first.
My introduction to the world of poetry was through my mother’s frustration. As a young mother, when she couldn’t handle the stress of an infant and a toddler anymore, my mother would retreat back into her high school thespian training and read poetry aloud from Best Loved Poems of the American People edited by Hazel Felleman. Even at three years old, I was mesmerized, as she read the words aloud. I would sit quietly listening to her. One day I asked my mother how she knew all these wonderful poems. She showed me the page she was reading from and pointed at the text. “See these marks,” she said, “These are words that tell me what to say when I read them, and when you get old enough you can read poetry by yourself.” My mother had no idea of the effect that simple revelation would have on me. According to both my parents, I would ask my mother every morning after that day if I was old enough to read yet. Finally, in a bid for peace, my parents bought a phonics kit and my father built for me my very own record player to listen to them on. I can still remember the care I took with those records, when impatience got the better of me and I started my lessons early, while my mother was busy with something else. Soon, I was allowed to study phonics at my own pace. For me, poetry was a form of magic--a treasure I hungered for.
It was in second grade when the greatest revelation of my young life occurred. My teacher, Miss Adams, decided to teach us about rhymes by having the class write a poem together. The idea that I could create this magic on my own was a mind-blowing discovery. My first solo poem was about the death of our class hamster, which my teacher immediately put into my school file. From that moment, I exercised my power over words on a regular basis. In eighth grade, I took my poetry assignments seriously, learning the basic mechanics, while writing poems of my personal emotions on the side.
In high school, I discovered there was a difference between myself and other poetry writing teens. My peers would only write their poems when in the throes of angst. While they admired my skills, they couldn´t accept the route I took to get those skills. The idea of writing a poem "just for fun" or for practice was actually blasphemous to many of them, as was the concept of word play. It never occurred to them that what I did with my poems was no different from what a singing diva does when she´s training her voice. There is a difference between learning the forms and sticking to them. As many creative people will attest, you have to know the rules before you can break them successfully.
Something that also adds to this myth about creating good poetry is the idea that it has to be dark and painful. In many people´s minds, positive poetry is considered "sappy." I have several upbeat poetry pieces, but I find that whenever I enter a poetry group, especially one with a lot of teens and young adults, these pieces are not appreciated, but when I put up a piece of pathos--then I´m praised for the poem--even if by all true poetic standards, it stinks. Popular songwriter Kenny Loggins has addressed that issue when people accused him of writing "fluff." He said something along the lines of "I feel sorry for these people. They have gotten in touch with their pain, but not their joy."
Now, I am not against writing about negative emotions, nor writing in the throes of angst. I consider it very therapeutic and necessary. All creative work, whether good or bad, has a use. However, that doesn´t mean it should be considered a masterpiece and shared with the public. In art therapy, there is the concept of "witnessing" a piece of work. It means that the creator of it shares it with someone who is supportive and will let them talk about the experiences they had while creating the work. I realize that you must get in touch with your pain. It seeps into my work all the time, but I do try to remember to take time to get in touch with my joy. When I succeed, it is truly a transforming experience.
How though does this make me a better poet? The answer is actually based in behavioral concepts. Mammals learn by playing. It’s a fact often repeated in nature shows showing baby mammals. Kittens and lion cubs learn hunting skills by stalking and pouncing on their siblings. Puppies and wolf cubs play tug-of-war. Bears wrestle. Children play. Playing gives one a chance to be creative while perfecting one’s abilities.
That is what I do with words. I play with them. The best way to become a good writer and poet is to keep writing. The more comfortable you are with words, the easier it is to make them do what you want. I was very lucky to become interested in poetry while still a child, when I saw no shame in playing with my poetry.