Pen up, pen down
After Maya Angelou
Pen up, pen down
Pen scratching all around.
Another page, another story
In the endless seek of glory.
In the air, now both eyes down.
Since you write, don’t put the pen down.
Chores not done, the writing lags
Curse and cry and write those blogging tags.
All the people out of words
Make lives the same as flocks of birds.
Cross the line, they make you wait
Cross the line, they make you hate.
Both hands flat, the writing’s done.
Now comes the time to have some fun.
They think I’m mad,
I think I’m crazy.
Have you read Maya Angelou’s “Harlem Hopscotch”? It’s a very powerful poem about what it’s like to be part of a black community in the mid-twentieth century; my poem is only about writing and the struggle to write each day. I’m grateful to Angelou for her inspiration, and I hope that my poem is not taken, in any way, as disrespectful to her original.
In my poem I take a half-serious, half-whimsical approach to describe what it means to write. The scratching pen, the blogging tags … but then if you cross the line, you may learn to wait, you may learn to hate. And, sometimes I think I must be crazy, to keep writing. It’s such an uphill thing to do.
What makes you write? Why do you keep going? What is the most thrilling or meaningful writing that you have done lately? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’ve found some surprising and helpful insights in Poets & Writers, especially in the first-person essays on writing. One very memorable example is (Jan/Feb 2016) Tom Spanbauer’s “Dangerous Writing: Go to Your Battlefield”. – More on that another time! Plus: the P&W website has its own writing prompts on a webpage called The Time Is Now, with different prompts for nonfiction, fiction, or poetry. Check it out if you’re looking for something new to write!
This month I found an intriguing article on poet Gwendolyn Brooks‘s award in 1950, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Brooks was the first African-American poet to receive the Pulitzer, and the article provides an intriguing analysis of the circumstances and forces leading to her receiving the award (“Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter”).
After I read the P&W article, I wanted to read some of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry. What was the poetry in her book Annie Allen that caught the imagination of the poetry establishment? So, I checked out Gwendolyn Brooks’s first two books from the library, Annie Allen (1950) and A Street in Bronzeville (1945). In her first book I found the poem “a song in the front yard.” It called to me, as though inviting me to write my own poem after hers; here is an excerpt of Brooks’s poem:
a song in the front yard
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose. . . .
If you have ever been tantalized by the idea of writing a poem like another poet’s work, you’ll know what I mean about being drawn in by the language, by the emotion, of the poem – so much that you want to try it yourself.
Here is my poem, after “a song in the front yard.”
a song in the back yard
(after Gwendolyn Brooks)
I’ve stayed in the back yard all my life.
I want a peek at the front
Where it’s bold and lively and the world rolls by.
A girl gets tired of the weeds.
I want to go in the front yard now
And maybe waltz down the sidewalk to the corner
To where the street buskers sing
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My family sneers but I say it’s okay
How they sing a song that makes me say
My mother, she has a beautiful smile
My father, he keeps us safe a long while
That I am both and neither of them at the same time
On account of I am my own.
When I hear that song at the street corner
And see the world going by
I’d like to be there when the light catches fire
And wear the brave face of artist gone wild.
In my poem I take the opposite view to the one in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem – she wanted to be in the back yard, in the rough and untended world – while I wanted to be in the front yard, where everything happens on the street. Isn’t it interesting that, in both of our poems, the narrator wants to go and see more of life?
Are you a back-yard person or a front-yard person? Do you long to be in the front yard, where things are orderly and formal, where everything you do is visible to passersby? Or do you prefer going into the back yard, sheltered from public eyes, where you can play to your imagination’s delight and no one passes judgment on you?
Today I was checking out at a favorite bookstore when this book caught my eye:
This is a children’s book, yes? The author, Kwame Alexander, and the illustrator, Ekua Holmes, are Newbery Award winners and Caldecott Award winners, respectively, both awards being given in children’s literature.
But – I could not resist it. As I leafed through the book, the bright illustrations captured me. The premise of the book – poems celebrating poets – stole my imagination. Poets celebrating poets! What an amazingly beautiful idea!
Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda … William Carlos Williams … Billy Collins (and others). It was the including of a Billy Collins poem that cinched it for me. I love the other poets, too, but Billy Collins is like the poet on a mission to get people to like poetry. I just love his poem “Introduction to Poetry” – primarily because it is just so true (have you seen it?):
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
but all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
– Billy Collins
This book, Out of Wonder, takes each poet and writes a new poem in honor of that poet. Here is the very first poem in the book, “How to Write a Poem” by Kwame Alexander:
Let them dance together
twist and turn
like best friends
in a maze
till you find
to that one true word
– Kwame Alexander.
Which poem is better? It doesn’t really matter . . . Because I am going to write my OWN poem, about how to write a poem, AND how to read a poem. Wait here; I’ll be right back!
Are you still there? Good! Here it is:
They told me the class meets here
but all I see is a forest of green trees
and a lake of blue water.
They said, read the first poem in the book
but all I read were the patterns in the clouds
and drops of dew on the blades of grass.
They told me I needed to write a poem
but all I wrote was the love
tattooed on my heart,
for the grass
and for you.
– Theresa Barker
Do you ever write poems “in the style of” a favorite poet? Or maybe you have tried writing prose in the manner of a well-known or favorite author: Hemingway, Woolf, Bradbury, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler. Ursula LeGuin. How does it feel? Do you learn something from it?
And, do you ever lie outside in the grass and read the patterns in the clouds or count the dewdrops? You may be writing poetry when you do!