Introduction: There’s a lot of poetry there
In my college dorm room, I shyly wrote poetry. I didn’t love sharing it in my first poetry class. I thought I was the worst poet and the upperclassmen wrote lines that circled around mine and made my head spin. I took poetry because I’d been speaking this language for as long as I could remember. It spoke to me in a way that made me stop. It made me pay attention. It forced me to pause, to listen.
One line from a poem would toss in my head over and over like laundry in the washing machine and the only way of hanging it out to dry was to write.
Writing in response to reading was like pinning clothes up on a line, letting God breath on linens to dry them out with the same breath that sends dandelions spinning, planting seeds.
The first life changing poem I remember was in a book called “where the sidewalk ends.” The front cover was of a sidewalk ending, and it somehow ended in some sort of crazy, childish dreamland and as an elementary schooler I was certain that’s where I lived. That was where I belonged, somewhere, where the sidewalk ends.
I haven’t found where the sidewalk ends yet, but I haven’t stopped looking.
I did a presentation on a poem I found in that book, and I still have the book with a sticky note on the page of the poem. That poem changed my life. It’s a goofy poem about bringing a gorilla to school, and even as a child I thought this poem couldn’t be a true story but somehow the words strung together made up a profound truth. Rephrased any other way, I would have shouted out, “liar!” but just the way it was written convinced me and left me full of wonder and belief.
In my college dorm room, I didn’t believe I was a poet. But I wrote a poem about a homeless man anyway. There were stories I saw in his fingers when we played cards on a park bench and the way he noticed my freckles and gave me a nickname needed to be expressed in lines and stanzas.
So I told his story in this poem, the one I saw, and I let my college friend read it in a tiny dorm room. After the last line, she started crying and she couldn’t tell me why. I said, “it’s not supposed to be sad,” and she said, “I know, but it made me feel something.”
After my first poetry class, I was convinced poetry wasn’t for me. When I read my lines out loud all I could think is, “this is so embarrassing.” I was grasping at trying to write a poem that felt as true to me as the poem about bringing your gorilla to school.
Across the world in my study abroad program, I was becoming a missionary. This felt like such a worthy career choice, but I faced darkness I didn’t know what to do with so poetry flooded onto pages in my quiet little apartment in a broken, cracked city like a shattered ceramic jar that I eventually left but never left me.
Back on campus, my college friend told me about what I missed. I had to write this huge project and I didn’t think I had time for it. She told me to send my project advisor all the writing I had. So I sent him this document full of darkness and laughter, somehow both blended into the same thing, and he read every word. I couldn’t help but think, “this is so embarrassing.”
I knew after he read it he would tell me what I already knew; I’m a nonfiction writer. When I try to write fiction, I end up telling the truth.
Instead, I sat awkwardly on his couch ready to be told which direction I should go in with my writing, and he pointed to the poems. Very few people chose poetry, and I didn’t really choose it either, I think it chose me.
He just said, “there’s a lot of poetry there!”
And I was surprised by that. He was right, it was a lot of poetry. The poetry I had sent him was poetry I sent over in a panic. It had lived in my computer for a while, where I thought it would always stay, but at this moment as a college kid trying to meet a deadline, I had suddenly allowed someone to enter into this sacred space I had always kept to myself.
That poetry was closer to what I was trying to do, to tell the truth, the one about the gorilla going to school.
But it still wasn’t there yet, and I was frustrated.
I wrote in the language I didn’t know how to speak. The final project felt messy and sloppy in so many ways, but I felt proud as I stood in front of my classmates and read stanzas and lines because I knew I was trying to tell the truth.
There was laughter and tears in the room and the brutal honesty of the poems rang in the room after I stopped reading, and shuffled to my seat. I felt awkward, because honesty feels uncomfortable and vulnerable, as if I was standing naked in front of my class.
Later, one of my classmates sent me a poem from a book about a river that changed everything for them, and they said, your poems felt like this to me. I was amazed.
Poetry isn’t something that is always understood. Maybe I write it to understand, but it doesn’t need to be understood.
Poetry is like praying in tongues. You don’t understand the words but somehow you know what they mean.
They pour out with so much fervency and passion they scare most people. They definitely still scare me. When Hannah poured out her soul before the Lord in 1 Samuel, she prayed with moving lips that didn't make a sound. Eli watched and didn't understand, she poured out her words anyway (1 Samuel 1:13-15). I want to be like her; brave enough to pour out her soul before the Lord, without a care about who is watching.
Poetry makes you stop, it makes you listen, it makes you pay attention.
Jesus stopped by a blind man who couldn’t see since birth and people wanted to know why. It had to do with sin, right?
We are always so quick to point to sin. But instead, Jesus turned to the earth. He took clay and anointed it. He put the clay on the man's eyes and he told him to go wash in a place called “sent.”
The man washed his eyes, eyes that had been broken and useless for his entire lifetime, and he was healed. He could see. And I imagine he spent the day going to places that were familiar to him, but seeing them all for the first time. He used to know the touch of the doorframe he walked through, but now he saw the way light shifted for the first time as he moved through it for the thousandth time.
Poetry is like this: It gives you a lens to see all of the things you’ve always known but you’ve never seen before.
And I imagine, as the blind man saw, he was commanded by his entire being to stop, to slow, to pay attention. Maybe his head was sent spinning at first. Then, I think he wandered around to those familiar places and people, maybe he held a loved one’s face cupped in both of his hands and looked on to simply say, “there’s a lot of poetry there” in the wrinkles from smile lines and the flutters of eyelashes.
Poetry does this: It sends you on your way.
You have to do some of the work yourself, you have to do some of the washing in order to see. It starts with clay, a piece of earth that is already prepared, raw and ready to use by anyone willing to stop and listen.
And then there’s water, and like a baptism in a moment of washing there is purpose and intention that wasn’t seen there before. Finally, there is healing. There are opened eyes, and people who are sent.
Sent to go look, to see, to pay attention, full of wonder and belief.