It starts after dinner, when I share a poem called, “One Art.” I began reading poems after dinner when my husband’s job changed, and he started working late, and we felt the loss of him at our table.
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” says Elizabeth Bishop’s poem. The statement is so stark. Is she really serious? Can she be that immune as to continue, “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster”?
The poem is a villanelle. It repeats certain lines in a set pattern. At intervals, we hear the assertion again, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Losing. Isn’t hard to master. No disaster.
Is it the promise of such poetry that tempts my daughter Sara to steal away with my new Norton Anthology, The Making of a Poem? What does she hear that convinces her it is worth reading about forms like sonnets, pantoums, villanelles, sestinas. These words sound intimidating to me, and like too much work to tackle.
The next day she asks, “Do you want to hear my villanelle?” I do not know what a villanelle is, though I remember once quoting Lauren Winner, who said she stopped blogging because she’d rather learn the art of something like, say, the villanelle.
“Sure.” I want to hear my girl’s villanelle.
Over the next few days, the conversation repeats itself in a fairly predictable pattern. “Do you want to hear my sonnet? Do you want to hear my pantoum? Do you want to hear my sestina?”
I am astonished by all of it, especially the sestina. Thirty-nine lines, six end-words that must repeat in a changing pattern throughout the entire poem. I take Sara’s poem and compare it to what I see in the book. It really is a sestina. Not a flawless one, by any means, but a sestina nonetheless. My girl is a middle-schooler, and she is working harder than I am at the art of poetry.
When we possess a little natural talent for writing, we might be tempted to coast along. Why try to master these things called words? Isn’t writing an art? Doesn’t that mean we can just let things pour out as they will? I know a lot of writers who don’t work very hard, thinking this is no disaster. They set down the first thing that comes to mind, and they want that to be the end of it. I have sometimes been this kind of writer, especially when it comes to poetry.
My girl is a middle-schooler. I am not. She is working hard at poetry. I am not. So I steal away and work to change the situation.
I write about Pittsburgh, and the snow melting on Penn Avenue. I write about a booted print of water, near the head of a crow (I do not know how this head came to be lost from its body, but I write of it anyway). “I wonder if this man wants water,” I write of an accordion player, who is sharing a tune at the street market. There is an ocean and a ship, and a “Heinz red neon sign / drifting ’midst lost tune of accordion on Avenue / fading, fading like the light of morning over water.” I work very hard. It isn’t flawless, but it is a beginning.
“Do you want to hear my sestina?” I ask Sara.
“Sure,” she says.
An excerpt from Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing.