Poetic work in progress

I don’t know about you, but I was afraid of poetry. I avoided every possible intersection with it. In high school we had English electives–classes that changed every few months. I took American short stories, sci-fi, Shakespeare, something else obviously not memorable. But I fought tooth and nail not to get landed in the poetry classes.
Shoot, I had a hard enough time figuring out regular sentences. When they’re shrunken up to bare bones, good grief, I could not figure any of that out.
An almost-English-major in college, I took as many if not more English classes as I needed than those for my journalism major. Something had to fill in the blanks on my schedule. By then I worked better with letters than with numbers. However, again I avoided any possible trail that would take me into the poetry gorge.
And then God did a mean trick. He made me an English teacher. And guess what English teachers have to do? Teach POETRY! That was a scary proposition–certainly for me but also unknowingly for my students, God bless them.
So then I had to teach myself poetry, and I learned to tread water in it. There’s a difference between wading in water or jumping in and out of water . . . and treading water. I think I became the best poetry teacher ever because I understood how hard it would be for my students.
I’d say, “It won’t come to you right away. You won’t feel it or make sense of it unless you tread water in it. Say the words (not just read but SAY those words) over and over. Feel how warm or cool they are. Take a look under the surface. Can you see the bottom? That water poem is designed that way. Maybe it’s okay not to understand all the parts but just sense the beauty of the water words. And perhaps even a delightful frog will jump out at you and make you laugh or sing.”
I did not just read poetry to my students. I taught the intricacies of rhythmic patterns and rhyme schemes, as well as the various forms of figurative language and structure. Friend, undertand how hard this was for me: no teacher ever taught even what figurative language was. I taught myself . . . and surprisingly learned to LOVE every single thing about it and poetry. I even developed a two-page Poetry Analysis Checklist that helped students think about the language.
And wow, did they give amazing presentations in front of their peers and me! I learned from them.
Some of them even decided to like poetry because as the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in “Ars Poetica,” I emphasized that . . .
“A poem should not mean
But be.”
Just as we don’t necessarily understand every single circumstance in our lives . . . or even every line of our guiding book of Poetry–the Bible–it’s okay. We can just be, knowing that God is not done with us. We are still a poetic work in progress. We will have lines that don’t rhyme. We will have messed up rhythms of days. We will have disconnects between stanzas of life seasons.
Paul wrote, “We have become his poetry, a re-created people that will fulfill the destiny he has given each of us” (Ephesians 2:10 TPT). I stared at that verse for a long time today. I am a poetic work? Huh. That didn’t seem to be what I saw in the mirror this morning.
I am a figurative, poetic WIP.* You are as well. And we can choose to remember, as Emily Dickinson wrote,
“I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –”
Between you and me I loved how Emily D. broke those capitalization and punctuation rules. Didn’t Jesus do that too? Oh yes he did. We are all poetic possibilities in progress–even when we break the grammar rules. ‘Cause God made us, and he’s not done with all our phrases.
Keep #LookingUp, friend. Where you see a really messed up first draft, God sees a poetic masterpiece.
*Writers know this means “work in progress.”
Janet McHenry taught high school English for more than 20 years to high school juniors and seniors–even those AP English Lit students. While she did not love teaching the intricacies of research papers, she loved all the poetry madness of American and British literature. It was a good season, she says. A speaker and author of 24 books, she would love to connect with you–even if you don’t like poetry . . . YET. https://www.janetmchenry.com

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