by Ron Hayes
We are all, every one of us, the sum of our parts. Each of us carries around with us the bits and pieces of the places we’ve been and the things we’ve seen and the people we’ve known. For those of us who write, we have that most magical of gifts in which we are afforded the ability to share those bits and pieces with others through our words. How we write and what we choose to write about is often colored by the journeys we’ve made as readers. Here’s a quick trip down my memory lane as I consider how I’ve gotten to where I am as a poet:
Before we can write, we have to learn to read. Yes, these stodgy beauties were in my early repertoire, but thanks to my mother and her willingness to teach me more words faster (I couldn’t WAIT to read and write), I moved past them pretty quickly. Still, the stilted repetition, the layering of modifiers and simple compound verbs, the matching of story to pictures… Dick and Jane books can’t readily be confused for poetry primers, but they went a long way in laying down the foundations of language, of storytelling, vocabulary, and cadence.
I loved these magazines…right up until I found out other kids made fun of kids like me who read them. (Then I just loved them in secret.) Even though I most looked forward to the cartoons and the puzzles, I distinctly remember reading the poems they’d publish and I loved knowing that if I ever wanted to, I could mail in a poem of my own and it had a fair chance of being published.
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish & Green Eggs and Ham
Is there a poet alive today (well, a poet under 60 or 70, let’s say) that can honestly say they didn’t learn something about rhyme and meter from good ol’ Mr. Geisel? At least a little something? Clearly, the Dr.’s mastery of language and brilliant illustrations made for fun, accessible reading, but what will always stay with me is how Dr. Seuss books taught me how to HEAR language, as much as they taught me how to write it. Musicality? All a budding poet could ever ask for in a singular body of work.
Edgar Allan Poe
Bookish and brooding, insular, introverted, and insecure, I latched onto Edgar Allan Poe very early on. There’s no question it is his work I most tried to emulate as a young writer. Not that I’m alone. If writers were drugs, Poe would be pot—the gateway drug to the pantheon of great poets. As a kid, I thrilled at the spookiness of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee;” as a language kid, I reveled in “tintinnabulation,” “senescence,” “sepulcher,” and “sere.” I remember thinking it would be cool to work these into conversation somehow, completely oblivious to the idea that others—teachers included—would find it obnoxious.
Shocked to see this here? You shouldn’t be. If you grew up in the 70s and 80s like I did, and if you were a language kid like I was, you can’t keep from smiling when I tell you that “and,” “but,” and “or” will get you pretty far. Schoolhouse Rock permanently etched language rules and grammar truths into my brain, and that continues to pay off for me 35 years later. As a writer, I find it gratifying to be able to keep my grammar on point when it needs to be and, more importantly, that I know exactly how and why to break the rules of usage and grammar when I need to. And for those of you I’ve cursed or called out over the years for your atrocious grammar? Write a nasty letter to Schoolhouse Rock for teaching me so well, and then send one to yourself for not paying better attention when you were watching…
The First 49
This is the book that changed my life.
As a freshman in my first college go-round, I was all set to become a marine biologist and study oceanic mammals for the rest of my life. Then an ancient, all-but-dead priest lead off my Monday morning Biology class and a bitter, dying bachelor introduced us to Ernest Hemingway in my Tuesday-Thursday Freshman English class and everything changed. Nick Adams, “The Undefeated,” “An Alpine Idyll,” and a few kind words on some rudimentary literary analyses and I was hooked. Literature and the written word would become my life.
Days Like Prose
I’m sure Alan Parker gets tired of hearing it, but this was the other book that changed my life. In reading this book, and in being taught by Professor Parker during my second, successful stab at an undergrad degree, I discovered “real” poetry. Adult poetry. Modern poetry–poetry alive with the breath and heartbeat of poets still here among us. With this book I recognized the electric hum of a sneaky sonnet, the thrilling jolt of smart line integrity, the power of stunning enjambment, and the beautiful dignity of quietude. In Alan Parker’s Intro to Poetry class, I realized that I could write poetry and be happy. I realized that people actually make a living at being a poet (provided they don’t mind teaching poetry), and I realized that words matter. Words hold power. Words are beautiful. Late in my life as a reader, however early in my life as a writer, I finally learned that I possess the ability to make words beautiful, to make them powerful, make them matter.
As I think back on my life—and my attendant development as a writer—it’s no wonder I gravitated toward poetry. In fact, given what surrounded me and those of my generation, I’m surprised more folks I know didn’t become poets. While I’m not sure I can call the 70s and 80s a “Golden Age” of poetry, what I am sure of is how tremendously fortunate I was to have grown up in a time with such varied, colorful, and iconic literary and artistic influences.
Now it’s your turn: What pieces and parts color your identity as a writer? Have you ever stopped to consider it? Subconsciously or otherwise, we reflect what has made us who we are, and sometimes we lose sight of that when we’re struggling on the page. Often, looking back at where we came from can help push us forward into new, exciting territory. Don’t be afraid to look deep!