“I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe.
I am a pragmatist by nature. It was when my children were finishing high school and thinking of college and their future careers that I realized that when it comes to job security, I favor the sciences over the arts. To be fair, my own decision to be a nurse was not driven by practicality or logic, but rather came from a firm conviction since childhood that this was the career (calling?) for me. After all, I entered nursing at a time when money was not the attraction. But in high school it was definitely the sciences that held my interest. When I had a choice, I chose subjects like Zoology, Geography, Geology. Some of my choices were determined by availability of teachers. In Jamaica in the 60s and 70s (I can’t speak for the present time), country schools had to make do with whoever they could recruit. At times, teachers came with a strong history in languages and found themselves teaching Mathematics!
Some years ago, when I had to sit an exam to enter post-graduate school, I discovered that I needed to brush up on my English as much if not more than my Math! I was not surprised that I needed to look over the Math. Being good with numbers is not the same as remembering about slopes and intersects; probability formulae; sines and cosines. But I discovered that words I was sure I could define meant something completely different! There are many words that we don’t include in our daily vocabulary, yet when we read them in context we can guess what they mean. I had to relearn words and think about grammatical terms and rules. It is possible to speak perfect English, to have no problem writing sentences with the appropriate parts of speech, but being unable to name those parts of speech!
What is common in most good poetry is a love of words. Words are chosen not just for meaning but for sound. Poems not only paint pictures but they also provide the music, the punctuation and rhythm, the lyric and the rhyme. Dylan Thomas played with words, but in a very disciplined way. Some of his poems were created in shapes, the length of the lines forming a shape on the page. Some followed the rules of poetry, a villanelle here, a quatrain there. Whether he was writing prose or poetry, his words enchanted: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent…” He played with his words, using alliteration (bible-black), consonance (repeated consonants), and assonance (the use of similar sounds within a line as in the moonless and starless above) to delight the ear. At the same time his words efficiently paint a scene for you to conjure up in your mind.
There are literature teachers who have inspired generations of students by introducing them to the great writers. History teachers who can bring the past alive while cautioning students to read with a critical eye. I often feel the lack of that foundation in the arts, having leaned to the sciences in high school. The other day I was on a webinar and was asked who was my most influential teacher in high school. Which got me wondering, which was your most influential subject in high school? Which subject caught your imagination and started you on a career path that you still follow today? Was it the teacher who sold you on the subject? On the other hand, an unkind word could discourage, could have made you think you were not capable. Just as a bad worker blames their tools, a bad teacher can blame their students and make them feel less than.
I don’t know how different my life would have been if I had pursued the arts instead of the sciences. As a nurse (once they started paying us a slightly better wage!) I was able to support my family and pay my bills. Would I have been able to do so as a writer? I admire those who follow their passions and sacrifice security for their art. And where would we be without those struggling artists who delight us with their words, their paintings, their sculpture?
Although I may not have the skill of the poet, I feel the power of my writing is best when it resonates, when someone responds to say that I spoke to them or of them. I am happiest when I realize that my personal stories connect with others, whether they know me or not. It is through stories that we forge these connections and recognize our common humanity. This week I heard a journalist talk about the difference between Americans and Europeans, that it is reflected in the question: “What’s your story?” He says the only time you hear a European ask someone that, is if you are being questioned by the authorities! But what is your story? How does it intersect with mine? How does it help me to understand you?
This fearless Friday morning I wish I could lyrics you like Dylan Thomas. I wish I could draw a scene so peaceful you could feel your heart rate slow and your blood pressure decline. I wonder if there is a path you wish you had followed, that perhaps you still can? I have been fortunate to be able to keep reading and learning and stretching my mind, sometimes forced to do so to keep one step ahead of my students, sometimes just through the love of the subject. And if you have never read ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan, you must do so: “Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah…” How delicious is that!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!