This blog was featured on 09/01/2016
The Accidental Poet

I have always been a poetry lover.  From the time I pored over the dog-eared copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses that had belonged to my own mother, I was hooked.

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

This was the first verse in my favorite, The Swing.  I read it over and over, enraptured by the deft and lyrical play of words that so delighted my nascent ear.

My early love has been borne out in my life as a reader. I read poetry frequently, both old favorites and new discoveries, and memorize it too: I’ve probably got fifty or sixty poems committed to memory, and I recite them to myself, when I crave a private incantation, or occasionally, if tolerant company permits, out loud at a dinner party or social gathering, my one and only parlor trick.  When I read the Wallace Stevens poems that begins, Poetry is the supreme fiction… I thought, Yes! and wanted to stand up and cheer.

And yet my love has always been incomplete, as I cannot write poetry. Can. Not.  I tried, unsuccessfully, when I was young and was so discouraged by the wretched results that I gave up trying. This was a source of great frustration to me.  Why was the muse of poetry, so withholding and elusive? Why had she never touched my shoulder with her magical hand, or spread the glittering fairy dust she must possess over my attempt at verse?

I have never been able to answer this question but since I began writing—and receiving some validation for—my fiction, I gradually ceased fretting about it.  Fiction was demanding, intoxicating and utterly fulfilling; I had nothing to complain over. I would write my stories and novels, and remain on the sidelines of poetry, a devoted reader but never a writer.

But then I came to writing The House on Primrose Pond in which a character, an amateur poet, uses his poems to woo a woman he loves.  He’s married and as is she, so there are serious obstacles between them.  But he begins penning verse that he sends, signed with a nom de plume, to the local newspaper where she is the editor of a section called The Poetry Corner.  The poems charm and touch her, and as she begins to understand their coded message, they intrigue her too.  She wants to know who wrote them and she sets about to uncover the poet’s identity.

I had a lot of fun with this plot development, and felt I could use it well to draw out the courtship between these two mismatched souls.  But I realized if I were going to make it work, I was going to have come up with some actual poems, a task that felt like being asked to spin straw into gold.  How in the world was I going to do that?

At first I thought I would borrow the work of another poet. Of course I planned to give credit where credit was due.  Yet that seemed too easy, and even cowardly.  No, I was going to have to come up with those poems the old fashioned way, to paraphrase that old commercial from Smith Barney: I was going to have to write them. 

I decided there would be three poems—one of pursuit, one of celebration, and one of good-bye when it was clear the affair was over.  I kept in mind that the character was an amateur, not W.B. Yeats or W.H. Auden. I was not struggling to write great, immortal verse. I only had to write the kinds of poems he would have been capable of: earnest, not brilliant, heartfelt, not epic and enduring. And being released of the aspiration to be great gave me a lot of room to experiment, and even enjoy.  For the first time in decades, I was writing poetry.  That it wasn’t any good was not of consequence to me. The poems had a job to do: reveal character, advance plot, and provide some interest on their own. And they fulfilled their mission.

I started out with dread and ended awash in gratitude that I had stretched myself enough to tackle the task.  Who knows what other literary goal I might reach for in the near future?  I might even surprise myself once again.


* This post was originally published in January 2016.

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  • Julia

    Lovely  post! I used to write a lot of poetry when I was younger, I even used to compete in verse reading on speech team (an endeavor on my part to get over my shyness) when I was in high school. Always in hiding and embarrassed due to the usual snickering of those around me, I folded this part of my life decades ago. It is serendipitous that I caught this post from you, because I recently purchased the poetry prompt book called : The Daily Poet, and have been enjoying this deeply buried part of my creative makeup again. As you can see... its only been a handful of years since I've been rediscovering my love for the arts and I just have to say, thanks for the post. It was very inspiring :)

  • Yona Zeldis McDonough

    Patricia, maybe you're right because I'm suddenly thinking about writing a play!  Now that's a first!

  • Yona Zeldis McDonough

    Jill, I love how you got around those pesky fees! Very resourceful!  :-)

  • Jill G. Hall

    Yona, I wanted to use an Elvis song in my novel, but in order to get the rights it would have cost too much. So I wrote my own lyrics and it was a lot of fun. I'm so glad you found enough courage to explore and share your poetry. I look forward to reading your new novel and seeing you in San Diego March 5th too!

  • Patricia Robertson

    Now that you've started writing poetry, maybe the floodgates will open! :) Sounds to me that you were so concerned about writing great poetry that you didn't allow yourself to have fun with it before. Just relax, have fun, you'll get better over time!

  • Yona Zeldis McDonough

    Kamy, I love you for admitting that! I did not know!  And thanks for your sweet comment. I got such enormous pleasure and satisfaction from writing those poems, mediocre as they are. I urge all writers to stretch themselve sometimes; you just never know where it's going to lead.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    (I couldn't bring myself to write my own song lyrics for the band in Wishful Thinking, btw -- I borrowed them from an old boyfriend's band instead!)

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Yona, what a great story. Your character gave you the chance to express yourself creatively in a genre you thought you couldn't work in. I love it.