February 8, 2012

Who Can Be a Poet?

The other day on NPR's Morning Edition, I heard a story about the death of Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska. The journalist read some of her poems; they made my jaw drop in shock and my eyes brim with tears.

Szymborska wrote about scientific things, abstract thought, other worlds created in her imagination. I had no idea that poetry about such things could be worthy of publication, let alone a Nobel Prize. I've read a lot of poetry, but mostly the classics, the stuff you're expected to read in high school and college survey courses. I thought poems had to be about human nature and gritty reality to be taken seriously.

The Mountain Goat was a student-published literary journal at my college. My friend Catherine and I tried many times to get our poetry and short fiction accepted for publication by The Mountain Goat. We never succeeded. I thought our poems didn't have enough angst and big words, she thought they didn't have enough sex. We never found out why they didn't accept our submissions, but those rejections definitely had an effect on how I thought of myself as a writer.

I decided that my poems were probably just too weird, and that I just wasn't a very good poet. I gradually wrote fewer and fewer poems, stopping completely some time in the late 90's.

But I never stopped writing songs. Really, songs are just poems set to words. Nobody could tell me that I didn't write good songs because I knew in my soul that my songs were good (maybe not all of them, but a healthy majority). I'd been writing songs since I was five years old and studying music for just as long. I accepted that I would never be any kind of poet and just kept on writing songs when the inspiration struck me.

And now, all these years later, I find out that my thoughts aren't too weird for people to read. Other people may also be fascinated by the complicated and esoteric things that interest me. There's no reason to rein in my creativity: the world is big enough to let it run free.

I hope to write some poems soon about the internet and nuclear technology and things like that. (I once wrote a song about synapses in the brain - I really ought to resurrect that one.) In the meantime, here's the song I wrote about all my rejections from The Mountain Goat. When I have time, I hope to record it so you can hear the tune.

My Words Are Simple

My words are simple
Because I have to understand what I say.
Some argue that's not right for a poet.
I will sing anyway.

No great ideas,
Just the feelings that I have at the time
Are turned into words on some paper:
A song that is mine.

Perhaps the meter
Is beating time in my head alone.
If you throw up your hands and ignore me
I can sing on my own.

Jealousy, anger, desire and pain,
Joy and longing and love:
These are emotions I have in my brain,
Real feelings that I know of.
(And I did that on purpose.)

My words are simple
Because I only write of what I know.
And if that doesn't interest the critics
I will sing anyhow.
These are my feelings
And my words to say,
And I will sing anyhow.

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