“Valentine for Ernest Mann” Naomi Shihab Nye

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Ars Poetica Hunting: An Inexact Science

I’ve written before about that rite of passage for poets, Ars Poetica, by sharing this Archibald MacLeish entry by that same Latin name.

“The art of poetry,” it means, and lucky for us, there are as many definitions of this “art” as there are mosquitoes running blood banks.

Today we start with an exchange between a teacher of poetry and her students in Elizabeth’s Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe.”  Right out of the gate, Alexander lays it on the line: “Poetry… is idiosyncratic.” (Gee, do you think?)

Let’s listen in on her class:


Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said
“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”)
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?


First of all, I haven’t a clue who the opinionated Sterling Brown is. I DuckDuckGo’d him and found an actor. Could be the right one, as actors make their “I’s” dramatic for a living (giving their “you’s” a rest).

The way this poem “finds” poetry in mundane places is a well-worn trope by now. Some editors love poems about poetry. Others steer clear. I once read, in the writer’s guidelines of a poetry journal something to the effect of “please, no poems about poems.” Elizabeth would have been left at the gate at that journal.

Still, I endorse the sentiment designed to break beginners’ hearts: “Poetry (and now my voice is rising) / is not all love, love, love / and I’m sorry the dog died.”

As for the last line, it brings us back to the oft-mentioned tree falling in the wilderness. “Poetry… / is the human voice, / and are we not of interest to each other?”

Man, that finish is just asking for trouble, because, truth be told, the answer is more often than not “no.” You need “voice lessons” to be interesting to others, especially in a world of poetry-phobic readers.

It’s the gist of the creative battle. It’s the eye of the beholding reader / editor skimming a tsunami of submissions. The pool of possibly-interested eyes, in other words, is dazed with distraction known as the competition and already-established poets eating up an already-thin publishing bandwidth. And that’s not even getting into the distractions of the internet and social media where everyone’s creative spirit becomes passive. (“What? Hunt for poetry? Me?”)

For similar “ars poetica” action, consider Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” the second and fourth stanzas in particular:


Valentine for Ernest Mann
by Naomi Shihab Nye

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.


See a trend here?

If you are inspired to write an ars poetica by looking in all the wrong places, you must also contend with the fact that the “wrong places” have been written up in the press and have now been overrun by tourists (read: a large posse of poets) as well.

So, yeah. The beauty of writing an ars poetica lies in going where no man or woman has gone before—even those obscure places which have been made famous by poets who preceded you.

Solutions? That’s your Rubik’s Cube assignment for the day. Devilishly enough, the answer might even be hiding in a blanket of love or a box of my-dog-just-died. It’s the Muse’s trickster spirit (where Loki reigns over Odin).

Known or unknown, clichéd or unique, the places for a brilliant ars poeticas are everywhere and nowhere at once.

Confused? Good. Now you can get cracking and start looking. Once you find poetry in quirky places unique to YOU yet relatable to US, you can take up the pen and begin. Good luck!