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Picture Books Poetry

Isn’t There a Rule About That?

Twenty faces in Zoom cubbies scrunched up in thought. Max, the teacher had asked, “What do you think of when you hear “poetry?”

My heart fluttered – a kind of panic. “There are rules, but I don’t know what they are,” I said.

“There’s no wrong way to write a poem,” Max was saying. I do not believe this. While Max quoted such esteemed poets as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Oliver, each explaining in their own way how the Art of Poetry transcends the mundane world, my mind wandered to all the times in my life when I so desperately wanted to know, indeed, needed to know, the rules.

In my experience, there definitely are rules. I just want to know what they are. In the very early years under the Chinese Communist regime, stories were going around that the government was using kids’ words to incriminate their parents as political enemies. Mom pulled me out of my Shanghai kindergarten. I don’t remember the details, but the grip of fear has stayed with me. Mom was afraid that I would say something that would betray the family. I never did know what it was that was dangerous to say.

LuhA - 44 B&W
Me and Mom in Shanghai

I got to America when I was eight. American culture has confounded me ever since. Rules that home-grown kids would know or could ask their folks. Like, having to go Number 1 or Number 2. I only knew how to describe those functions in Cantonese, which was not even my parents’ dialect. And fashion! No white shoes before Memorial Day. What’s Memorial Day?

And eating rituals! It wasn’t just trading chopsticks for forks. When my first husband and I were courting, he took me to meet his parents in Ohio. David’s mom was a stickler for etiquette. The dinner table was all decked out: lace table cloth, good china, silver plate. We started with a fruit salad in stemmed parfait glasses. I ate slowly, delicately, dabbing my lips on my cloth napkin. Then, when I had eaten the last piece, I ever so elegantly picked up the parfait glass, pinkie extended, and drank the remaining juice. Halfway, I realized that I probably wasn’t supposed to lift that glass off the table.

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Alex in bath with swim cap

I was convinced that other people knew the rules to child rearing. Me? I couldn’t get my toddler to stay in bed. Oh, we had our bedtime routine. We’d have bath time. Alex loved the water and his bath toys. Then, I’d dress him in tomorrow’s clothes to save time in the morning. Then, we’d read: Where the Wild Things Are, the Babar books and everything with cars, trucks and construction vehicles. Then I’d tuck him into his crib. To help him sleep, I gave him a bottle of formula.

About twenty minutes after I had tiptoed out of the room and I’d be either reading or unwinding with TV, he’d pop out of his room. (I never witnessed him climbing out of his crib.) He just wanted to play. Cajoling, scolding, even ignoring him – “I’m done being mom for today.” — made no difference. This happened every night!

Max asked us to read 1-3 poems each day. I scoured my book shelves. I found Dante’s Divine Comedy and Beowulf. I own a half dozen of Shakespeare’s plays. Poetry less than four hundred years old – not too much.

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I found Dr. Seuss’ You’re Only Old Once! among the books Alex left at home. The subtitle is: A Book for Obsolete Children. It’s Dr. Seuss’ take on the frustrating and convoluted process of getting medical care as an old person. He wrote it when he was in his eighties. And, like all Dr. Seuss books, it’s POETRY!

Theodor S Geisel In 'In Search Of Dr. Seuss'
Theodor S Geisel, known to his millons of fans the world over as Dr. Seuss in a publicity portrait from the film biography ‘In Search Of Dr. Seuss’, 1994. (Photo by TNT/Getty Image)

Dr. Seuss’ character at the Golden Year Clinic undergoes intensive questioning, undignified tests and interminable waiting all without being told the whys and wherefores. It stirs in me that same unease of not knowing the rules.

And the next thing you know

when you’ve finished that test,

is somehow you’ve lost

both your necktie and vest

and an Ogler is ogling

your stomach and chest.

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Dr. Seuss portrays what could have been a Kafka-esque horror show as a humorous, if barbed, jaunt into the medical world. And in under forty pages, glorious illustrations included, he skewers an unreasonable system, evokes sympathy for the patient, makes us laugh and rhymes “National Geographic” with “smelly bad traffic.” This is the power of poetry.

Well, despite my anguish, I’ve gotten through life okay. My family didn’t go to Mao Ze-dong jail. I have been married to not one, but two, absolutely lovely men. And my son is a more patient parent than I ever was.

So, here I am in a poetry writing class. I would feel better to know the formula to poetry making, but I’m doing it. I’m not ready to say, “To hell with the rules.” But I am ready to live with the uncertainty.

Here’s a sample: It’s a tanka, a Japanese form that predates the haiku. It’s five lines of 5,7,5,7,7 syllables.

You can’t wait to know

All the rules to living life

You must carry on

Do the best you can because

You can’t win if you don’t play

Tell me: Do you have a favorite poem or poet?

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

12 replies on “Isn’t There a Rule About That?”

Billy Collins is my new “go to” poet! It is wonderful to learn about people that I never
was aware about, Nancy come lately!

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Mary Dee,
Something your painting class – you and my fellow painters – has taught me is that there are many, possibly infinite, ways to express your meaning. Thank you!!

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I love Mary Oliver’s poetry..her words ..sing to my soul..
Thanks Cathy. Your words sing to me as well…

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Reading your story is always a fun learning experience! Great to see the photo of you and your mom, and Alex. I love your poem! I look forward to reading more of your poems in the near future. I do not write poems myself, but I do enjoy poetry. For example, I like Eric Carle’s “Dragons Dragons & Other Creatures that Never Were”. The book has a collection of poems that do not always follow rules. I want to share a touching, lovely poem written by my son when he was an 8th grader.

Flawless, shining brilliance of her eyes,
Tender, nurturing touch of her heart,
Infinite, compelling wisdom of her words,
My mom, such a precious jewel!

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Cathy—Thoroughly enjoyed your poem and Dr Seuss poem as well. Good luck with the class. Sounds like a creative venue for the moment.

Jerry signed us up for a birding class via the Cornell Ornithology place. We’re doing it on Monday evenings. It’s pretty good. We are very uneducated birders so the most primary lessons are helpful. It is a lot easier to note the wings bars, the beak, the rump, etc. etc. when the bird is stationery on your computer screen as opposed to fliting from tree to tree.

I think we are doing all 51 warblers. First class we worked on identifying warblers in the Setophaga genus. In that genus, males are the most colorful; other genus the color difference is not as pronounced.

More germane to your blog, A novel I read a few years ago about rounding up people in China, a daughter, not a child, mentioned a book her father was reading and that was end of him. Can understand your Mom’s concerns.

Stay well. We’re trying to stay-put. Jerry’s bridge house has set up some bridge games on-line but it is slow going.

We finally got our 4,xxx slides sent off and now they have been returned on DVD’s. Came out decently. Take care. Bridget

_______________

Bridget Brennan

http://www.canainstitute.org

http://theannunciationblog.org

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I loved reading Dr. Suess with my kids and look forward to a reprise with grandchildren. I’ll have to get a copy of his oldsters book for myself. My taste in poetry is old-fashioned; I like rhyme and meter and an emotional connection. I try to read the ‘modern’ stuff published in The New Yorker and usually I’m bewildered. I feel like my grandfather looking at ‘modern art’ – all squiggles and splotches and not a picture of anything. While I enjoy abstract art in the visual realm, I don’t get it when it’s done verbally. Perhaps I’m lost without the rules.

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Ah yes, “the rules!” Growing up Japanese American just after the Second World War, I found out that the rules at home were different than the rules in the Barrio. There’s a way to joke with each other, a cadence of laughter, a way to look at each other. Very different from the quiet obedient, studious person I was at home. Then we moved to the suburbs. White people joke differently than Chicanos. They don’t taunt, then chuckle and exclaim “Ways Out!” They are less direct, but since the unstated rules are different from home, it wasn’t always clear what was unspoken. Whereas at home, little was said, but we all knew. So confusing at a time when it was so important to be cool! One thing I am glad for in old age: I don’t care about the rules so much.

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