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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?