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What Sits Beyond the Reach of Language

It’s National Poetry Month, and with the chaos of coronavirus that’s unsettled us and our need to stay as close to home as possible, now, more than ever, is the perfect time to delve into poetry for the first time or once again.    

So, what’s a poem? Here’s how I define poetry:

“The simplest (and my favorite) definition of a poem is ‘a picture made out of words.’ It’s a picture of an instant in time, a memory, the sketch of a person, animal, or place, a true or invented occurrence, the moment of change.     

Through the use of images—things that can be seen, smelled, tasted, touched, or heard—poets turn thoughts and feelings into poems. Those word pictures may show us what we don’t expect to see and may take us to places we might otherwise never visit. A poem can’t recreate an experience—that’s already come and gone. Rather, a poem becomes a new thing. The event is what made you reach for pen and paper or phone.”

In an interview, American poet Tracy K. Smith, said, “Poetry is what sits beyond the reach of language.” You’re using everyday words to go beyond the surface of our daily lives and into the heart of experience. Smith said, “Rather than numbing or drowning the difficult-to-describe but urgently sensed feelings that are part of being human, poetry invites us to tease them out, to draw them into language that is rooted in intricate thought and strange impulse.”

“Intricate thought and strange impulse”? Just what does Smith mean? All that’s beneath the surface—your quiet thoughts and questioning moments; wild dreams and daring ideas; the long, layered tunnel of memory, how something from when you were four-years-old joins up with yesterday; the spiritual moments, including those times of unexplainable awe and your sense of mystery, all that compels you that’s beyond understanding; the sensation of falling in love. That, and so much more. Have you ever caught a stranger’s glance from across a room and felt both thunder and lightning and an odd sense of recognition? You might find a poem there. And poems exist in our smallest moments, those that may seem inconsequential.

One afternoon some years back, I was walking downtown with my father who was then 87-years-old. He bent down for something on the sidewalk that caught his eye and stood back up holding it. This small moment could have easily slipped by. But it was captured because I found a poem in it that appears in my second collection, The Knot Untied. “Afternoon with My Father” includes this:

“Between his fingers he held
the tiniest scrap of a candy wrapper.
‘1927, I was five. We’d just arrived in Italy.
This blue is the exact color of the rattan chairs
at the outdoor café near Naples,” said my father.
‘This blue!’”

A poem goes beyond rational thinking to deeper, more inventive, more emotionally resonant ways of thinking. In my new book I say, “Since I was a little girl, I’ve felt pulled of notice the moments when what’s hinted at goes unsaid… I was convinced that life was full of almost-hidden secrets and mystery. Children dwell in curiosity, wonder, and possibility.”

Let yourself return to seeing the world anew. Be curious about not just the majestic but the incidental. “Poets and artists are people who maintain a relationship with mystery for their entire lives. They don’t discredit what can’t be explained. They pay attention to subtle connections and interactions between people…”

Smith also said this, “The larger work of the poem… is to enter into that uncharted emotional territory or to bring us—with a greater sense of courage and resourcefulness—toward the things that are just messy, overwhelming, life with conflict and contradiction.”

Get a notebook that will easily fit in your pocket or purse and take it everywhere. Begin jotting down whatever catches your attention. In this way, you’re beginning to flex your poetic mind. A poem will accept your confusions and contradictions, that which you understand and what you don’t. You can lie in a poem and exaggerate in order to get to the larger truth, the emotional essence.

After gathering pages of jottings, look at what you have and choose something that strikes your imagination. Rewrite that and see where it takes you. Follow your inclinations as if you were following breadcrumbs in a forest. Write with openhearted curiosity.


Patrice Vecchione is the author of the poetry book, My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice, available here. Patrice offers some rather surprising rules for writing, including 25 writing inspirations.

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