The First Poem That Hooked, or Entering the Poetry Portal

I must have been in elementary school, one of those kids that other kids love to hate because their parents were always telling them to “be more like Dora,” you know, the girl who had skipped two grades, the “genius” kid, the one whose parents were always bragging about her (out of her hearing of course).

Seriously, one kid of immigrant parents just like me, who had all his parents’ hopes and dreams swirling around him daily to be a doctor or engineer, to be somebody, well, “like Dora’s going to be,” he just about had it with this kid that was “me” and one day, the first day of swimming camp, snuck up behind me and pushed me into the deep end and watched me flounder, almost drowning. I hear he later became a doctor.

But what does this have to do with poetry?! It was my secret love. Hidden from my parents. Both of whom only read and enjoyed non-fiction, for whom poetry had been assigned reading in school. Fiction was a sign of weakness, or just not being serious enough. Besides, unlike playing the violin, it wouldn’t look impressive on a college application.

So there I was in elementary school and we were reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And I recognized myself in it. I was spooked … and hooked.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening (Robert Frost, 1923)

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There was so much said in these seemingly simple lines personally, even at the tender age of eight, the responsibility of an only child to her parents who had, she was told repeatedly, sacrificed for her. There was also the horse, translated in my childish mind to the moon, who was always there, a light in the darkness, like a poem, watching, waiting. And the woods? Well, that was what the journey was all about. I knew that instinctively even as a child, and I came to know when God (“lovely, dark and deep”) found me, but only after the “promises” proved to be extortions of the guilt-driven kind and I lay on the ground devastated by betrayal. Beauty, truth, light in words: God-given, and ours to share even when we are in dangerous places and dark times.

Later in college, I discovered poet Marianne Moore whose poem on poetry comes close to defining the poet’s quest. It’s always stayed in the back of mind as in these later years I’ve come to indulge my love for it.

Poetry

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
   useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the
   same thing may be said for all of us—that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand. The bat,
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base—
   ball fan, the statistician—case after case
      could be cited did
      one wish it; nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
   nor till the autocrats among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”—above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness, and
      that which is on the other hand,
         genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore (1919)

That’s it! “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them”! That’s what I want to write. Ribbit, ribbit!


Joy at earthweal weekly challenge gives us an intriguing assignment: “Greetings and welcome to earthweal, where I have been invited to usher in All Hallows with a challenge featuring the first poems we as writers took to heart. These are the poems that opened our eyes to poetry, poems that even when we have assimilated or outgrown them, still show up under every word we write and forever shape our own voice, our own points of view, our perceptions of what poetry is, how we access it, and the unique eye it gives us for the world inside and around us. ….. This is all about how our first poems become part of our first voices, and how those voices are always with us because they have become part of our own. If you can include an echo of the natural world, even if it’s only ‘the wind as a torrent of darkness’, that will be all to the good, but is not mandatory.

Sadje’s What Do You See #158 photo prompt is the image above (image credit: Mick Haupt @ Unsplash)

Sammi’s Day 12 (“Spooked”) of 13 Days of Samhain

40 thoughts on “The First Poem That Hooked, or Entering the Poetry Portal

    1. It helps me too, unclutters the mind, tests creativity, releases emotions productively, and sometimes it’s just plain fun! Thank you for your kind comments, Bob, especially as a reflection of the One who loves us and gave Himself for us.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Sherry Marr

    I enjoyed reading this so much, and the two poems you reference. What a lovely journey. I am glad you stayed true to poetry, and that it stood by you. Poems are such a wonderful outlet, a way to record the journey, express what we cant always say out loud to the people in our real lives, but can share with an understanding group of fellow poets online. What a blessing that is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amen and amen! What a blessing to know you and others in our poetic community! I hope you know how appreciated you are for your poetry and your generous interaction, Sherry. It’s a haven in more ways than one.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The photo prompt was too inviting, Sadje, and thank you for your comments and reading. Moore is one of those Modernists that doesn’t come up now like the more famous ones, but I believe at the time she was writing she was very influential. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If you’re looking for a recent good movie on a famous writer, you might want to check out “Mary Shelley,” directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and written by Emma Jensen. I enjoyed it very much.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks so for this peek back into the forest of your poetry! Love of language made me a reader when I was young, but also wounds (I too was put ahead in school, just one grade after my family moved from a predominantly Jewish school district into a much more challenged one). Fiction was fine for childhood, but I needed a more challenging forest for poetry to enchant — bigger wounds, intellectual challenges — and I didn’t really delve into poetry until I was in college. I wanted to be a musician before I wanted to be a poet, but in school is was pre-ministry then pre-med then history then poetry. The Marianne Moore poem is absolutely succinct for the refinement of poetry’s adult mission — it turns love of language into a quest for succinct meaning. (BTW, there used to be a poetry forum called Imaginary Garden With Real Toads that many of us warbled in.) Great share Dora, and what a treat to see you at earthweal.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aww thanks for the welcome, Brendan, I so appreciate it. It’s funny what spills out when you’re “just” sharing a poem. It seems you and I have some things in common, except the musician part. I was so tone deaf I never learned to tune my violin without a tuner lol. As for the old poetry forum, the name itself would have sucked me right in! 🐸

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, I was eager to read this, to find out something about you and how you got roped into this poetry writing thing we share. (Because that’s what happens. We read that first magical poem and we’re lassoed!)
    I’ve always loved that Snowy Woods poem. My father, who I idolized as a child, had a framed artwork over his desk with Frost’s face and his “Two Roads” poem beneath that. So, from my earliest memories, Frost has been there. In fact, I still have my father’s hardback copy of Frost’s poems, and his desk that the Frost poem hung above. (So, how confusing it was and still is to me, when I started writing poetry as a teenager–after he had moved out–when he aggressively declared no interest in poetry and claimed not to understand it.) I think the Snowy Evening poem is my favorite of Frost’s, and one of my favorites by any poet.
    Did you know there used to be a poetry group on line that was called The Imaginary Garden With Real Toads?!? It was awesome. I was a member for years and so am well familar with Moore’s poem, but had never heard of it before that group. Ribbit indeed! Another favorite of mine said this:

    “Think as I think,” said a man, “or you are abominably wicked; you are a toad.” And after I thought of it, I said, “I will, then, be a toad.” ~ Stephen Crane

    How awful that you had to sneak poetry. And no fiction! Ugh! What circle of Hell must that have been? I’m so sorry.

    Thanks so much for this glimpse into your first favorites, Dora! I’m so proud to know you!

    –Shay

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve heard you refer to the Toads before, and I should’ve made the connection on the instant. How fitting for poets that aim for the genuine! Your bringing up Crane gave me pause. There was a time in my life when he signified the authentic to me in a way no other author could. I owe him a debt for that. And that first line from “The Open Boat” — how did it go? — “No one knew the color of the sky.” Set the scene. Set the heart beating. Anyway, as you probably already figured, your father seemed to be running away from something that poetry kept raw, and the rawness of poetry can be a danger, but it can be healing too, and I know it is for you. Thank you for reaching out to me, letting me get to know you through your words, your poetic vision, your genuine warmth and vulnerability. We can give each other the strength we’re given, and how priceless a gift is that. I’m blessed to you, Shay.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Well, you have recapped the challenge succinctly in your prose piece, Dora. Thanks for sharing your memories of what brought you to poetry. It definitely can be that life jacket when we have been pushed into the deep end and have to flounder our way to safety, as well as our own first step toward autonomy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Was it supposed to written as poetry? Oops! Sorry, Joy. I just looked at others’ and it appears so. Feel free to delete from Mr. Linky. Maybe I’ll try to rewrite as an added challenge soon.

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      1. No problem here, Dora, or need to rewrite unless you feel the desire to. I didn’t specify prose or poetry, and anyway, I don;t delete people who take the time and energy to contribute to the prompt. I’m glad you joined us.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for that Joy. I liked that analogy of yours of poetry being like a life belt. Yes it is, and the water’s deep at times, but it’s great to look out and see a community of not just survivors but encouragers, poets of vision and courage.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Dora, the truth is even now, poetry and arts are not Indian parents” favourites. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. The Marianne Moore poem is fabulous and of course, we all studied Frost in school.

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    1. Perhaps it’s even more intense in immigrant families who sometimes tend to be more conservative and ambitious than those back home because they are in self-defense mode against the incursions of an unfamiliar even unsettling culture. Literature/art can represent a new threat to survival/success.

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      1. The pressure on immigrant kids is tremendous even now. In the past couple of years I have seen kids leaving India in droves and the focus is always an MBA and a good job. Literature/art fill you with ideas that not necessarily translate into success (monetary).

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    1. “Seek first the kingdom of God ….”: how often it becomes merely theoretical rather than the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount or Romans 12. But thank God, they follow on the heels of the indicatives: Christ is the Vine.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh dear….the pressure to do well I can relate to … I am still angry with that doctor trying to drown you. Obviously he was consumed with jealousy and envy because he is a plodder like so many of them are and not naturally gifted:) Poetry should be a pleasure to write…like eating a ripe mango. If it were a struggle I would not bother with it and if someone likes your work…. well that is a bonus. The majority of the most beautiful moving poetry I have ever read has been written by unpublished poets on blogs.

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    1. I like your analogy to a ripe mango – Nothing better!! I too have read some of the most memorable poetry not on the pages of the big magazines but on blogs, and have loved hearing these voices (including yours, newly discovered) freed from the gatekeepers to sing loud and clear.

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  7. How lovely to read your insights, Dora! I agree with you: poetry is something which provides solace to me when nothing else can. I find God in poetry, when I can find faith nowhere else except, perhaps, in nature.

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    1. Your poetic guide Wordsworth would certainly agree. Nature and poetry both invite us to communion, conversation, if you will, with God, and that invitation is in itself a great gift. Thanks for reading, Ingrid.

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