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PAPERWORK: Poetry speaks to me, and now to thee

Imagine you are on a park bench.

Sitting by yourself, relaxing, but caught up in the shouting and whispering inside your head. 

Then you notice you are not alone. Sitting next to you is a stranger. 

Yet you feel connected to this person you do not know. You’re not sure why. 

The stranger leans in as if to whisper to you and it seems only natural that you lean in to listen. 

And that’s what you do. You listen. And you don’t want to stop.

Well … that’s poetry. At least one of my definitions. 

And there are many, many, many definitions.

As there should be. 

Because poetry is personal. For me it’s a brain spill from a single person in a captured and framed moment in time.

Yes, a stranger leaning in to whisper in your ear. What you hear is often up to you. 

What you hear is often what’s inside of you. Sometimes the stranger is inside of you.

Which is why some poetry works for me. And some does not. There has to be that connection … that’s hard to explain. 

I learned in high school I don’t like jabberwocky.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Yeah, I remember reading those lines in school. They did roll off the tongue … and onto the floor.

I had no idea what they meant. Meanwhile the English teacher was hoping we’d appreciate the famous “nonsense” poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. 

It was fun to read … all those crazy words. And I applaud the creativity and word play. 

But I prefer poetry that does not require a code book … or a degree in psychology.

Poetry does not have to be complicated. And it can be fun.

When I first started playing with computers I found a website with an interesting poetry challenge. 

I was given a display of words scattered about on tiles, like Scrabble pieces. The mission was to pull the words into a poem. 

It was easier than I expected and illuminating to see how much variety participants could create.

Word play. Fun. But the messages created were still heartfelt and personal.

For me that’s always the soft underbelly of poetry. The words are attached to feelings, images and all the senses rumbling in the gut.

You don’t write poetry. It writes you. 

I look back at poems I wrote in high school, college and younger days. (Angst is great fertilizer for poems.)

They provide snapshots of my growing pains … and joys. A more perfect diary that adds scent and taste and vision to a day’s events.

I still write poems now and then. It’s seldom planned. 

There’s this rush of words … connected … that I suddenly hear inside my busy brain. That stranger whispering to me.

It can race into my head at any time. And needs to be leashed quickly.

Let me share an example.

On the last day of 2018 a friend posted this brief note online:

“We had dinner in an Ohio River restaurant last night, the swollen, limb-littered river a flat waxy brown in the fading sunlight.

“Afterward, I sat for a few minutes in a lobby chair, crossing one leg over the other, my left arm stretched out beside me, reading glasses in hand.

“Suddenly I was my father in a favorite pose.

“The feeling was real, palpable and a little unnerving. That was how he sat in his chair. That's how I was sitting. I was him. I could feel him. We were one. 

“As I got up he went away. For the time being, anyway.”

So I read this and it rolled out like poetry. I understood. 

I felt myself standing, as I do every morning, staring into the bathroom mirror. As I get older I see more clearly that I am looking at my father. 

I heard that whispering and wrote this:

Looking Back

My father is giving

me that look.

You know the one.

The wordless glance

that says everything

I needed to hear … then.

And most certainly now,

while I stand here,

listening and leaning

into my mirror. 

There’s no rhyme, but lots of reasons for the words.

Of course, it’s personal. 

I can call it a poem because there are no rules anymore. Free verse is just that. Free to make or break rules. 

You might be thinking that poetry is not your thing. Think again.

Many, if not everyone, enjoys the poetry of music. As do I.

Or you might relish a good limerick now and then over a frosty mug of beer.

I think there’s poetry waiting inside all of us. 

Words that come together and connect and attach to feelings. 

Words that whisper important things. So important you lean to listen.

And you don’t want it to stop.

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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