Dabbling in Poetry

I’ve spent years writing memoir and essays which were comfortable for my left brain. I like real stories about real people and my reading habits mirror my writing. Give me a memoir or historical biography and I’m happy. Poetry seemed almost mystical and a little intimidating.

While living in a remote, rural area I had no choice but to dabble into poetry; I took a couple of poetry classes at a local community center because that’s all that was offered. From that first poetry teacher, I learned poems don’t have to rhyme which was a big surprise.

Then, my book club read Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor. We were each expected to pick a favorite poem and read it to the group. Of course that meant we had to read the entire book and that exposed me to all sorts of poems.

I found I liked those that were straight forward and that told a story, a story I could understand. I didn’t like the poems where I had no idea what was happening.  I wondered why I wasn’t insightful enough to realize that the leaf dangling from the tree limb was a symbol of life. Or death. Or conflict. Or whatever.

Then, when I moved to an urban area where there were many more choices, I became involved with a monthly group called Poetry Breakfast. Truthfully, I joined because I was new to the area and was looking for social opportunities. At least this group had to do with writing, I thought. Since I wasn’t a poet and had nothing to read, I searched the Good Poems book and brought what I liked to the group.

But, I was inspired by the restaurant where Poetry Breakfast met and where the service was quirky beyond belief. Suddenly a poem jumped out of my head that was equally eccentric, sort of Billy Collins-like. I got up my nerve, read it and was happy with the group’s response.

I began writing short poems for the group. I found a Robert Frost compilation in a used bookstore. Now, there’s a story teller. I knew something was happening when I drove three hundred miles to attend a poetry workshop given by a former poet laureate.

The class announcement said to bring six poems. When I counted what was in my poetry folder, I had just six. That meant I qualified. Twelve poets, the instructor and I spent four hours together for three days workshopping each other’s poems.

I marveled at how different the critique of poetry was from my other writing group experiences. In poetry, it’s common to spend ten minutes, sometimes more, debating the use of just one word over another. Then there is the heated debate between the minimalist view and the more flowery, expressive poet.

It was an energy inducing experience to have these prolific, life-long poets acknowledge my work and treat me as a peer. One even said she thought I was a humorist. This has led to other workshops including yet another former poet laureate’s class that focused on the many forms of poetry. There’s a lot more to this than I’d originally thought.

A turning point came when I’d written a 2000 word essay about an emotional incident in my family. I was uncertain I even had the right to put this down on paper in the detail an essay often requires. It took some time and deep thought to express the same feelings in a three stanza, thirty-two line, 138 word poem. I’m sold on the concept that less is often more.

In the recent movie, Paterson, I understood the creative yearnings that fueled the quiet determination of the main character (named Paterson who lived his uneventful life in the town of Paterson). He dabbled in poetry while working each day as a bus driver, walking his dog and visiting a local bar for one beer each night. The blank book given to him by an un-named character in the final scene spoke volumes. Pardon the cliché.

These days, I still dabble in poetry. Certain new words have become common to my vocabulary: alliteration, repetition, internal rhyme, revision. In the midst of observing the oddities of human nature that occur in my day to day life, I often stop and think: there’s a poem in that. Sometimes, I actually write it.



The first time I said the word out loud was at my annual doctor visit. She’d asked a simple opening question, how are you doing? And I was surprised how easily it fell out of my mouth. I feel like I’m dwindling. Her incredulous What? surprised me. I did a casual take-back and we went on to more pressing topics.

I got a similar reaction when I’d said the word to a couple of friends. Again, it was a you-must- be-joking kind of response.  But the feeling is real. It started last year when I’d had surgery and was informed just before doing under that the anesthetic was known to affect MS. And sure enough, it did affect mine.

It took a few days, in fact I was already home from the hospital, for me to realize it; but the symptoms didn’t lie. The numbness in my right hand and then starting in the feet and coming up the legs was all too familiar. So, I was recuperating from gall bladder surgery with the nausea and general weakness and had to deal with this too. That’s what made me think of that downward spiral. Dwindling.

It’s an old word that I’d learned as a social worker long ago when I was managing a caseload of over one hundred elderly and disabled adults. It was my job to keep them at home and living independently as long as they were able. My routine, yearly contact often was full of surprises as I watched that vibrant Edith and that feisty Alice become more frail with each visit.

The medical definition of dwindling is a condition of physical deterioration involving several body systems, usually in an elderly person or a colloquial term for failure to thrive. “The dwindles” it was called. While I don’t fit the medical definition, there is still something going on.

The thing about each MS exacerbation is that there is always loss. And with each incident, I could tell. Less strength. Less stamina. Poorer balance. I hadn’t had an incident in quite a while so this one was more dramatic. This time, the balance had been very affected and my usual full remission didn’t occur. I have to use my walking stick much more and that’s been quite an adjustment. Perhaps because it’s so visible.

I guess that settles it. Though I don’t fit that medical definition I know what’s going on. But actually, we all are dwindling aren’t we? The twenty year old athlete at forty can’t accomplish what he used to. Hugh Grant’s wrinkles attest to the loss of his boyish good looks. Andrea Mitchell’s fumbling words mark the approach of possible retirement. These are realities and they affect us all.

Maybe it’s word choice that causes such discomfort. In my case, its caused quite a reaction. So let’s say the same thing in a more palatable way. My thesaurus connects dwindling to declining, decreasing, diminishing.  That still sounds pretty ominous to me. But hey, how’s that for poetic alliteration!




Those who cannot  remenber the past are condemned to repeat it.
                                                                   George Santayana

The again of it couldn’t be anticipated,
not while it was beginning.
This time would be different;
the correction had been made.
The pendulum had swung.

Exceptionalism at last.
Then, just a different set of clothes,
a new vocabulary.
But the same meaning underneath;
such a sly and sneaky thing.

A rush for repetition;
re-create that relief.
Drawn in by the ruse;
Disregard, deride, disparage.
Santayana smirks.

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