I spent some of my morning writing poetry.
I don’t usually do that. For one thing, I’ve always had the sneaking feeling that poetry ought to rhyme and I’ve never had any facility with rhyming things and not having them sound like a fifth-grade graduation speech. Plus, honestly, reading rhyming poetry bores me to tears most of the time. You have to be really, really good at that sort of thing to make it worthwhile for me.
There are only so many Doctor Seusses in the world.
For another, I've never been much of a fan of older alliterative models of poetry – the kind of lays and odes that litter Tolkien’s work, for example, most of which I just skip over because I know the important plot points they contain will be explained below – and while the snarky haikus that you see online can be entertaining, especially if Godzilla is involved, I tend to wear out on them fairly quickly.
I do like limericks, though, because most of them are funny. Poetry has an awful tendency to take itself far too seriously and after a while you want to track down the poets responsible, get them good and drunk, and ship them to Vegas just to lighten them up a bit. Limerick writers seem, as a group, to have already done that. Or perhaps they are still doing that. It depends on the limerick.
There is a reason why the “London Times Limerick Contest” joke is one of my favorites. And no I’m not going to repeat it here.
Limericks generally avoid the "taking yourself too seriously" problem. It's hard to find anything serious that rhymes with "Nantucket," after all. I prefer poems that like that, although sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands in that regard. A friend of mine once pointed out that nearly all of Emily Dickinson’s work can be sung to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas,” for example, and that fact still brightens my day. Try it sometime:
“Because I would not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
Doesn’t the music add a layer of levity that ol’ Emily probably could have used?
As for free verse, well. Poetry that does not rhyme or have any real meter just strikes me as poorly typeset prose. You might as well write it down in paragraphs and be done with it. I’m good at prose, though, and to be honest my all-time favorite poet (Brian Andreas) falls squarely into this style of writing. If there is any kind of poetry that appeals to me as a broad category, I suppose this is it.
So consistency is not my thing when it comes to poetry, is what I’m saying here. They’re my tastes, after all. I reserve the right to like what I like and not like what I don’t, according to whim and mood, regardless of whether it rhymes or not or how seriously it takes itself.
I found myself at a meeting today, and as an exercise we were asked to come up with a number of items in five different categories, all under the general heading of “Where I Come From.” The “Family” category was easy – there weren’t that many of us when I was younger, and we were a tight-knit group. The “Food” category was similarly easy, since a great deal of our lives revolved around meals. That hasn’t changed, by the way, and that’s fine by me. The “Places” category was also fairly straightforward for someone who has always had a historian’s sense of place and time, though the “Items” category – things that defined your world back when – was a bit harder since I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where things were both reasonably plentiful and not very emphasized. We tended to focus on people. The only category that I had trouble with was “Family Sayings,” not because I couldn’t think of any – my brother once put together a multi-page list of common expressions that we shared – but because none of the ones I could think of off the top of my head were really appropriate for a professional setting. What can I say? It was quite a list.
We were then asked to write a poem based on this, one that would address the general heading. The whole exercise, including brainstorming, took about fifteen minutes.
This is what I came up with. I have no illusions as to it being an anthology-worthy poem, but I rather like it anyway. It’s not bad for a fifteen-minute project.
I come from a small family in a large city
And grew up in a world that smelled like gravy
Which is red and goes on ravioli
No matter what people say.
There were places to go
Around my neighborhood on my bike
And in my mind through books and photographs
And the little globe that my grandmother would spin.
There were fires to put out
Metaphorical ones backstage
And real ones I went to on the back of a truck,
And there were things we said to each other that only we understood
Which is probably for the best.