Entering the World of Poetry: The Lines that Changed Me

02 October 2019 on Blog, Storystorm  

In my poetry form and technique class we were discussing the lines that changed us, that made us into writers. This conversation stemmed from reading Light the Dark edited by Joe Fassler. In this book of collected essays authors share the lines (from someone else’s writing) that most affected them, or stayed with them in some way. This conversation made me reflect on my own experience, and the lines that made me want to write poetry. Mine are still in my head as clear as when I first read them:

“I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made.”
Marie Howe, “The Gate” (From What the Living Do)

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. I wrote in journals. I wrote (and signed my full name) on the backs of nightstands and under shelves in all the closets (which I would deny doing). But I wasn’t a poet. I was just scribbling fragments in my journal. I was trying to put what I saw into words. 

I never, ever, read poetry for fun. I didn’t understand why I’d choose to read a poem over a story. When I read a story I saw people, lives. I saw worlds I could visit that were not my own. When I read a poem it was for class and I saw a sonnet, meter, a line break. 

In college, in one of these classes, I was given Marie Howe’s, “What the Living Do” and told to read it cover to cover. I was skimming, marking things such as enjambment! Tone. Mood. Title? without really reading it. I had econ work to do and a story to write for my fiction class, and more “important work” to do. 

I was sitting criss-cross on my dorm room bed. It was late February. It was cold even inside, and I read the opening sentence of Marie Howe’s “The Gate” and I heard an audible click as my own gate slammed behind me and I stepped into After. My life before those lines. My life After. 

I didn’t know words could do that. I didn’t know that one sentence could tumble over, spread across multiple lines and with it my mind, my understanding, my heart. There was no explaining, no outright connecting, no background details. But here was a single sentence that captured so perfectly the joy and terror of living and loss. Or living with loss. Or living despite loss. Or living because of loss. Or all of the above. Somehow all of the above at the same time. 

Guilt. Pain. Happiness. Entering the world for the first time--because of a death. You could write books on that idea, and here was Marie Howe saying it all and more in one sentence. And not only that, but she let me see it and feel it and know it by the shape of her poem. She took these complex, impossible paradoxes and made them something physical, tangible, and deceptively simple. 

I read that entire poem; it was the first poem I ever really read. Marie Howe’s “The Gate” was my gate into poetry. I devoured that book again from start to finish and really read it. I went back and reread poetry books I had read before without knowing this secret—that poetry can not only tell the complexities of this life, or show it, but be it. And once I knew that secret I wanted to find it everywhere. 

I wrote poems on the side of my econ work because I realized this was the most important work of all. Being able to take the impossible possibilities of this world and put them into words so that other people can not only understand but also feel it, so that they can step into the world with you. 

Stories are great too. I still visit other worlds, and other people’s worlds in fiction and nonfiction. But poetry is how I talk about the intricate experiences of my own world. It is how I give it shape. It is how I step through my thoughts and feelings to, finally, enter the world.

Johnna St Cyr is Barnstorm's Poetry Editor.

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