Essay by Athena Kildegaard
Why I Write Poetry
“Listen to this,” my dad would say at the dinner table.
We didn't say grace; we were heathens. Instead, we listened as my dad read something aloud. Or he'd hand a book, already open to a poem or a page of prose, to my mother or to my brother or sister. Or to me.
That was an honor, I always thought, to be asked to read something—Samuel Johnson or Charles Darwin or Virginia Woolf—something my English professor father prized, something he might have read that day, probably well before dawn, as he sat at his enormous dark desk, with his back to the front yard and the state highway that doubled as main street and, beyond, the Minnesota River.
In front of that desk was an oak settee upholstered in a flocked and flowered golden print. Once, when I was about twelve, my dad and I sat on that settee several mornings in a row and wrote a little play. Our scenes alternated between a group of men in a boat holding their fishing rods out over the water while talking about their bad luck and a group of fish—crappies, perch, bluegills—swimming in leisurely circles around the worms that hung in limp figure eights.
I am a poet, but my earliest memory of a poem is not about the poem at all. I was a child read to by my parents, often from a big book bound in red that belonged to my mother. The book had poems on recto pages and illustrations on verso pages.
One of the illustrations was of a big-shouldered bush with branches that fell toward the grass, making a secret hiding place close to the trunk. How delightful to crawl into that space, to hide in the dim light, the green and stubborn smell of bark and leaves all around, to hide there through a long morning, lost to the world, harbored by the bush. My mother read me this poem many times, but what I remember is the secret shelter of that bush.
I grew up in St. Peter, a town on the navigable portion of the Minnesota River. Front Street ran parallel to the river and in the old times, the days when proper navigation of goods occurred on the river, it was called Mule Street after the mules who trudged along the river tied to barges. The river is slow-moving and wide most of the year, but sometimes mules were needed to get wheat and alfalfa down to Minneapolis. In the 1970s, the decade when I began to know my need to write poetry, the only navigators were fishermen in low-slung motorboats and adventurers in canoes.
After school, I’d ride my bicycle to the river, a notebook and pen in the basket. I had many access points, some close to home, places I could reach if I didn’t have much time. On a leisurely Saturday, I could ride my bicycle out of town, cross the river, and then turn north toward the village of Ottawa. No one ever knew where I was. And I was completely alone.
The first book of poetry I received was Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, an anthology compiled by Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith. “Dunning/Lueders/Smith” the spine reads, as if it were the corner banner for a law firm, specialists in the delights of language. No case too small; no settlements beyond their reach. The first poem is Eve Merriam’s “How to Eat a Poem” and it begins, “Don’t be polite.”
Every year when I was growing up, we’d make a trip from Minnesota to the Texas panhandle to be with my father’s family. A serious portion of the trip was devoted to the rules of good manners. Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Help clear the table. Help wash the dishes. Say “You’re welcome.” Don’t swear, ever. Don’t ever swear.
It wasn’t that my family was prudish or fussy about convention. In fact, my parents were far from prudish. We talked about sex openly; they both used those grand Anglo-Saxon cuss words with aplomb—unless too much booze had been consumed and then the cuss words became hatchets. But when we left our house, we crossed our legs neatly and behaved.
“Bite in,” Merriam says in “How to Eat a Poem.” “Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that may run down your chin.” Poetry could be messy, Merriam was telling me, even in public.
The first book of poetry I bought for myself was a little paperback—$1.95, it reads on the cover—Honey and Salt, Carl Sandburg, his last book. Now I read these verses and hear the slightly bittersweet and elegiac tone of an old man. Then, I was too young to know that voice. I relished, instead, lines like these: “Bring on a pail of smoke. / Bring on a sieve of coffee.” How poetry can give you things you can see and can’t see, both at the same time. And these: “so you can take love as it comes keening / as it comes with a voice and a face / and you make a talk of it.” That delicate playfulness of making “a talk” of love.
The poet Mary Ruefle writes:
I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, 'I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say'; but now I know I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.
My bicycle trips led me to wide, sandy riverbanks, where I’d find a fallen tree and use it as a bench. I could sit perfectly still for a long time if I needed to; if I didn’t want to disturb a heron on the opposite shore. I was watching and I was listening.
If you are sitting perfectly still on a fallen cottonwood and your eyes are focused on a Great Blue Heron standing with its yellow feet in the water, you can also hear behind you the woodpecker’s hard toes as it moves up and down a tree, and then you can hear his beak go at the bark with determination. The heron doesn’t move. Perhaps it, too, is listening. The heron flies off, and only then can you turn to find the woodpecker and the tree it has picked at as a traveler does a buffet. It’s a downy; it’s an elm.
The second book of poetry I bought with my own money was The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. I didn’t like it, mostly (though I did not despise it); I only came to like her poems much later. But I took the book down from my shelf and opened it at random and learned things from her, a love of words as words and as keys to treasure chests, the delights of form, and the rigors of words shaped into form. To this day, her poem “The Fish” thrills me. The title elides into the first line:
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
Moore listens both in and out—in to shapes and patterns, out to the world. And that is why I write poetry. It's not a world turned upside down or inside out—it's a secret place where anything can happen. It's a big-shouldered bush where you can hide, where you can look in and out simultaneously. It's a place where you can abandon the rules of civility if that's what's needed, where meeting expectation is not necessary. It is a place where listening is enough.
- Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle...and Other Modern Verse, compiledby Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith (Scott, Foresman and Company, 1966).
- Honey and Salt by Carl Sandburg (Harcourt, 1963).
- Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books, 2012).
- The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore by Marianne Moore (Macmillan/Viking, 1967).
- "Morning Fog on the Minnesota River" © Tom Westbrook; Creative Commons license.
- "River Reflections Texture" © Holly Kuchera; Creative Commons license.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of three books of poetry: Rare Momentum (Red Dragonfly Press, 2006), Bodies of Light (Red Dragonfly Press, 2011, a Minnesota Book Award finalist) and Cloves & Honey (Nodin Press, 2012). Her poem "Having Chosen the Near Bank" appeared in TW's September/October 2012 issue.
Athena lives in Morris, Minnesota. Learn more about her at athenakildegaard.com.