So You'd Like to... Think Like a Poet

(a work in progress)

As poet Gwendolyn MacEwen writes:

Poetry has got nothing to do with poetry.
Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder,
is the sound you make when you come, and
why you live and how you bleed, and
The sound you make or you don't make when you die.
(From "You Can Study It If You Want")

So this exposition has nothing to do with the study of poetry, nor is it a how-to-write-poetry manual. It is about knowing (in a deep down remembering way) that words speak images and images speak words... it's about casting aside controlled, censored, logical thought and looking at the world in an unexpected way. Askew. It is about what is out there in the large dark and the long light. Breathing.

So how do you unleash your poet's heart?

First Thoughts

Let's start with the basic foundation of poetry... words.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes: "The aim is to burn through to first thoughts... to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see and feel. It's a great opportunity to capture the oddities of your mind. Explore the rugged edge of thought."

These First Thoughts are present not just in the written word but also in song and film. I believe that these fresh, First Thoughts create connections on a visceral level. Whether it's the visual whimsy of the film Amélie or the musical musings of Heather Nova on Oyster: "I want two stars for arms like Orion I could / breathe in breathe in and breathe out" (Truth and Bone).

If you want to listen to lyrics that abound with First Thoughts, I recommend:
Ani DiFranco (Dilate)
Suzanne Vega (Solitude Standing)
Bob Dylan (The Essential Bob Dylan)
Jane Siberry (A Collection 1984-1989)
Lisa Loeb (Tails)
Sinead Lohan (No Mermaid)

Of course, that's just a starting point... there are many other songwriters out there who tap into this creative process. Next time you listen to a song you like, listen closely to the words not just the music. You may find a phrase that makes no sense yet captures your imagination. You've probably discovered a First Thought, the life blood of poetry.

It's also important to see the beauty of the words themselves. To that end, I suggest reading The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer. "Know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write."

Poetry Itself

I would also like to recommend an eclectic assortment of poets. I suggest them not to study but to experience. 

If you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall upon my breast,
it will rain upon my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with cold and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to march toward where you sleep,
but I shall go on living.
(From "La Muerta [The Dead Woman]", The Captain's Verses)

And I, once again whirling among 
the painted horses, gladly exchange, 
for one reminder of life, 
all its memories.
(From "Memento", The Face Behind the Face)

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I would perish
in the embrace of his stronger existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure and are awed
because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Each single angel is terrifying.
(From "The First Elegy", Selected Poems)

"I should have loved a thunderbird instead; 
At least when spring comes they roar back again. 
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)"
(From "Mad Girl's Love Song", Collected Poems)

"I keep such music in my brain,
no din this side of death can quell.
Glory exalting over pain
and beauty garlanded in hell."
(From "Secret Music", The War Poems)

And don't forget Gwendolyn MacEwen... the poet who launched this treatise (Afterworlds).

Visual Poetry

Now let's talk about those images that speak words... I'll start with Chagall (Marc Chagall: 1887-1985). A painter not a poet, it's true. But that's merely a technicality. His paintings are stories to unleash the imagination, not merely representations of something seen only with the eye. And he's not the only one. I urge you to go out and discover other painters who fuel your inner poet. (Klimt is another of my favorites, take a look at Gustav Klimt 1862-1918: The World in Female Form.)

In the same vein, I would encourage you to savor the Griffin & Sabine books (Griffin & Sabine, Sabine's Notebook, The Golden Mean). Nick Bantock's visuals are poems in themselves. Then, paired with the letters and postcards which tell the story, they become part of a rich tapestry of the poetic experience.

What about movies as visual poetry? I already mentioned Amélie. My next choice may not be popular -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein directed by Kenneth Branagh. I will not claim that it is Branagh's best work, but it belongs in this discussion for a very good reason. With it's grand imagery and spiraling cinematography, the movie becomes the nightmare that inspired Mary Shelley to write her story. It is in that connection between words and images that poetry is born. And then there are the films of Baz Luhrman. Which brings me to my next point.

Think Outside the Box, Color Outside the Lines

I think that one of the most exciting aspects of poetry is that it doesn't need to make sense. It's about evoking a reaction or emotion, rather than telling a linear story. About making connections between things that most people see as unrelated.

That can happen in any medium, but tends to be most accessible in film. But before we head in that direction, you might want to consider reading the journals of artists or writers. Great for creative connections. One journal that I highly recommend is A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle (author of the Wrinkle in Time books). And Stephen King's memoir, On Writing, is worth a read.

And while we're still discussing books, don't overlook the science fiction genre. The concepts and associations in the stories of Philip K. Dick (The Minority Report) or books by Jack Finney (Three by Finney, which includes the delightful Woodrow Wilson Dime) can be great fuel for imaginative leaps.

But, sci-fi and fantasy fiction aside, non-linear often works best in a film format -- with movies that shake things up, break the rules, and leave the boundaries so far behind that they become dots on the horizon. Whether it's messing with chronology, using unusual cinematography, or creating a fantastic world, I love a film less ordinary.

Some of my favorite "outside the box" movies:
12 Monkeys
American Beauty
Moulin Rouge
Pulp Fiction
Run Lola Run
Strictly Ballroom
William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet

The Summing Up

So look sideways, hear the angels singing, and dream of wondrous strange things... and you will unleash the poet within.

Products mentioned include:
1. Details at Writing Down the Bones
by Natalie Goldberg

Hundreds of books are around that tell how to avoid bad writing. Natalie Goldberg's books tell how to create good writing. What a pleasant surprise. Both Bones and Wild Mind, her second book, are splendid combinations of Zen wisdom and down-to-earth advice about writing. The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear, is to subtract rules for writing, not add them. Proof that she knows what she is talking about is abundant in the speed, grace, accuracy, and simplicity of her own sentences. They flow with speed and grace and accuracy and simplicity. It looks easy to a reader, but experienced writers know it is the hardest writing of all.

2. Details at Amélie
DVD ~ Audrey Tautou

Perhaps the most charming movie of all time. The title character (the bashful and impish Audrey Tautou) is a single waitress who decides to help other lonely people fix their lives. Her widowed father yearns to travel but won't, so to inspire the old man she sends his garden gnome on a tour of the world; she reverses the doorknobs and reprograms the speed dial of a grocer who's mean to his assistant. Gradually she realizes her own life needs fixing, and a chance meeting leads to her most elaborate stratagem of all. This is a deeply wonderful movie, an illuminating mix of magic and pragmatism. Fans of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's previous films (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) will not be disappointed; newcomers will be delighted.

3. Details at Oyster
Heather Nova

An edgy, affecting debut album. There's a rawness here that draws you in (which is missing on Heather's next CD, Siren -- still worth the price of admission but with a more produced pop sound). Unusual and vivid metaphors abound in the lyrics of every song on Oyster. Her words will resonate in your mind just as her angelic voice and unforgettable music will resonate in a deep place in your soul. Recommended tracks: "Truth and Bone" (with its lush, soaring sound and fresh, poetic lyrics), "Walk This World" (an upbeat, radio-friendly rock song), "Island" (a powerful, intense song about abuse), and "Maybe an Angel" (which will send shivers down your spine). But the song I find myself listening to over and over again is "Sugar" (a musical journey that defies description).

4. Details at Dilate
Ani DiFranco

Following up two of her strongest records, Not a Pretty Girl and Out of Range, Dilate takes a different tack. It's quieter and more lush than previous efforts but just as intensely personal, with songs like "Untouchable Face" that are easier to identify with than many other DiFranco tunes. At the same time, DiFranco's old fans might not recognize the sound here, especially on tracks like the trip-hop-influenced "Amazing Grace," the shuffling "Napoleon," or the indescribable "Shameless"... this isn't the same thrash-folkie of old. There's a lot to like on Dilate, especially if you're a fan of Portishead or Lisa Germano, but it takes some getting used to. 

5. Details at Solitude Standing
Suzanne Vega

On Solitude Standing, Suzanne Vega layers catchier melodies and arrangements onto her verbally adept, absorbing songs, and the result is an album that is both her commercial and artistic peak. Tracks include several truly outstanding songs like "Luka", "In the Eye", "Language", "Solitude Standing", "Ironbound", and "Tom's Diner." If you don't have it already, get it -- a pop-music classic whose treasures are buried abundant and deep, Solitude Standing is an essential piece of music history and, to this day, sounds fresh and up to date. 

6. Details at The Essential Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

Trying to make a compilation of Bob Dylan's music is equal to taking 30 of Picasso's works, and saying "this is the artist" -- the immense creativity is too deep, the development and changes too wide. But if you're a newcomer to the genius that is Dylan, this album is a good introduction to one of the greatest songwriters of all time. What if you're not a greatest hits kind of person? Then take your pick: Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks are all considered to be landmark albums for Dylan.

7. Details at A Collection 1984-1989
Jane Siberry

Jane Siberry creates unique, quirky music without strict attention to commercial acceptance. Hailed by critics in the 80's as one of the finest Canadian songwriters of the decade, Siberry's strength lies in her intelligent lyrics. Though it's hard to single out tracks on this album, you might want to take special note of "Mimi on the Beach" (her first big hit) and "Map of the World Part II" (quirky, poetic lyrics accompanied by a hooky, uplifting melody).

8. Details at Tails
Lisa Loeb

Combining effervescent pop with the lyricism of a skilled storyteller, this album manages to be charming, awkward and catchy all at the same time. Some people complain that her lyrics are confusing or nonsensical, but if you think of her songs as poetry set to music, you'll realize that her lyrics are insightful, imaginative and clever. This alternative pop/rock album is definitely worth a second listen... and a third... and a... you get the idea. (If you're trying to place her name, you probably remember her monster hit "Stay" from the soundtrack of the film Reality Bites. And yes, that song is included on this album.)

9. Details at No Mermaid
Sinead Lohan

Imagine what alternative Celtic folk pop might sound like and you're on your way to imagining the sounds of Sinead Lohan. If that description doesn't work for you, try thinking of a slightly less electric Heather Nova, or an edgier Sarah McLachlan. Sinead's beautiful lilting voice combined with imaginative lyrics and simple soaring melodies make this an unforgettable album. 

10. Details at The Miracle of Language
Richard Lederer

In this collection of entertaining and enlightening essays, Lederer (Anguished English) celebrates language as "incomparably the finest of our achievements" and passes along some eloquent testimony on the emancipating power of language in the lives of Helen Keller, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Anne Frank. Also appraised are the contributions of other writers who, "sculpting significance from the air, have changed the world by changing the word..." such as  Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson for starters. A delightful and edifying collection. 

11. Details at The Captain's Verses
Pablo Neruda

A classic poetry book in a masterful bilingual edition. Long before he received the 1971 Nobel Prize, Pablo Neruda had attained worldwide recognition as one of the most important figures in contemporary poetry. A fiery poet of leftist politics, he was also a fiery poet of love. This translation of The Captain's Verses is a major achievement in the genre of love poetry. Neruda originally published the book anonymously, some years before he married Matilde Urrutia, to whom he had addressed these poems of passionate devotion as well as lover's quarrels. The first "acknowledged" edition appeared in 1963. In this collection, the Chilean poet's brilliant images are expressed with remarkable directness and simplicity. 

12. Details at The Face Behind the Face
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

From the book's introduction: "The life of a poem does not begin on paper. It ends there. A poem lives -- truly lives -- when it is darkly palpitating within the poet, kicking around inside him, when the poet still has no clear idea of what it will become, still senses it only as a vague presentiment, a promise, a hope." Yevtushenko's real virtue as a poet lies in the sudden twist of perception, the change of tone whereby he seizes upon an 'ordinary' moment and opens up its hidden potential. Read more about Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

13. Details at Selected Poems
Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Albert Flemming

Flemming captures Rilke's style and mood with grace. He is a master at lining, and his use of contemporary meters, rhythm, and diction makes his translations more 'readable' to a contemporary audience without losing the mysticism and lyrical quality of Rilke's poems. These translations suggest a new way to look at Rilke in English and are fine poems in their own right. Read more about Rainer Maria Rilke.

14. Details at Collected Poems
Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath died in 1963, and even now her outsize persona threatens to bury her poetry -- the numerous biographies and studies often drawing the reader toward anecdote and away from the work. It's a relief to turn to the poems themselves and once more be jolted by their strange beauty, hard-wrought originality, and acetylene anger. This is one of the most comprehensive collections of her work, containing everything Plath wrote after 1956. Edited, annotated, and with an introduction by Ted Hughes. 

15. Details at The War Poems
Siegfried Sassoon

Although Sassoon wrote poetry before the Great War he was no more than a minor Georgian poet. He had been born into a leisurely society of English country living and, as young men of his upbringing were expected to do, he enlisted in the military... two days before the British declaration of war. The war was Sassoon's loss of innocence. As it dragged on, he experienced a sense of total disgust with the conflict. This was reflected in his poetry. At times violent but always honest, his poems expressed his conviction of the brutality and waste of war in grim, forceful, realistic verse.

16. Afterworlds
Gwendolyn MacEwen

Afterworlds resonates with fragility and strength. Form, craft and style yield to her inimitable ability to marry artifice and art, to create poems of power, eloquence and beauty. This book is no longer available at If you are interested in locating a used copy, try searching at For more information about Gwendolyn MacEwen, I recommend the University of Toronto Gwendolyn MacEwen site.
Search at

17. Details at Marc Chagall: 1887-1985
by Jacob Baal-Teshuva

Henry Miller once described Marc Chagall as a "poet with the wings of a painter." The pages of Chagall are filled with images that prove the writer's words true. Chagall's mysticism, his deep religious sentiment, and his playfulness are revealed in the hundreds of full-color images lushly reproduced in this volume. The commentary provided by Chagall scholar and friend Jacob Baal-Teshuva expertly guides readers through the artist's various moods and media and underscores the passion of belief and feeling that informed all of his artwork. 

18. Details at Klimt: The World in Female Form
by Gottfried Fliedl

Gustav Klimt's unique style combines sensuality, realism, and spirituality to make his work recognizable and among the most popular in the history of art. His primary focus on women has led to the most ethereal portraits and murals ever produced. The text explores Vienna at the turn of the century and Klimt's importance in its society and within the context of the modern art movement. 

19. Details at Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
by Nick Bantock

This singular, magical volume invites readers to examine handmade postcards and open colorful envelopes as they eavesdrop on lonely London card-designer Griffin Moss and mysterious South Pacific islander Sabine Strohem. Their personalities shine through both their art and penmanship: Griffin's faintly disturbing, often subliminally violent collages, blocky printed words and imperfectly typewritten pages contrast with Sabine's whimsical doodles, fanciful postage stamps and flowing, calligraphic script. 

20. Details at Sabine's Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin & Sabine Continues
by Nick Bantock

Devotees of Bantock's enigmatic bestseller, Griffin & Sabine, won't be disappointed by this equally intriguing, perplexing and gorgeous sequel. Bantock's distinctive premise continues to puzzle and delight, the wonderful stationery has an authentic look and, not surprisingly, the finale leaves room for another chapter. 

21. Details at The Golden Mean: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin & Sabine Concludes
by Nick Bantock 

Bantock's bewitching trilogy, begun with Griffin & Sabine and Sabine's Notebook, ends with this characteristically curious installment. If the fictional events here seem more melodramatic and slightly less profound than in earlier volumes, it's because readers know (almost) what to expect. This fantastical and peerless tale is a must-have for Bantock's collectors. 

22. Details at Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
DVD ~ Kenneth Branagh

If you rent or buy this movie expecting to see a tall, big, green ugly monster with bolts on the side of his head that staggers around, then you might be disappointed. While it does take a few liberties with Shelley's classic novel, it does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the original story, its gothic character and nightmare origins. The creature's portrayal is haunting and true, while the visuals are breathtaking and visceral. Not Branagh's best work, but definitely worth viewing.

23. Details at A Circle of Quiet
by Madeleine L'Engle

The popular author of A Wrinkle in Time (who has also penned numerous other books for children and adults) offers her insights on life, religion, self-consciousness, love and -- above and through it all -- the art of writing. The title of this book comes from the text itself: "Every so often I need out--away from all these people I love most in the world -- in order to regain a sense of proportion. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings... [there] I move slowly into a kind of peace that is indeed marvellous, 'annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade'."

24. Details at On Writing
by Stephen King

In 1981 King penned Danse Macabre, a thoughtful analysis of the horror genre. Now he is treating his vast readership to another glimpse into the intellect that spawns his astoundingly imaginative works. This volume, slim by King standards, manages to cover his life from early childhood through the aftermath of the 1999 accident that nearly killed him. Along the way, King touts the writing philosophies of William Strunk and Ernest Hemingway, advocates a healthy appetite for reading, expounds upon the subject of grammar, critiques a number of popular writers, and offers the reader a chance to try out his theories. Recommended for anyone who wants to write and everyone who loves to read.

25. Details at The Minority Report
by Philip K. Dick
26. Details at Three by Finney
by Jack Finney
27. Details at 12 Monkeys
DVD ~ Bruce Willis
28. Details at American Beauty
DVD ~ Kevin Spacey
29. Details at Brazil
DVD ~ Jonathan Pryce
30. Details at Magnolia
DVD ~ Tom Cruise
31. Details at Memento
DVD ~ Guy Pearce
32. Details at Moulin Rouge
DVD ~ Nicole Kidman
33. Details at Pleasantville
DVD ~ Joan Allen
34. Details at Pulp Fiction
DVD ~ John Travolta
35. Details at Run Lola Run
DVD ~ Franka Potente
36. Details at Strictly Ballroom
DVD ~ Paul Mercurio
37. Details at William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
DVD ~ Leonardo DiCaprio

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