Robert Frost noted that a poem begins as a “lump in the throat” or a “homesickness” and never as a thought. Poetry is born in the body, and the accompanying sense of displacement that is a part of our experience from cradle to grave. We are ever trying to negotiate both where we are along the way along with the sense that “where we are” is a way station. And this awareness of our constant dislocation is born in our bodies. Each and every experience that we have is imprinted on our bodies. In this instance I sweat my panic and in that I smile my joy; here I shiver my pleasure and there loss wets my cheek. My jaw clenches this memory into place and my cheek flushes an intimacy revealed. My body inscribes that I live both in and beyond each experience. But for some reason, some of us are not content to leave it at that.
A poem may begin as a lump in the throat, but it seems that many of us want to memorialize our experience, or perhaps exorcise it, by putting it to print. I suspect that this need to memorialize is true, as well, for authors who are not poets. In the end, authors have their own reasons for putting pen to page, and as I think through my experience of writing, I realize that it is as varied as the genres I employ in my writing life. When I write a report I inform. When I write an essay I try out an idea. When I write a sermon I bear witness. But when I write a poem, I turn flesh to word. I see something; perhaps a person piquing my curiosity with theirs, or perhaps a sky that is so large as to fill my eye. But that experience of seeing is not yet enough; it demands an accounting, not in the sense that it needs to be fit into a budget of sensibilities, but in the sense that a convincing exploration of the experience is pleading for the light of day. The riches of the experience preclude a simplistic cause and effect narrative. Poetry redeems the day by pointing beyond the author and her words. Good poetry launches us and leaves us in a strange place where we see the world in a new way.
In a way, poetry takes us from body to word to body again. A poem is a boomerang. It takes leave from the flesh and straddles the heavens only to return again to the earth that we stride and the earth that we are. A poem is a storm, flashing across the orb of my eye; raining song on a scorched earth; winding questions into the cracks of armored certainties that shut people out and pain in. Poetry de-calcifies us. It doesn’t scratch an itch so much as it itches a numbed world. Poetry truly begins as a lump in the throat, but that lump is there because a wider world is in the wings and aching to be explored.
My path into poetry has been, in the end, the surreptitious path of poetry into me. Here an author unsettled a satisfied me; there a hymn not only named a yearning but birthed another. Over and over again I find myself indebted to that lump in my throat that announces that I am alive and this is gift.