Friday, March 29, 2013

The Inner Child in the Poet

Hopscotch chalk colors driveways and sidewalks, thrashers are singing lustily, kites high-flying gustily. The world is bursting with life, song, and hope after winter's torpor. April, appropriately designated Poetry Month, beckons each creature to join the creative process. 

Writing poetry often occurs first as a response to such beauty and exuberance, and some people think of it only that way, but poetry's an appropriate expression for life in all its guises. It captures the comedic irritation of spring winds and Russian-immigrant tumbleweeds in...

AH, SPRING!   Wind herds tumbleweeds/ down the Southwest interstate/ at posted speed./ Oncoming car grills grin/ through Russian thistle whiskers.

Poetry exposes the underbelly of war in the last stanzas of... 

*CODE TALKER   [he] meets two other camouflaged survivors/ helps the famished men set snares/ for chickens they'd heard scratching/ in the brush.// He had passed the hens - - -/ themselves once famished in this war - - -/ as they plumped themselves/ on maggots feasting/ upon fallen-soldier flesh. 

Although many authors begin in childhood, I came to writing--beyond thank-you notes, letters, and school papers--with graying hair. Writing this blog couldn't have been imagined, much less happened, in my youth. Writing would have kept me inside. I was an outside kid playing ball, flying kites, and exploring along the local creek.

My fondest childhood hours were spent at the end of our block in a large vacant lot where things grew WILD. Up in the cherry tree, I was a bird viewing the world below. Lying on the ground, I imagined what life was like for beetles and crickets with grasses tall as trees towering above. I puzzled why ants walked single-file like second graders returning to class.

I'd heard that God punished the snake for its role in Eden by depriving it of legs. I, however, couldn't see how the garter snake was disadvantaged as it slithered with a grace unequaled by footed creatures. Nor was it bothered by skinned knees, stubbed toes or broken bones from falling. I amassed my observations and kept them to myself. I certainly didn't write about them. Nor could I have predicted, many years later, being so touched by an intact snake skeleton that I'd write... 

*SNAKE SPEAKS   Among the dunes/ beneath a ponderosa pine/ articulated skeleton of snake// speaks to me/in supple syllables/ of vertebrae/ and curved ribs/ fine as needles// till I can hear/ it slither-stitch/ its shifting shape/ across the sand/ in search of prey. 

After my dad died, we moved to an older neighborhood without a vacant lot. As the oldest of three children I took on more family responsibility. Life progressed with its hormonal changes, work at the corner drugstore, college, teaching, and marriage--all in cities. I had assumed life's traditional roles and forgotten the vacant lot until many years later when my husband and I settled on ranch land in New Mexico among red rock mesas and miles of space.

I learned to recognize our new neighbors as much by sound as by sight: the whhipp whhipp whhipp of ravens flying overhead, the descending co coo coo coooo of the romantic roadrunner. In October my pulse responded to the warbling call of gray waves of sandhill cranes lapping their way across the sky along an invisible path first marked millions of years ago.

Among the neighbors I was getting to know was a black widow spider, the first one I'd ever seen, her telltale red hourglass on a body sleek as polished jet. She lived, not in the neat orb of garden spiders, but in a ragtag web littered with gray exoskeletons hanging about like ghosts of her previous meals.

In those days before PCs were common and Google was a verb, I took notes, wrote down questions, and went to the bookmobile to learn that the tiny brown spider that awkwardly approached my black widow wasn't just a meal, but was her mate plucking the lines of her web like a harp to announce his intentions, that the marble-size silk ball she turned and tended was her egg sac. I watched spiderlings hatch one by one by one by one and sail off in the breeze on strands of silk like kite tails that delivered hundreds of young to new homes.

I had reconnected to my vacant lot, responding to nature with the awe and wonder of a child. Only now my vacant lot was 60 acres and I didn't have to grow up.

But I did feel the need to capture these experiences in a tangible way after I'd all but lost them for those many years. I also wanted to share my findings and excitement with children who don't have the advantage of exploring undeveloped places. "A Dangerous Lady," about the black widow spider, was my first article. It appeared in Cricket magazine. I continued to write.

Poetry crept into my writing along with the rhythms and sensuousness of the seasons. I watched extravaganzas of horizontal lightning on onyx nights, accepted the extremes of drought and floods, and attended to the details of a land many call barren. I started to read poetry and took classes. I began writing with much more awareness of my writing tools.

In addition to sounds, pattern, repetition, rhythm, and rhyme, I consider point of view, shape, and poetic form. I try to listen for what a poem needs. Capturing emotional truth often means not always or in all ways telling exactly what happened. In the following excerpt I chose first person to enhance the poignancy of 

*THE WATCH MAN   The way I know it's my birthday is when Mom tells me to stay home from school to wait for him. . . . I take the small box he pushes into my hand. Open it he commands. It's a watch. It's always a watch. Thanks I say. You're thirteen now, he notes. Be good. Be good startles me. It's the most interest he's ever expressed in what I do. It's the last time I see my dad.

Rather than using a strict traditional form or even free verse, I felt the prose poem format suited the emotional bleakness in "The Watch Man."

I no longer separate poetry from nature. Even the worst disasters call me to dip into the well of poetic choices for adequate expression. So did gross aspects of eating and being eaten seek to become 29 children's poems about the food chain in What's for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems  from the Animal World. A dose of humor helps make distasteful facts more palatable.

When I hear children or adults giggle or say, "I didn't know that," I know I've succeeded in communicating my fascination with nature's facts and idiosyncrasies.

As a children's writer, there's a special satisfaction when my words are paired with complementary art such as David Clark's illustrations for the cover and poems in this book:


For me, a silver-haired eight year old, what it means to be a poet is to be childlike, in the sense of seeing with unbiased eyes and heart, and to write honestly in the best language possible for the subject and for my audience. 


Posted by Katherine B. Hauth, author of What's for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World. All poems in this post are written by Katherine. Poems marked with an asterisk (*) are from the six-poet anthology, 66 Poems from the Route.

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