Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Megan Willome's 'The Joy of Poetry'

Poetry [is] like a fingerling potato, growing quietly
in a dark space. Dig it up, saute it in a little olive
oil, give it a chance.
~ Megan Willome, The Joy of Poetry

Cover Art by Pai-Shi Lee

In his poem "Love's Last"*, Christian Wiman writes, "Love's last urgency is earth / and grief is all gravity". This couplet resounded as I read Megan Willome's newly published The Joy of Poetry (T.S. Poetry Press), a hybrid book that is both a memoir and an accounting of the kinds of love that abide and are sustained, sometimes with great effort. Not the least of these is Willome's love of poetry and her often intentional practice of it: the ways it grounds her, brings laughter, instructs her, accompanies her over years-long periods interrupted by the usual activities of life that join past to present.

Anchoring The Joy of Poetry is Willome's story of her relationship with her mother, Merry Nell Drummond, who lived for more than two decades with the cancer that eventually took her life. Willome's grief is all gravity — it is this memoir portion of the book that Willome skillfully threads through each chapter, keeping the narrative focused but never mired in unnecessary explication or detail, or the too-personal.

But this book is no downer.

Perhaps paradoxically, grief also gives Willome reason to relate her palpable sense of loss to a pronounced sense of joy — joy that comes with remembering how, because of Merry Nell, Willome became a published poet at age 13 and, some 30 years after, is still reading, writing, and collecting poems: practicing poetry for the joy of it. To this reader, it is no surprise that Willome credits her experience with and of poetry to "literally chang[ing] my attitude" and saving her life. She herself asserts these facts early on, even as she acknowledges that "most people, even most writers, aren't like me. A lot are. . . afraid of poetry." Helping others get over that fear is another path to joy.

Navigating within each chapter the transitions from personal and frequently poignant anecdotes to reflections on particular poems or her own or others' ideas about poetry is tricky. Willome manages them not only by situating poems and poetry experiences solidly within the framework of her memoir, which remains the core of The Joy of Poetry, but also by leavening heart-felt pain with well-placed humor and by addressing readers in a voice that is inviting and encouraging. Hers is not an academic approach to poetry but a life approach, and one that is expansive. For all her exposure to and knowledge of poetry (the chapters' subtitles serve both as cues and clues), Willome writes in so down-to-earth a manner that anyone who picks up the book can't help but admire how deeply she's integrated poetry in her life. And what readers (parents or teachers) cannot appreciate her including in a poetry discussion references to the mouse-poet "Frederick" from Leo Lionni's book of the same title? (This delighted me!)

Whatever their lierary background may be, readers also are apt to come across at least a few familiar names (Dana Gioia, Luci Shaw, Ann Patchett) and new names— all serendipitous finds. I did. I was unfamiliar with a number of the poets Willome quotes: Katherine E. McGhee, Helena Nelson, Kim Dower, Karla Kuskin, Kathleen Jamie. Willome's selection and inclusion of these writers diversify and broaden the poetry landscape, giving us voices we otherwise might never have heard.

Willome, as well, offers some suggestions for how to approach poetry and make poetry reading and writing a habit; these appear throughout the book and, helpfully, also are collected in separately in a section titled "How to Keep, Save & Make Your Life with Poems". (Teachers, take note.)

One of the author's best ideas is to become someone's "poetry buddy"; Willome's was a person admittedly "askeerd" [afraid] of poetry who ended up reading and sharing four months of thoughts about Kevin Young's Book of Hours. Other excellent recommendations are to "do a poetry dare", either alone or as part of a larger community devoted to expanding poetry awareness and appreciation generally; keep a notebook of brief thoughts about the poems one reads, at whatever pace (the notebook also could be used to copy out poems, helping one to better understand how poems are written); and create a scrapbook of poems just because you like a poet's style, vocabulary, or insights. The latter might comprise one's initial and subsequent efforts at poetry writing, funny poems clipped from magazines, poems of consolation, special-occasion poems, poems of remembrance, or, as in Willome's case, any poems that you just want to keep by your side, for any reason or no reason at all — you don't have to answer the question, "Why?" The many poems the author includes in The Joy of Poetry could be among the first you decide to safe-keep.

Willome's The Joy of Poetry is part of T.S. Poetry Press's "Masters in Fine Living Series", which is conceived as a holistic approach to "living deeply, richly" by showing us how to mine the possibilities opened to us through reading, writing, playing, learning, and growing. It is available in e-book and print editions, as all titles in the series are.

* "Love's Last" in Christian Wiman, Once in the West: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), p. 48

NOTE: The book club at Tweetspeak Poetry has selected The Joy of Poetry for its next discussion, beginning May 4. The very able LW Lindquist will act as leader and guide. Anyone may join in. For details, see "Book Club Announcement: The Joy of Poetry Begins May 4".

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