I remember exploring the halls of a great art gallery with my family when I was a child. Always intrigued by museums—and art—I was impressed with the massive originals depicting ancient people and places. But when we got to a gallery with contemporary art, everything looked so…well, childish. “Anybody could paint that,” I told my mom as we looked at one canvas.
I still feel some of my little-girl sentiment when I see some contemporary art. I have a hard time believing it takes the same level of skill to splash random colors across a canvas (OK, maybe they’re not as random as they look) as to paint the Mona Lisa. I mean, in Thailand the elephants paint modern art for the tourists.
But perhaps that’s the beauty of contemporary art—anyone can do it. I will never paint the likes of The Starry Night, but I can cover a canvas with colored streaks and bars.
I have recently come to realize there are parallels in the evolution of art and poetry: a movement away from form and tradition and toward a free style in which the meaning is meant to be determined by the beholder.
Just as I admire the classic paintings, I am in awe of the classic poems with their beautiful rhyme, rhythm, and word choice. Until recently, I never even attempted to write my own poetry. I despised “homemade” poetry of the variety that rhymes but sacrifices rhythm and word-choice to do it. Determined not to write anything of that kind, I simply didn’t touch the genre.
This was a sad omission on my part, because as Donald Murray puts it:
Poetry says more with fewer words. Poetry is the bullion cube of literature; meaning is compressed so that it will boil up in the reader’s mind when it is read. Poetry captures the essence of meaning.
So when in a recent college class we were invited to take “writing risks,” I set as a goal the writing of a poem. As I listened to some guest poets share their work, I realized that if I laid aside my expectations about what poetry should be and instead tried a more contemporary style, I might be able to play the game.
Donald Murray says that in contemporary poetry meaning is paramount, rather than form. Meter, rhyming, and line breaks do not follow a pre-determined pattern. Instead, they flow from the meaning of the poem. Contemporary poetry uses normal, everyday language rather than flowery language.
As with modern art, it seems to me that anyone can take a stab at this kind of poetry. So here is an attempt of mine. It was inspired by the thirty-nine traffic lights I have to travel through when I commute to college. I don’t have the skill to write like James Whitcomb Riley, but using this poetic form did capture something that I don’t believe prose would have.
Thirty-Nine Traffic Lights
A long road leads to college,
a road that starts
at thirty-nine traffic lights.
One morning all are green
A summer class—zoology—begins the
And then I race for miles through
green and green and green.
Gen eds are finished. Calculus chemistry physics oceanography—
I gain momentum: Dread the
yellow. Will I make it? No—
The light is red for seven years in
which I start a school and live with Beth. Become
an aunt and bury a
grandma. Learn a to love the culture of
another side of America and feel my heart
expanding to hold God’s wounded children.
The red light fades from
I see a green! Oh joy! I hit the gas
the red was the best
That life and education