“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
This is the very first sentence that 14-year-old Kya Clark sounds out in Delia Owen’s bestselling novel, Where the Crawdads Sing.1 Abandoned by her family at a young age, Kya has been eking out a lonely existence in a shack along the marshy coast of 1950’s North Carolina—she knows all about wild things. So, when she reads this sentence aloud to her friend and reading teacher, 18-year-old Tate, she is awestruck:
“I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”
(Tate) smiled. “That’s a very good sentence. Not all words hold that much.” (103)
Later on, Kya and Tate circle back to this conversation when Tate introduces her to poetry:
“Remember when you read your first sentence, you said that some words hold a lot?” Tate said one day, sitting on the creek bank.
“Yeah, I remember, why?”
“Well, especially poems. The words in poems do more than say things. They stir up emotions. Even make you laugh.” (114)
As someone who has loved words her entire life, I agree wholeheartedly with Kya and Tate: sometimes words hold more than seems possible for a series of letters strung together. Think about the following phrases and the profound weight of them: “I do,” “We’re letting you go,” “The tumor is benign.” Indeed, our very hopes and dreams can be wrapped up in words. Since beginning to write poetry a few years ago, I’ve become even more aware of the way in which words evoke feeling and speak to our hearts with surprising force. But how do they do it? What is it about the words in poems that allow them to hold so much weight and engage our emotions in such a powerful way?
“…our very hopes and dreams can be wrapped up in words.”
Before we look more closely at these questions, I invite you to read a poem I wrote four years ago on a blustery October day.
I Remember I somehow forgot the way the world looks through the yellow canopy of our neighbor's tree, how golden filigree overlays the surrounding rooftops and patches of sky. I somehow forgot how autumn gusts create a ground blizzard of swirling color— dead leaves, still teeming with movement— and how strong, steady winds produce a rainstorm of gold against the clear blue sky, blurring and obscuring my backyard view. I somehow forgot how falling leaves can strike like tiny meteors— annoying me, then making me laugh, later, in wonder. I somehow forgot. I remember now.
As you read this poem, what kinds of feelings bubbled up inside of you? A sense of awe at the unfolding autumn scenes? Surprise or even remorse that one could so easily forget these small fall wonders? Maybe you felt joy. Maybe gratitude. Maybe hope.
Maybe something completely different; but hopefully you felt something. Because that is what a poem does—”it stirs up emotions,” as Tate says.
What is it about poetry that holds our vulnerable hearts in its hands, pressing here or there and molding it to feel this or that?
In my experience, poems begin with a feeling—a big feeling. Before I write any poem at all, I first experience some kind of all-encompassing emotion. Often, that feeling is astonishment, but it can just as easily be longing, loss, or love. Whatever the feeling is, it is usually so strong that I can’t shake it. The experience that captured my attention plays like a movie reel through my head over and over again as I recall the wonder of looking up at blue sky through golden leaves or the delight of watching a ground swirl of rust, burgundy, and amber leaves in the street outside my home. Once I have the movie reel and the accompanying feelings, I know I have a poem.
“In order to feel deeply about the world around me, I have to pay attention.”
However, these profound emotional reactions don’t just magically appear on their own. In order to feel deeply about the world around me, I have to pay attention. I have to sit still, notice, and absorb experiences. I have to linger in the moment, noting colors and smells and facial expressions. In order to be astonished enough to write a poem, I need to enter each day looking for astonishment.
I’ll admit though: I haven’t always been the best at this paying attention part. Much of my life has been a blur of activity, focused mostly around the three “seasons” of the academic calendar: fall semester, spring semester, and summer. I was a student, then I became a teacher, then a graduate student, and finally a school counselor. My years passed to the rhythm of school bells: tests, papers, lectures, lesson plans, and student sessions structured my days. However, in 2013, I experienced a health crisis that took away my ability to work full time, or even work at all. With days spent mostly at home (or in doctors’ offices), I now had time to notice the shape-shifting movement of the clouds, the quiet whir and deafening roar of cicadas. When the busyness of work was taken away, I gained the gift of attention. My new calendar contained four seasons and all of the beautiful transitions between them.
This essay is part of the Fall 2021 exploration of “Making Meaning” at Dordt. We reached out to writers in our community to explore and interact with how they create meaning through words. In a culture where words can be quickly weaponized, how do we explore the beauty, truth, and gift of words? This is part of an ongoing series where writers interact with words and delve into Making Meaning through their written voice.
Owens, Delia. Where the Crawdads Sing. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018. ↩
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I love “how golden filigree overlays the surrounding rooftop/and patches of sky.”
Rachel, thanks for letting us inside your poetry writing process. “The gift of attention” is a special gift indeed.