Novelists Should Read Poetry

I think novelists who want to write better should read poetry. So on this Monday morning I’m taking a break from writing to read I Saw God Dancing, poems by Cheryl Denise.

Good poets create intense experience with a few words. Reading poetry, I linger on phrases, savor lines, and pause at the end to think, something I do only rarely when reading novels. The experience is un-definable, more than sensory, like a probe to a little-used, mystical corner of the mind. After I read a Cheryl Denise poem, I want to say “thanks for giving.”Chery'sBook

I think I’m setting myself up for a good day.

The volume’s title is provocative, and as I start to read I can’t help searching for its inspiration, maybe a poem by the same title. The table of contents reveals no such poem, but I find the title’s roots in the first line of “Grace:” Mennonites don’t dance. Aha. I think a story is about to unfold.

I’m pulled to the next page and “Mennonite Poet,” a vivid memoir of infancy to sixteen in six short sections. I’m not Mennonite, but I can relate to this upbringing in the church, and I love the four-year-olds as they’re taught to pray in Sunday School, “Our Father,” we awkwardly mumble/ cheeks full of crackers.

If you aren’t familiar with Mennonites, this scene from Sunday Dinners, the second section of “Mennonite Poet” gives a glimpse of the culture both old and new:

We laugh as three men

rub their rough-trimmed beards and tell stories,

how they left the Old Order Church at eighteen,

no more farming or horse and buggies.

They met secretly one night at the corner of

Eli’s meadow and walked to the city.

Naïve, in suspenders and work boots,

they crossed on red.

A policeman gave them a ten-dollar ticket.

“Mennonite Poet” shows that even as we question the forces that nurture us, we seldom stray far from our roots. And we all may be more alike than different. In fact, the first half of the book is subtitled “Someone Like You.”

I read on. I’m going to have to be choosy about stopping to quote. You’ll have to get the book and do your own lingering. But before I go, I have to share the first half of “Communion.”

Patsy, my best friend, was Catholic.

They had communion every Sunday;

she thought four times a year wasn’t enough.

From a gold goblet they drank wine;

the Priest made it into the actual blood.

We drank Welch’s Grape Juice

from tiny plastic cups,

and washed feet.

I love the voice in these poems and the frankness that strikes a blow at our assumptions about people who may dress and pray differently. We harbor such odd and unrealistic beliefs, even about people we think we know well. Maybe if we could read each other’s poetry we’d achieve world peace. Spread the word.

I Saw God Dancing is part of the DreamSeeker series published by Cascadia Publishing House. I bought my copy at Mountain Treasures in Philippi. If you’re somewhere else in the world, you can get yours from Amazon:

2 thoughts on “Novelists Should Read Poetry”

  1. Pingback: Poetry and the Power of Language | C.T. Westing

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