Cognition

I used to practice poetry every morning, early, dark, before dogs or husband woke up. Before day woke up.

I chose a book, a collection of a single poet's work, and I started at the beginning. I read each poem out loud, softly. Often twice. Often three times. After a few poems I'd stop on one, and copy it on a piece of paper, with a sharp pencil.

I looked at the lines. I observed the meter. Considered nouns, or adjectives.

Then I would choose a prompt for myself -- the opening phrase, the form, or the meter. Sometimes an image. And I would free-write, in a paragraph, scrawling down the blank paper, wandering through my own phrases and images.

Sometimes I ran out of words and then I started over, with my paragraph, tinkering with line breaks or sounds.

The dogs would come downstairs, or I would hear the husband wake up, his footsteps on the old floors overhead. I'd fold the piece of paper into the book. Usually the next morning I'd come back to the next poem in the collection.

I went through whole collections that way. Some were big. The collected poems of Jack Gilbert. Most were smaller. James Tate's Memoir of the Hawk. A book called Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, by Lana Hechtman Ayers. Many of my poetry books are delicate paperbacks with beautiful covers, and sometimes I chose a book just for its cover art.

I didn't always finish a collection. I started Sylvia Plath but became anxious and unhappy and I put it away. Sometimes I didn't like the poems, as with Galway Kinnell's When One Has Lived A Very Long Time Alone. That was unsettling to me, to discover I didn't like that book. I started Wallace Stevens and ended up not writing that day, just reading and reading. Yeats was like that. I stopped writing poems and prose completely for a while when I read Yeats.

Some poets make me want to write poems. Some poets make me want to read poems. I don't know if it's the poet, or the extent of my education, or the moment of my life.

When I was practicing poetry like this, I'd go about my day, and my thinking seemed scattered, but brightly focused, in small surprising ways. I could see pieces of life in their particularity. I felt bemused. I came to understand this: I don't think in sentences. I think in poem. Flash of image, whole thoughts falling on my head and settling in pieces around my feet. It takes sustained effort to gather the pieces, and that is a different kind of cognition.

Maybe everybody does this, or all poets, or some other people anyway.

It's pleasant even when I am thinking about death. (A lot of death, even without Sylvia Plath.)

Spending time with poetry makes me happy.

I might go back to those pieces I wrote, later in the day, or even days later. Some became poems in their own right. Some I didn't get back to, leaving a morning's writing folded in the pages, where I stopped. I might move on in that collection, or on to another book.

This practice wasn't only about my own writing. I learned how to read a poet, how to observe a collection, how to hear a voice.

I did this for many months, until the summer light came too early, and I started going out running instead of sitting at my kitchen table.

Now I am long out of the practice of poetry, and I am not as happy as I was then. I feel like I am missing parts of my life. I don't see the small shining bits that make up the whole. I don't think that way as often, or as intensely, or as regularly. I want to get back to it. It is late September, and the days are noticeably shorter, the dark mornings longer, and yesterday it was raining when I woke up. I prowled around my downstairs restlessly, and finally went to my poetry bookshelves and chose Mary Oliver. I didn't write though. I read. Maybe that's just Mary Oliver. (Like Wallace Stevens and Yeats.) Or maybe it is my own awkward step toward getting back into the practice of poetry.

When I look at the books on my poetry shelves I see the folded pieces of white paper sticking out. Tomorrow I might choose one of those books with a folded paper in it, and begin again there. Or I'll choose someone else, and begin again that way. Poetry is always beginning again.