#8: Read a Poem

When Evan and I get to talking about my writing goals, he will sometimes jokingly say, “But you’re already a published poet!”

You see, in the third grade, I had a poem published. It is laughably terrible, but in a sweet, cute, eight year-old way, I suppose. (Can I even say that about my own childhood poetry? Dear Lord.)

I wrote the poem during a “free writing” time (and all the elementary school teachers said “Amen,”), and Mrs. Taylor suggested I submit it to be published in an anthology of poetry by young authors. Lo and behold, it was selected, and a copy still sits proudly on my mother’s bookshelf.

The point of this story is simply to say that was the moment. That’s when I remember falling in love with poetry.

In middle school, I memorized Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled.” (I know! So cliche! But still so good.) As a high school sophomore, I fell in love with e.e. Cummings and his wonky punctuation. (Even then, I sensed something desirable in the rule breakers, something I just couldn’t emulate myself.) As a junior, I devoured the complete works of Sylvia Plath, and her personal journals, too. I could tell you a few more stories of the teachers who encouraged my love of poetry and how they did it, but we’ll save those stories for another day.

Admittedly, I stopped paying much attention to poetry after college. But then, just a few years ago, I picked up a collection by Mary Oliver. That was all it took. That year, I decided to tackle a poem-a-day challenge and read close to 500 poems that year.

Now, I slowly read through poetry collections. I receive a poem in my inbox each day from poetry.com. I stop to browse every bookstore’s the children’s poetry section.


When I feel a little frazzled, like I am gripping life’s steering wheel too tightly, I find poetry is a good, soft place to land. When I try to force lessons, accomplishments, or strategies from my days, poetry helps me sense the earthy ground beneath my feet.

I realize this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but here’s what I mean when I say poetry helps me relinquish my perfectionism:

  1. Many poems are brief. (At least my favorites usually are.) They offer a quick respite in the middle of a crazy day, without making me feel like I need to check out for an extended period of time.
  2. Poems have unique (and sometimes confusing) structures and content. When I begin, I can not assume I know the rules. I can’t make any assumptions about what the author will do. Poems require that I slow down to read them.
  3. Sometimes, the meaning alludes me. And that’s ok. Instead, I focus on one thing: how the words sound. It’s a moment of pure pleasure with zero emphasis on productivity.

“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” —John F. Kennedy

“You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.” —Joseph Joubert

All month long, I’m sharing 31 ways to fight perfectionism, as part of the Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts in this series here (or by clicking the “31 Days” button at the top of this page). Tomorrow, I’ll share the value of leaving our shoes on.

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