Sarah Beth Durst is the award winning novelist of numerous fantasy novels for children, teens and adults. She was awarded the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature in 2013 for her novel Vessel. Sarah’s latest novel for young adults, Chasing Power, was published in 2014. Her new middle grade novel, The Girl Who Could Not Dream will be released in Fall 2015. Sarah is one of my favorite authors to read and also to interview here on the blog as well as a generally delightful person at all of her author events.
Today Sarah is here to share her thoughts on poetry that breaks rules and her lifelong love of Emily Dickinson’s groundbreaking work
I have a photo of me, age two, looking at a book called BOW WOW! MEOW! as if I am in complete and utter shock that books are for more than just chewing on. Technically, I believe this was my first encounter with poetry.
But my first vivid memory of my experience with poetry dates to about age six. I had a babysitter who loved to play school. She’d set up my desk and her teacher’s desk using pillows and tray tables. Line up the pencils. Find a stack of scrap paper. This particular afternoon’s assignment was: write a poem.
And so I did, carefully crafting it in my best handwriting, filling an entire sheet of paper and then decorating it with roses that climbed all around the words. I’m guessing it was a poem about flowers, but for all I know it could have full of existential musings on the ephemeral nature of life… Okay, no, probably flowers. I do remember very clearly how proud I was of that poem.
I trotted over to my babysitter, my masterpiece clutched in my little hands, turned it in, and waited for the praise to flow. Instead, she took a red pen and changed the first letter of every line into a capital letter, because, she said with all the complete self-assurance that a girl a few grades older can possess, in a poem, every line always starts with a capital letter. Always.
But the thing I clearly remember thinking… and keep in mind that I was very much an obey-the-rules goody-two-shoes girl who hated conflict… was that my reaction was: NO.
I don’t think I said it out loud. But I know I felt it loudly, in every bone. No. You’re wrong. Poetry doesn’t have to follow your rules.
I think that’s why, years later, one of my most treasured books was THE COLLECTED POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON. It was one of my few hardcovers at the time, white with roses on it, and I loved it for the way her poems both shaped and broke rules.
I especially loved looking at her original poems in her scrawled handwriting, full of dashes and line breaks and seemingly arbitrary capitalization, without rhyme or any discernible pattern. Yet within this nearly-illegible scrawl were lines that sang in your heart:
Hope is the thing with feathers…
Her poems always felt to me like little gifts, delivered in secret, maybe in a basket with some homemade raspberry jam. Sometimes sad, sometimes soaring, but always heartfelt.
Later, in college, I took a few poetry classes and discovered there’s also beauty in poetry that adheres to rules, such as the villanelle, which has 19 lines and specific rules for repeating rhymes and refrains. But there’s something in the purity of an Emily Dickinson poem that continues to speak to me.
And I believe there’s a lesson in it too, for me as a writer: that writing is a constant mix of using rules and breaking them in order to deliver your heart as a secret little gift to whoever reads your words.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul…
Thank you again to Sarah for this amazing post.
If you’d like to learn more about Sarah and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.sarahbethdurst.com