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Nature Poetry

My rabbi adds poetry to Friday night services. Scratch that, he adds poetry to every service he leads, but the services we go to every week are on Friday nights. I am not really a poetry person. I wrote poetry and songs as a teenager, but I felt like I didn’t belong with the other poets. I wrote poems just to get the glitchy thoughts out of the corners of my mind, not to be profound. I just wanted to say what I meant without having to think about rhythm or rhyme, or “the right word,” or what was going to impress people. So much of the poetry I was told to admire was incomprehensible. I love Mark Doty’s prose, but we spent two hours in a graduate class trying to diagram one of his poems, and I still did not understand what he was getting at.

So it was a surprise to me when I realized that I looked forward to the poetry every Friday night. That’s not to say I love all of it, I don’t. But sometimes it says exactly what I needed to hear, that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

“Mmm poetry.”

The other night there was a poem from Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, with the Hebrew version and the English translation both printed on the page. My Hebrew is clumsy, and if I’d tried to just read the poem in the original, it would have been a struggle. It was pretty and melancholy in the English, about the conflicted feeling of being in Jerusalem in 1967, where you expect joy and transcendence, and instead get grief and complication.

In the English the words were bland, plain, clear and practical, but in the Hebrew, the words themselves were onomatopoetic, they bounced. The Hebrew words were playful and full and carried some of those sprouts of joy that were missing from the plain meaning of the poem.

It wasn’t even one of the nature poems, intentionally. It was one of the “Israel is complicated” poems that we get every once in a while, because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.

There was also a poem by Mary Oliver, called “What Gorgeous Thing,” about the beautiful, and incomprehensible, song of the bluebird in the morning. She describes it as “the only thing in the world that is without dark thoughts,” or at least seems so.

“Really?”

I keep thinking that I’ll go to the library and pick up a stack of poetry books and find poems that speak to me, but I never do. I often have to re-read a poem to really get it, even on a basic level (forget about depth, or historical references, or coded language, then I’m clueless). If I like the sound of the poem, or the image it leaves in my mind, or the feeling it creates in me, then I’m in.

It helps that someone else is reading the poem out loud and I’m not just stuck with how the words appear to me on the page. We have some very good readers at my synagogue who can bring out the rhythm or pacing of the language in a way that doesn’t occur to me on my own.

For sentimental reasons, I always like when a dog shows up in a poem, but most dogs make more sense as storytellers than as poets. Cats could be poets. Cats are terse, with a well-chosen gesture or expression saying everything that needs to be said.

A genius at work.

A poet at work.

Actually, I think Butterfly might be writing nature poetry all the time, but her medium is pee, and I am too human to understand it. She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.

My nature poem!

A nature poem!

Cricket, a poem in process.

Searching for a poem…

There it is!

and there it is!

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

81 responses »

  1. I love your thoughts about dogs being storytellers and cats being poets. I really do agree – that so fits!
    Poetry is often very difficult to stay with. I purchased The Essential Rumi while on vacation in the Outer Banks in 2013, thinking that i would acquire a taste for poetry, come hell or high water. The book sits in my bookcase, sadly awaiting an eager eye. However, it has survived several book purges. I will not abandon my quest to become at least somewhat acquainted with poetry.
    if Butterfly were to put words to her poetry, how would it go? Her eyes are precious and speak volumes. Thank you for the thought-provoking posts and adorable pics of Butterfly and Cricket.

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  2. Does that parrot have a girlfriend already?

    My eggs won’t hatch
    until I get a catch.

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  3. The pictures make me think she’s ‘poetry in motion’…

    I will find a poem that speaks to me, and then sit down with a book of poems by that poet…and find I can’t really sit and read poems with any degree of satisfaction. They have to wiggle into my life one by one and at just the right time!

    As always, a beautiful post, Rachel!

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  4. I loved this post. Poetry can come in so many forms.

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  5. I used to read poems by Yehuda Amichai- I had forgotten until you wrote about it. I like poetry I can understand and don’t have to “dissect” to get to the meaning. Robert Frost is one of my favorites. beautiful post

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  6. People, before me, have said what I would like to say about this post. I would add just the following: For me, the Siddur is a book of poems. All the songs of the Friday service work in the same way – they open our hearts and minds; they bring us answers, and questions as well. Good that you have a Rabbi with his feet on the ground. It is so important to have such mentor around us nowadays. Best to you!

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  7. I like Cricket and Butterfly’s poetry best. The rest….I’m with you–I don’t get half of it.

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  8. When Mom was a very young girl, she used to ask her Dad, “How do you know if the coffee is good?” He used to laugh at her, but now she knows. It’s kind of the same way with poetry I guess! When it’s good – you know it! Woof!

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  9. Wonderful post. After spending years trying to discover the in-depth meaning of poetry, I also realized I enjoyed poetry more when I concentrated on my reaction to the words, emotions and images from the poem. Always enjoy the way you include Cricket and Butterfly in your stories.

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  10. Like you, I sometimes read or hear a poem that speaks to me, but for the most part it just won’t go into my brain. I’d rather watch a Greyhound running free – poetry in motion!

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  11. I’m relieved to hear that I’m not alone in my struggle appreciating poetry. I love a well-chosen phrase but poetry readings make me feel uncomfortable and insecure because I struggle to “get it.” I try to tell myself that prose can be poetry that is not laid out in a broken shape.

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  12. I’m struggling to write poetry…my blog is the perfect place. People are so forgiving! 🙂 When I read a real poet I know I’m nowhere near….but still, it’s just as much for me and like your teenage self, I struggle to ‘come out’…..

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  13. Luckily for me, as Hebrew is my fist language, I can enjoy Amichai to the fullest, but obviously I need to rely on translations from languages I don’t speak. I know it is almost impossible to fully translate poetry on all its complexity and rhythm, but even with “second hand” translation, if the poem is well written, the spark and inspiration is still there. 🙂

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  14. Hi Rachel, I love your musings and weaving of life with two sweet puppy dogs! In response to the conundrum of understanding poetry, here is a site that will send you a poem a day. Some are contemporary, on the weekends they are from the public domain. It’s an easy way to expose yourself to it in little doses! Poem-a-Day | Poets.org

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  15. He believes in seeing things as they are, and still trying to have hope anyway
    This is why he is my rabbi………this is poetry my girl x

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  16. I love when I hear others read poetry too. Thank you for making me think and thank Cricket and Butterfly for making me laugh. If you haven’t already done so, you might want to check out Mary Oliver’s poetry book Dog Songs. Although now I’m thinking it be would be more fun to have an audio recording:)

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  17. Rachel, your prose reads like poetry, only with the words all in the right order. Lexi’s Mom

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  18. I write poetry and I love poetry. There are still some poems I struggle with. It can be very personal. I find Ted Hughes and Heaney difficult, while others don’t; but they may call Gerard Manley Hopkins obscure and I can’t see where the obscurity is.

    I’m interested in your comments on Mark Doty. A poem of his was read in a poetry workshop: we were told it was a reaction to the death of his lover from AIDS. I found it difficult but beautiful and mysterious, and I didn’t really mind that there were bits I didn’t understand. But I heard him read some recent poems in England at Snape and they struck me as witty, wise, chatty, unexciting and prosy – rather like Ogden Nash, but longer and without the weird rhymes.

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  19. Mary Oliver is always good and now she has a book of poems about dogs. Billy Collins is highly accessible. Marge Piercy’s books are all good and down to Earth. Her book The Art of Blessing the Day is her collection of Jewish poems. I have given copies to two of my priest friends.
    Also, Nancy Willard and Ursula K. Le Guin.

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  20. The struggle is real! I’m with you on poetry. I really, really want to love it, but mostly, it eludes me. I don’t know if I’m too lazy to work at it, to happy to understand a darker meaning or just dense. I’m guessing a little of all three. Good luck on your journey of poetic enlightenment. And I laughed out loud at the cats as poets thought…

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  21. There’s definitely a poetic meter and form to dog piddling, especially while out on a walk!

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  22. I love poetry, both to read and for the joy of writing it. I’m not sure it’s very good, but I don’t care. I ‘get’ it, and that’s the bit that matters. It does fill a need and a void in my soul. I took one of my poems to a weekly gathering of older women that is held here and the silence after I finished was profound. They all got something different from what I wrote and they asked if they could have a copy of it to keep. So I guess some of my work is good. It’s still not up to the standard, though, of God. God has a talent. He has made it manifest to us stuck in human skin by giving us such beauty to live in. Such magnificence in our pets to admire. Such mysteries to unravel. I think you are a poet m’am. You recognize His work and you properly give thanks. (and I love your photos. Maybe you’re supposed to be a photographer? )

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  23. So thoughtful and appealing 🙂

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  24. brilliant write up even though I haven’t been known to be a sucker for poetry 😊

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  25. Butterfly and The Red Man share the same connection to nature’s poetry. 🙂

    P.S. Your rabbi is my rabbi, too.

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  26. Sounds like an interesting Rabbi and must make for an interesting service. Scottish Presbyterian Ministers were always much too serious like their description in the poem about the Death of Montrose – “The grim Geneva ministers with anxious scowls drew near as you have seen the Ravens flock around a dying deer”

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  27. Hi Rachel, I have nominated you for the Infinity Love Dreams Award, you can find details here http://drawingwithpastels.com/the-infinity-love-dreams-award hope you will check it out, take care Jan

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  28. This was great and I agree that cats make exceptional poets. So much going on in their minds!

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  29. Hi, Rachel. Enjoyed this one. I used to write poetry years ago, but then a nervous breakdown lead me to prose. Weird. Anyway, there’s a poem I love called “If I Were a Dog” by Richard Shelton. I bet you would like it. http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2013/07/11. Peace, John

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  30. Can also recommend the Canadian poet Roo Borson, especially her “A Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida”.

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  31. “She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.” That is poetry. Rachel!

    My current top 3 list: Hamlet [Yes a play, but each word a poem}, Carl Sandburg-
    Fog
    The fog comes on little cat feet.
    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches
    and then moves on.
    Maya Angelou-Phenomenal Woman
    Too long to share but worth Googling-awesome

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  32. I have started to read more poetry, thanks to so many online friends who write it. I think I’m developing more of a taste for it than I once had – even classes and writing it have never made me appreciate it. Perhaps it’s getting older, and finding the specific types of poetry that appeal to me. After all, I don’t read all genres of books; I don’t think I can expect to like all poetry.

    And Choppy definitely falls into the Cricket poet – definitely less for contemplation and more for enjoyment of the moment!

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  33. I generally dislike reading translated works. I have been told more than once that Tolstoy is beautiful and lyrical in the original Russian, but I shall never discover that for myself.

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  34. Your darling dogs are very fortunate to have you as their human companion.

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  35. Wonderful post, Rachel! You are right – I think cats might make the better poets, although Butterfly is one poet I think I might understand. She is too funny. 🙂

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  36. Oh beautiful! I love your rabbi too, even though he’s a world away and I’m not religious in any way 🙂 I’m the same with poetry, every now & again I come across something I love, & think ‘I must buy that book’. Never seems to happen. The dogs, cats & chickens will have to do as my poets, too 😉

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  37. I love thinking of my cats as poets!!

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  38. I love this quote, “because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.” Amen!

    Reply

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