We can all do this kind of math with our lives (although I was hoping that a life in the humanities meant there would be no math—fat chance, as it turns out!). Because I am a poet, and a rabid one, I work hard to handle the other two portions of my life so that I can spend a significant part of my day engaged in thinking and writing. It’s not so easy to do, and in fact, I would be lying if I suggested that a third of my time is spent writing. However, I almost always allow poetry to occupy a third of my mind, and while I am changing diapers, driving to the store, putting together a PowerPoint, or cooking dinner, I am living the life of a poet.
How does one live the life of a poet on the fly? Actually, it requires some discipline, albeit of a very enjoyable sort. Here are some of the strategies that I use (and recommend!):
• Pay attention. Of course there are a multitude of benefits to paying attention to the world around us. One day I was walking my son home from school through our neighborhood, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a cat with a snake in its mouth. The poor snake was writhing—in death throes, or trying desperately to escape—but to me it looked like Snidely Whiplash’s dastardly mustache. Guess what? I got a poem out of it.
• Have fun with language. Because I teach English, the expectation is that I will pop a vein in my noggin if I see a misplaced apostrophe. Actually, little errors here and there keep language fun and unpredictable, and I enjoy seeing them. Driving home to Appalachia once, I saw a sign advertising “For Sale: Guilts,” and there they were, hand-stitched “guilts” hanging from a line. Guess what? I got a poem out of it.
• Read—lots. At the beginning of the year, prompted by a resolution, I was reading a book of poetry a day. Life got in the way of that effort, but I keep a book by my bed and by my favorite seats (porcelain and otherwise), and every chance I get, I read. Often, I see ideas that spark my own imagination, or I see a strategy in writing that I’d like to employ in my own work. Guess what? There are poems—yes, many.
• Think. Pray. Meditate. Woolgather. Not all of writing is putting pen to page; before you do that, sometimes you need to untangle some threads, so to speak. I don’t know if writing is equivalent to putting those threads neatly back into a skein or it’s more like knitting a bulky sweater. Maybe sometimes it’s both. Either way, a deliberate approach to thinking has yielded me many “garments”—some itchy, some richly comforting.
• Find the accidental poems all around you. Here, for example, is a tiny poem I found in a television commercial for an erectile dysfunction drug:
if your heart
is healthy enough
There’s a lot there, I think—in some ways, love seems like one of the least healthy things we can do for our heart! It was a fun little snippet, though—a poem that the universe provided because … well, I guess because I needed a poem right then, and I was ready to receive one.
• I think the best strategy I’ve found for embracing my poetry “third” is to think poetically about the other two aspects of my life. Most of my poems are about my family these days, and lately, a bunch of them have been about my teaching life. A good example, included at the end of this post, is my poem “The Art of Rhetoric.” May I confess to you that sometimes my thirds get twisted into a weird pretzel, and each part sneaks in on the others? In this poem, I address that directly—I’m tossing and turning in bed, trying to think of a good way to teach Aristotle’s three appeals, logos, ethos, and pathos (you may remember this from your own composition class!), and these thoughts, along with the sound of my son’s breathing, keep me from being able to sleep. The takeaway? If we prepare a space for them, even in the mundane moments of our lives, the poems will come.
While I recognize the three big pieces that make up who I am, one of the best artistic decisions I have made is to embrace my life as a whole and let each part nurture the others. In the classroom, it’s often the mom in me that gives me authority and compassion. On the page, it’s often the teacher who comes to the fore. As a mother, I take pride in nurturing the poet within the child through an artist’s keen observation.
We humans are complicated. It took me a long time—half a lifetime, in fact—for me to find a way to celebrate my own complexity. No matter what our calling in life, I believe it is possible—and crucial—to embrace the whole person. And when the parts give way to a whole—to one—the math is no sweat.
The Art of Rhetoric
Last night the cold feet of Aristotle
prodded me in the side, kept me
awake and thinking. I was working out
a new way to teach the basics
of rhetoric, and instead of sawing logos,
I tossed around with the question,
worried my sheet into a snug toga.
I tend to specialize in tiny arguments,
compact ones, ones that conform
to my logic and maybe no one else’s,
but I’d stake my life on most of them.
Same goes for this baby beside me,
curled against my back like the comma
my students prop so loyally between
two independent clauses, and cling to
as if they were the last contestants
in a radio contest, hands sweating
against the body of a Ford F-150 until
one by one they fall away and the semester
comes to a close. I’d like to tell them
there is nothing more convincing than
the whispered swallows I hear behind me
as my son works his bottle in his sleep.
Each nearly silent gulp makes a claim.
All These Ways to Love the World
for my international students
Your professor loves word problems.
For her, a train is always leaving Chicago—
she never says why it’s going, some fight
or tragedy, maybe an interview far
from home. But you know where the train
is headed, and how fast, and whether
some other locomotive barrels down
its tracks. Someone should tell you
if a person on that train holds a brand
new briefcase, or a dozen roses, or a box
of ashes that feel like lead. You would try hard
to help a person like that—you’d solve
for X with everything you had. Your own train
left Talin, Kiev, Riyadh, Budapest, Beijing,
only it was a plane, and you carried bed linens,
pencils, a picture of your mom. Maybe
you were looking for an answer. I always
loved words; they helped me find my way,
and only betrayed me in math class,
when they refused to lie still for scrutiny.
Yesterday my president had stern words
for another. Both of them had done the math
but arrived at different figures, and their work
still waits to be graded. But you look around
the International Food Festival and know
all you need to know—it adds up, every face
a coordinate on a graph: Berlin, Canberra,
Tel Aviv—the geometry could not
be plainer, the answer so obvious
it’s sitting in a chair beside you.
You are the X. You are also Y.
Karen Craigo is a special instructor of English at Drury University who teaches in the English for Academic Purposes Program. She is the author of two chapbooks, and her work has appeared in numerous journals. Some of her recent work can be found here: