There is no definitive definition of poetry. Wordsworth said it’s "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings;" Emily Dickinson said, "If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry;" and Dylan Thomas claimed: "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing."
For the fledgling poet or poetry reader, that’s not much help, is it?
To paraphrase one online definition, poetry is writing that evokes intense emotion or an Ah Ha! experience from the reader.
To quote P&S contributor Lee Allen Hill: “The only things that separate bad poetry from bad prose are arbitrary line breaks and mawkish sentimentality.” ( I questioned his use of “mawkish”. He said it was a good word, and he didn’t get much chance to use it.) If you read Lee’s work, you know that his poetry is composed of strong imagery, rhythm, precise word selection and layered meanings. Come to think of it, that could describe his prose, too. He must know what he’s talking about, right?
What I’m getting from all this is that poetry is what the reader says it is. Not the writer. The reader. In cases where the reader is the writer…well, few writers are capable of objectively judging their own work. Just the other day, one poet friend told me she’d gone back into her portfolio and was embarrassed by work that she’d thought brilliant when she’d written it. I know the feeling.
In a final, somewhat desperate attempt to define it, I scribbled the following definition. In poetry, of course.
Susurating sounds sing
Sweet, sibulant sagas.
Merry meter marches,
Rhyming, down the page.
Winsome word-wrought visions--
Vivid inky inklings--
Pictures ‘cross the page.
Fervent feelings flutter,
Flame, or even flounder.
Poet pens pure, potent
Passions on the page.
Could it be that poetry is simply words that paint pictures, pique the senses and stir the emotions? As good a definition as any, don’t you think?
Being temporarily out of work is a great way to catch up on one’s reading. Being chronically relegated to the fourth shift is a great way to run out of money. So, being as I’m more chronic-unemployable than temp-idle, I applied for a library card. I admit I was plenty trepidatious. Applying for cards has not been an altogether fulfilling exercise for me lately. But lo and behold, if they didn’t give me one. Almost no questions asked. Mama said I had a trusty face. My father always responded, “Rusty.”
Clearly the nice librarian didn’t bother to check my credit scores. Didn’t even ask for a DNA sample. Or fit me with one of those electronic ankle bracelets. No sir. She just handed over my very own card like it was my very own God-given right to have one! Hosanah on Challah! I must be trustworthy, after all! I’ve got a library card to prove it. Shut-up, Dad.
I’ve a good mind to suggest to the high and mighty BankAmerica Corp. that they could learn something about trust and customer service from the good old Plainville Public Library.
And I’ve lived up to the trust they conferred on me for more than two months now. I’ve never been late returning a book. I’ve never dog-earred. And I only eat Cheez Doodles when watching TV or clipping my toenails.
But that brings up my one minor complaint with the library system: Other people have read my books before I can get to them. And at least some of these people are not as conscientious as I am. Shut-up, Dad.
I swear some of the books I’ve borrowed have more dog-ears than the entire cast of 101 Dalmatians. But I can live that.
What’s harder to deal with is the thumb-print buffet served up on almost every page. I just know that if I keep handling these books I’m bound to come down with tome ptomaine.
Now, what kind of a person reads while he eats? Doesn’t he know that’s what television is for? Hello, TV Dinners, right? Who ever heard of Smorgas-Books?
To make matters worse, these uncouth literati all seem to favor finger foods—up to and including lasagna. Sloppy Joes, Chili Dogs, Chili Cheese Fries, BBQ—anything slathered in some sort of tomato-based sauce is on the menu, as well as the book. And these people seem to believe any paper product is a napkin. Why some of the pages I’ve read recently look like they’ve been finger-painted by Chef Boy-R-Dee. By the time I get to read a book, half the pages are stuck together. Oh, the bindings may be broken, but the pages ain’t never coming apart.
And these poor books smell, too. Why, I borrowed one book, put it on the passenger seat of my car. All the way home I thought I was sitting next to a pepperoni pizza.
Thinking this ‘slob’ problem was probably confined to the kinds of books that attract mostly guy readers, I mentioned my Tomato-Based Blues to a female associate.
She looked at me like I was stupider than a goldfish making google-dy eyes at a cat. “Next time you’re in the library,” she said, “visit the Romance section.”
I took her advice.
Well, I was still a couple of stacks away when I smelled it. Chocolate. Smelled like a Walgreens on Valentine’s Day. I flipped through the pages of a couple of bodice rippers. Gross with a capital GRO!
All in all, the reddish orange smudges I find in noir thrillers aren't half as disturbing as the brown ones I saw in the Romances.
As I sit here, my finished novel is staring at me within arm's length. Yes, it needs some minor editing and one chapter to be re-done. It is most likely the most powerful piece I have ever written. It has the potential to change perceptions and lives of those living with autism. But, I am paralyzed to do what should be done next; make the finishing touches and submit it to publishers.
It isn't like I have been preoccupied with new projects. I have no new plots or characters haunting me, calling to bring them to life. My tank is running on fumes of emotions or revelations to be expressed in poetic form. I had blamed my muse for deserting me or at least taking a vacation. But, I realize now the problem lies within me. I am afraid.
I have been going through the motions of moving forward with my novel. Because one of the main characters has Asperger's, I asked an expert in the field to read it for authenticity. Her response was enthusiastic and encouraging. During a presentation to school administrators, she even called it a terrific reference and tool for helping students. Even that failed to motivate me.
I went to our local library and checked out the latest version of "Writer's Market" to search for publishers. I haven't opened it to page one.
What is the problem? Why can't I seem to do these simple tasks to ready my work? I'm certainly capable of doing the editing, I know what and how to polish the story. Finding names and addresses of potential publishers is boring and time consuming, but an easy task. Again, I ask myself; what is the problem? The answer is fear.
It came to me as if I was following links in a chain. Each one binding my hands as if they were tied behind my back. I needed to name each fear to lessen it's power. So, I played one of my favorite games; what's the worst that can happen? I may be a little perverse, but aren't we all?
The first fear is of course a common one, fear of rejection. All of us have experienced that sinking feeling when we receive that telltale skinny letter from a publisher. "While we appreciate you submission, it doesn't presently fit with our..." blah, blah, blah.
Then I realized this was but one unanimous person's opinion. Even if I get ten skinny letters a week, there are thousands of publishers out there. When did I ever let one person's beliefs change my mind? I have always been bull-headed enough to go in the opposite direction. Just ask my family.
Next, came the most difficult one to beat into surrender; the fear of not being good enough. What if everyone was just being kind and condescending? Maybe my writing was OK for an amateur, but would it hold up to a higher standard? Was I just fooling myself? Wouldn't it be easier to just forget all this writing "nonsense" and get on with my daily life? Should I just count my blessings? I have a job I enjoy, working with autistic children, I have a loving family and friends. Shouldn't that be enough? Or was this only my fears making excuses?
The answer is yes. I had allowed my feelings of inadequacies to surface and take over. All my life I have let people underestimate me. When they didn't think I had what it takes to make it through college, I went on to receive my Masters' in Educational Leadership. After my divorce, many thought I would never make it on my own. I now own my own house, have retired after thirty years of teaching, and guest teach when I choose. Why then have I let all these old and rotting doubts consume me?
Then it hit me. I needed to use the fear of doing nothing to move me to take action . How would I feel about myself if I left my book where it was, unedited? What would I accomplish if I returned the publishers guide back to the library, unread. I needed to be afraid of accepting failure without even trying for success. What I have to fear is allowing myself to put the manuscript on a shelf and let it collect dust. I know now that I can not and will not let that happen.
There are no quick or easy solutions. It is a daily battle of faith and stubbornness. But, it is said that admitting you have a problem is the first step to conquering it. I think addicts and writers have a lot in common. I see now that I have to simply lean over. pick up my manuscript, and begin the editing. It is well within my reach, physically and mentally. Will I be able to take that baby step soon? I believe so. I'll let you know who wins the battle.
When I was eleven years old, I received the most amazing gift, my first diary. I was enchanted by a key that I wore around my neck, threaded with a red ribbon retrieved from another Christmas gift.
I felt empowered by being able to have secret thoughts that I could lock away. Writing in my diary became a nightly ritual. Not that I had much to say, but protocol required that I begin each entry with the words, ‘Dear Diary.’
From the first writing I did on the blank page, I spilled my guts. Though young, somehow I knew that the possibility of a ‘break-in’ should be considered. Although the truth resonated in each line, I was smart enough to disguise the subject of my disdain. This proved to be a prudent idea when my mother used a bobby pin to snap open the cover. I had wisely not addressed her by the title that rattled around in my head, referring to her as a witch. Instead of the thrashing I would have received had my spelling been altered by one letter, I was given a lecture about respecting my elders.
What about respect for privacy, I wanted to shout, but was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.
I never wrote another word in my precious diary.
When I got to high school, even without any practice, I started scoring near- perfect marks in English classes. This was particularly helpful for my grade average, as I scored miserably in the sciences.
We didn’t have a television until I was a teenager, and as a result, I had become a voracious reader. That early exposure to books and libraries was ingrained in my early life, and has stayed with me since.
I went through a stage in my twenties when I was convinced that I could write a Harlequin romance novel. It seemed as if every book was a mirror image of the one I read before. There was a formula that was obvious. As I soon found out, the discipline of writing was much more difficult than reading. My first novel stayed dormant in my brain, but I still remember I named the main characters Damian and Jessica.
In my thirties, quite by accident, I discovered my ability to write business correspondence that was succinct, yet never resembled form letters. Colleagues would ask for my help, and what they struggled with, I knocked off in a matter of minutes.
Finally, I found something I was praised for, but I had no confidence in what other people referred to as my gift. In an effort to test myself and expand my skill set, I began to take a series of Creative Writing courses.
I was comfortable with essay writing, but fiction and dialogue seemed beyond my grasp. I didn’t even know what a dialogue tag was, thinking, but not voicing a question to the instructor; is that some kind of license, like a dog tag?
Like most learned skills, practice makes perfect. While I could never aspire to perfection, I thought I was pretty decent at this writing game. I have been writing ever since.
Quite by accident, I discovered a basic truth. In order to be convincing or persuasive, I had to become the character I was writing about in fiction. I crawl into their head space, sometimes examining life experiences that formed the personality, the attitudes and prejudices that brought that character to my bank page.
If I am writing an essay, I have to believe every single word I drop on the page. Without this ingredient, my writing smacks of phoniness and insincerity. Satire is my private amusement. I take a subject that is sensitive, and one in which way I have a strong opinion, then I become my own protagonist, arguing against my real-life point of view. The more outrageous, the more fun I have typing or scribbling my words on scraps of paper.
I’ve learned to write naked, not literally---I’d frighten the mailman---but I need to bare all. If a stranger walked into my house and found my journal on my desk, there would be no lock or key. My writing is and remains, an open book, and represents the deepest level of honesty that I can find.
There’s something very wrong with eleven-year-old school bully Billy Jenkins, but nine-year-old classmate Donny Wakeland is the only one who can see it.When Donny’s third grade sweetheart Susan Rogers falls through the ice on the local pond and drowns, Donny is certain Billy (and the chilling thing peeking out through Billy’s eyes) is responsible. Motivated by vengeance, Donny engineers a sledding “accident” on Killer Hill that sends Billy to his death. No one believes the child is guilty of premeditated murder. No one but Donny…and Susan’s ghost.
Is DEATHMAKER a story of insanity or an archetypal struggle against evil? Author Ted Tillotson tells this reviewer, “The novel is a dark psychological thriller that spans twenty-six years of Donny’s troubled life. The story rides a thin line between showing Donny as a serial killer or a tormented avenger. The central message revolves around the notion that there can, indeed, be monsters in the closet and under the bed.”
And Tillotson is in no hurry to clear up the ambiguity. His skillfully unobtrusive prose enhances the book’s dark mood as he reveals and examines Donny’s self-doubts and his struggle to resist Susan’s spirit’s increasingly adamant demands as we follow this dark journey, where Good often doesn’t look any better than the Evil it seeks to vanquish.
But is that all there is? Decidedly not. Among other writers who have read this novel there is a wonderful diversity of interpretation. Is this a crime novel? An urban fantasy? A psychological thriller? Does this novel belong on the Religion shelves as a story of Good recognizing and confronting Evil and being redeemed by unconditional love? In this reviewer’s opinion, the answer is a resounding YES. DEATHMAKER speaks not just to the reader’s intellect, but to his soul. It’s a book whose story and characters haunt the reader long after the cover is closed.
Ted Tillotson’s DEATHMAKER is an example of the high quality product Publish On Demand publishers can offer when they choose their manuscripts carefully and treat them, and their authors, with the care and respect they deserve. Hats off to Omega Publishing— now G and J Publishing, of Palm Springs, California—for partnering with talented author Ted Tillotson to bring us this page-turner. DEATHMAKER is a taste of what the future of American literature ought to be.
Available at Amazon.com in Kindle and Trade Paperback versions
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editor's note: All reviews are the sole opinion of the author. They are not an endorsement by Page & Spine. -NKW