This is not a poet

More than two decades ago when I was applying to universities, I intentionally sought out strong programs in biomedical engineering. My thought at the time was that a degree in BME would serve me as a stepping stone for medical school.

That turned out to be a terrible, foolish mistake on my part, which led to me being extremely bored, unfulfilled, uninspired, and rudderless for four years; receiving poor grades; and losing my scholarship. There’s much I could write about that fateful decision and its consequences… about my motivations; about my experiences; about what my subsequent academic failure led to… but this is not that post.

Papa’s take

Papa advised me against biomedical engineering and against the hard sciences in general; he suggested instead that I pursue the humanities. Of course, I was too stubborn to listen to him. In truth, I was a capable student and was taking the very highest level math and science classes in high school… but, today, I still can’t help feeling that Papa’s intuition was correct.

I know these sorts of recollections, benefitting as they do from hindsight, are actually impossible to judge. When I shared this very memory with my brother who is now a successful software engineer, he told me that Papa had counseled him similarly, discouraging him too from pursuing the hard sciences and engineering. In that case, Papa was wrong. Still, having personally failed myself as an undergraduate, I can’t help but perceive Papa’s warnings back then as prescient.

I also remember that during my high school years, Papa once recruited me to write an educational children’s book, based upon his approach to mathematics education. This memory is fairly hazy for me, but I distinctly remember not wanting to take this project on. Papa was hoping for me to write an entire series of children’s books following the first one, but my negligible interest expired very quickly. Still, I remember his confidence: you are good at writing; why don’t you put your talents to use?

Penning my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series

After Papa died, just 2.5 years ago, it took me a month of grieving before I found myself taking to the keyboard. Since then, I’ve hashed, rehashed, and continued rehashing my sundry intertwining motivations for pursuing that particular project during my year of mourning, but this is not that post.

Over the course of that year, as I pumped out my reflections and research on kaddish and Jewish beliefs and traditions on a weekly basis, I experienced an unexpected personal transformation. In addition to the religious, spiritual, intellectual, and familial facets to my project, I gradually came to see it as an outlet for my creativity. I wasn’t simply expressing my thoughts on death, love, and tradition in a dry fashion… I was playing with word sounds and placements… and I was enjoying the more artistic aspects of blogging.

In my broad research on kaddish, I inevitably came across beatnik Allen Ginsberg’s famed poem ‘Kaddish’, and I spent that whole year thinking about writing a kaddish poem of my own in honor of Papa, which I never got around to doing. Original poetry didn’t quite seem to fit into any of my content heavy blog posts, and I hadn’t written any poems for some two decades or more.

‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’

When I moved all of my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog posts to this new personal website from the Times of Israel, back in April of 2020, I found myself moved to pen a poem, inspired as I’d been by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’.

Even after making ‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’ public, I found myself tweaking it repeatedly until I was finally satisfied with how it read and sounded to me. That somehow natural process of writing and rewriting kindled a flame, and I felt my soul warming. Then, at a certain, unexpected point, the poem came to completion.

Mama wondered if I intended to continue writing only about Papa, kaddish, and mourning on my new website, and I told her that I did not. I would, of course, write about Papa when I needed to, but my intention was to build a platform here for my creative juices to spill out upon, creative juices which had been continuously steaming and bubbling up in those eight months since I’d written my final ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog post.

What is poetry?

I have no idea what poetry actually is. I have no idea how much of what I’ve written and posted on this website’s poetry page qualifies as poetry by historic and global standards – and to the extent that I believe that what I’ve written is, indeed, poetry, I’m deeply uncertain about its quality and worth to others.

I’m not writing this from a place of false humility, nor even from a place of any humility at all. I remain truly unconvinced that splashing words across a page (or screen) qualifies as poetry. That’s not to say that poets aren’t poets or that poetry isn’t poetry… but I simply do not know how to judge. Certainly, I am not one who is remotely qualified to make such a judgment.

But I also don’t care.

I don’t care whether my “poetry” is poetry at all, or whether it is “poetry” of any recognizable quality. What I primarily care about are two things:

  1. I intend my splashes of words as poetry; and
  2. Regardless, I love producing them

The pudding

Of late, I often catch myself walking around, mumbling words to myself, attempting to describe my body’s various sensations, as well as playing in my mind with rhymes and rhythms that resonate with me.

Also, my daughter’s instinctive request of me upon the occasion of her losing two teeth in one day was for me to write a poem about her and her missing teeth, which took me quite by surprise. Curious, I later checked with my wife, wondering if she had suggested the idea to our six-year-old… but no, she hadn’t. Apparently, our little daughter knows that her Abba’chka makes regular attempts at writing something he intends as “poetry”.

Anyway, it’s gotten to the point that I have taken to posting daily “micropoems” on my newly-created Twitter account, and usually at least several longer “poems” every week on this blog… and…

Well, I suppose the proof is in pudding.

Natural English, or: Sidespin

My Papa once explained to me the genius of Poe’s poetry
In making language lyrical that was much inert;
Some tongues like French and Russian flow;
But English breaks upon the teeth
Unless we pull chords deep
Beneath; deep beneath
The surface

Struggling (mired in A,B,C), remembering he who sired me;
Limited to words, my own, chop\py though they be;
These fingers English keyboards know,
Grasp flailingly at fleeting dreams
Although it’s then I truly
See; truly see him
Seeing me

With talk he wouldn’t be impressed; I’d rather offer something else –
Reality itself undressed; bereft, I’ve naught but language left,
Now feeling I have naught to show…

Here’s peddling clever stanzas cheap
While Papa lies there deep
Beneath; deep beneath

The surface

81 thoughts on “This is not a poet”

  1. I too have battled with the definition of poetry. A few close to me say poems need to rhyme. One says, if a poem doesn’t rhyme, they are just random thoughts. I have many say they cannot relate to poetry. Regardless of the opinions and skepticism, I continue to write poems. I often dream words, constantly see poems, turn words inside out and have to be careful with conversing with people.
    I believe poetry is written by the broken. I write prose also, but it is harder for me to write a complete sentence than broken words. Those who are not broken cannot understand the broken.
    So now when someone asks what I do, I say Among other things, I am a poet”. It doesn’t matter any more what someone else thinks. I know I am broken, and not yet enough.
    I appreciate reading this post. Yes, you are broken.

    1. I believe poetry is written by the broken. I write prose also, but it is harder for me to write a complete sentence than broken words. Those who are not broken cannot understand the broken.

      Mary, that may be the most beautiful comment that I have ever received on my blog.

      Thank you,

    2. Oh dear, why does poetry need to rhyme? Poetry needs to sound good, I suppose, but rhyme is only one tiny aspect of it. I love to read poetry, in several languages, but I don’t always need to understand the words. Or the emotions or the meaning. Sometimes they don’t matter. if you treat words like music then you can feel it.
      Other times the language is paramount. The wit, the wordplay, the connotations.
      I don’t think poetry should be categorised so simply as in rhyme, no rhyme. Of all the millions of poems that have been written, published and unpublished, they vary as to the responses they expect or receive. When I was at school one definition of poetry was Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” He had a feeling then worked on the language and imagery. But his contemporaries worked differently. He knew that. Was he the better poet? Were they?
      I find writing poetry time consuming so I do very little of it these days. But I read loads. Don’t let anyone put you off. It helps. And if you strike a chord with someone else- it helps them too. Keep writing.

  2. I intend my splashes of words as poetry; and
    Regardless, I love producing them LOVED this thought!

  3. I believe that poetry is the reflection of the existence within the mind of the poet which expresses itself through esoteric language. Therefore, each poem contains a tiny piece of the poet’s soul.

    I don’t know what is “Kaddish” but I’ve been reading on the Kabbalistic tradition for a while.

    1. Thanks, Neelam.

      Kaddish is a very famous Jewish prayer – probably the best known Jewish prayer of them all. You can read more about it here:

      The most famous version of this prayer is known as the ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’, which Jewish mourners traditionally recite after their loved ones die.

      All best,

        1. Neelam,

          Please feel free to call me ‘David’. That’s my first name. ‘ben’ means ‘son of’ in Hebrew, and my father’s name was ‘Alexander’.


  4. Ben, this is great writing. It’s interesting that your father advised you into the humanities even though he was in mathematics.

    John Butler Yeats, father of William Butler Yeats, said: What can be explained is not poetry.

  5. David, I find your work warm and witty and often humorous. I think your poems evoke emotion and provoke thought in your readers and that, to me, is one definition of what poetry is. I admire that you are experimenting with many prompts and different forms of writing. All of them seem like successful poems to me. In short, I love your poems! I think the fact that your daughter requested you to write a poem about a meaningful milestone in her life says that she sees your poetry as something special too. ❤ Enjoy your week!

  6. Wowza, this was a full-meal post, David. Your writing and personality expressed through it intrigues, thus brought me back here–so I’m going to Follow, though it doesn’t mean I’ll read and comment daily…I have tent pegs to pound, ya know 🙂 Have a great day–blessings on you and your family. Jael

  7. I am never able to judge what I write, and until recently didn’t know how to go back and tweak either. I’m still learning, mostly by reading. The thing that keeps me hopeful is that I recognize good poetry (by others) when I read it. You are doing really well, so keep it up, and all the best! 🙂

  8. I failed/quit out of an undergrad science degree too (physics in my case). I had almost finished it when I quit, but I started hating it so much that I thought I didn’t want to be locked into that path. In the Netherlands, a second degree is much more expensive than a first degree so completing a degree (unless you’re rich) kind of locks you into that degree.

    Also the pudding “tasted” good 🙂

  9. As the others have said above. You’re an excellent writer David, everything you write is interesting and clear, sometimes very fun as well… you are a true creative. Beautiful beat there, deep, on that poem… ❤︎

  10. Your poem touched me on many levels. David, the fact that your dear father saw such ability in you is wonderful. Time lost was for some reason you may or may not know. You are where you should be at this place in time. Thanks for sharing your talents.

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