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

70 thoughts on “This is not a poet”

  1. Wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it this morning. I don’t think any of us can describe poetry. For me, it is catching words out of the air that resonates in the soul.

  2. You are a marvelous poet… Keep writing, dear friend. Care not what qualifies as poetry. You touch the hearts of people, and find happiness in your own. ❤️❤️

  3. I think poetry is poetry if you consider it to be such.
    It’s the same, would you call yourself a writer? If you write things, you’re a writer.

  4. I went through something similar in my first year at college… thinking that since I was good at math I should take calculus and physics. My first C and my first D. Luckily I took that as permission to do an about-face and throw myself into humanities for the rest of my school days. Discovering we were wrong, I think, is worth its weight in gold 🏆

      1. Admitting it to ourselves is the important thing, Ben, wouldn’t you agree? 😊 I’m glad you’re finding your creativity now, giving yourself permission to follow your inner promptings. Who cares about time?

        1. Tejindra,

          TBH, part of me cares, and part of me doesn’t… But I’m very glad to be pursuing this passion today 🙂

          And better late than never, for sure!

          All best,
          David

  5. “What I primarily care about are two things:

    I intend my splashes of words as poetry; and
    Regardless, I love producing them”

    – that, right there, is poetry: as is Natural English, or: Sidespin. before i read a word, the shape said, here is a thing of beauty; of care, of art. bravo!

    ps: tweaking is a joyous thing.
    (…hang on, that doesn’t sound quite right :))

    1. Thanks so much for the kind compliment, Nick.

      And, you know, it’s funny to me, but I very much agree with you – tweaking is oddly satisfying to me! I wonder if it isn’t partially because it makes me feel like I’m doing something more than simply throwing a bunch of words together 🙃

      Sincerely,
      David

      1. oh, without a doubt, david. anyone can stuff a bunch of flowers in a jar, but the florist knows how to arrange them 🙂 er, or something

    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Gabriela 🙂

      But, FWIW, I wasn’t doubting my writing, per se, just wondering aloud at what it is, exactly, that I’ve been doing here. Sort of an existential question, you know?


      David

  6. Such a great post and background into your beginnings of writing poetry. You will be interested to know, that although I have been writing poetry since 9, I have never considered myself a poet..until just recently. Why? well I never studied it, I never went to the university, so I thought that degree, or title was lacking for me to be a “real poet” I also came to the same conclusion that you did, Ben…I don’t care if what I write is “real poetry.” it wells up from me, and many time, touches people who read me..That is enough..Poetry is another form of communication, but much more intimate.Only in poetry, would you pour your heart out to strangers, and stand naked.But you will do that in poetry…you will let your soul rejoice or cry or share a human dream, with people you may never see. It’s a very sublime part of life, and consider yourself lucky;I do… that you are very much a poet Ben..and a wonderful storyteller too.❤️

    1. Karima,

      Thanks so much for sharing a piece of your story – it resonated with me very much 🙂

      And your understanding of what “poetry” is also sounds true to me… I think that’s definitely a big part of the “picture”, so to speak.

      Yours,
      David

  7. We are our own worst critics. I have written what I thought were masterpieces only to have a quickly dashed poem to resonate and be praised by all who read it… I cannot differentiate. There is a genuine emotion flowing through the poem and that is a precious thing. Although there are those who edit and revise their works, and I tend to fall into that category, it is important not to edit the emotion out of them!

    1. 😀

      Muri, I definitely agree! My tweaking is … I don’t know how to explain it … more like trying to move sprinkles around on a fresh, glazed donut with a pair of tweezers 🍩

      Yours,
      David

  8. This is a fascinating post and an insight into your practice of writing poetry and your inspiration behind it. How refreshing that your father wanted you to pursue humanities study! Nowadays the trend seems to be to push kids into studies that will lead to ‘a career.’ I’m pleased you are exploring your creative side here, and I found your poem beautiful and moving. That, to me, is the measure of good poetry!

    1. 🙂 Ingrid –

      I think one of the (if not the) most rewarding things about sharing poetry here is the feedback from others who think about and write poetry themselves – knowing that other poets think something I write is moving is very affirming and heartwarming❣️

      1. I agree! I should probably try and get more work published elsewhere, but I enjoy the conversation and feedback here, just as I enjoy reading and engaging with the work of others!

  9. A lot of this resonated with me. I, too, was a science major and bad at it, but I graduated and I think it was the right decision in the end. My dad had no opinion on my choice of major. He thought I would be ill-suited for a corporate America job and I got a corporate America job. I think there is some truth to what he said, although here I am.

    But I think you know exactly what a poem is and I think you are just trying to be humble!

    1. I would say that I know what I aspire for my words to be perceived as, which is something that people call poetry. 🙂

      But, really, it’s not humility. I sometimes wonder – what if I just posted one word? Or two words? Or three? Could those be considered poems? And if I were to take a block of text and break it up and random places… would that necessarily be a poem? Somebody else might perceive it as such – and if somebody perceives some group of words to be a poem… does that mean that they are?

      1. This strikes me as a very, almost halachic approach to defining what is and is not poetry. I feel like I could envision a gemora on this. I wouldn’t know if such a halachic-style definition really exists in the minds of poetry scholars.

        Me, I’m happy to let anything that self-identifies as a poem carry the title, but I’m not much of a scholar.

        1. That’s an interesting way of looking at it, and you may be right… I think, ultimately, the “I don’t really care” conclusion that I came to agrees with you 🙂

        2. Hey, I’m not dissing the halachic approach! I feel like it would be kinda awesome if there were a gemara-style parody on poetry. But yeah, at the end of the day, I didn’t feel a need to be so machmir on the poem vs. not poem definitions.

  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.

  11. 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… ❤︎

  12. 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 🙂

  13. 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! 🙂

  14. 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

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

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