Reading George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From, I came across this statement: “The truth is, play and work are not opposites.”
That resonated with me because for much of my life I have been accused of not playing enough, of being too serious. “Lighten up,” they tell me. “You don’t need to not work so hard! You should have more fun!” I’ve tried to explain to people who tell me that, what’s fun for you is not necessarily fun for me, and vice versa. When I am working on something I enjoy doing–for example, writing or even analyzing data, I am experiencing a depth of enjoyment that is as much of a rush as when others engage in more familiar enactments of play. I feel that same flood of dopamine as does a person playing a game of baseball or another knitting or crocheting.
Lyon asks us to look at the visages of children who are playing at building things or acting out stories they know. Their faces are intent and, yes, serious. Their actions are planned, intentional. This is important work for them that we, perhaps in error, call play. She says that we begin to lose the sense of this kind of work/play as we approach puberty and become sensitive to the fact that others are judging us by what we do. Thus, she says, we “rush to judge ourselves first in hopes of measuring up.” This is when we start accepting the ideas of others as to what is work and what is not. The “adult” dichotomous attitude seems to be that work is drudgery and play is fun. This attitude, Lyon goes on to explain, stifles creativity.
My personal belief is that the root of creativity is wonder. I remember being astonished as a new teacher when I asked my students “Do you ever wonder if…” and they looked at me with blank stares. By 7th and 8th grades, they had already internalized the concept that questioning what is or why is unacceptable. In order to create, we must never cease to be amazed at the world and the people around us. We must never stop asking, why is it this way? How do I feel about this? What can I, should I, do about it?
Poetry is a way of doing that. Poetry is harnessing the affordances of language to touch another soul about something important to humanity, and it takes work and creativity. But it’s also the highest form of play I know. Lyon also recommends that we play/work with the seemingly mundane things around us, searching for deeper meaning in them–an old shoe, a childhood memory, a routine activity. Playing with it may require some serious thinking (work) to find just the right words, the rhythm and cadence of those words, what they will sound like when spoken–because poetry is meant to be heard, more than read. (I have a strong belief that poetry existed before the written word.) But the work is really play–trying out new ways of saying something important, just as a child tries a block here or there to see how it fits, or as a knitter tries out different ways of stringing together the familiar stitches.
But I also think poetry is a way of processing and dealing with important, life-altering events that we experience. Then it is a work/play experience, rather than the other way around. The work here is sorting through the thoughts to make sense of them, but playing with the words that mean those thoughts often allows us to recognize important insights about those experiences.
A number of years ago, I lost a good friend. Annie Weed was a fellow church member who hosted our Bible studies. She had lost her husband before I came to know her, but she was anything but your little old widow lady! She was vibrant and optimistic and always had a smile and a laugh for everyone. Then she died. It was unexpected, shocking. We were all caught off guard by the sudden finality of her death.
I remember driving home from work a day or two later and coming to the intersection where I turned onto Liberty Grove Road. The tree was gone! The huge old cottonwood that had stood facing that intersection as long as I had been coming this way had been unexpectedly bulldozed down to clear the land for a new housing development. There, instead of a friendly old landmark, was a ravaged and empty stretch of barren land in front of me. It was shocking. Somehow in my mind the tree and Annie were connected. I had two losses to deal with, and I dealt with them by writing a poem that helped me process them both. The missing tree became a metaphor for Annie as I carefully worked to find just the right words to reflect my thinking.
So, I may not be a prolific poet like George Ella Lyon, but I am a poet. Because all it takes to be a poet is to pay close attention to the objects and events around you, wonder about them, and find the most precise metaphors available to tell about them within the parameters of the kind of poem that seems to fit. Is it work or is it play? Or is it both, as Lyon maintains? You decide, but I can tell you that working to write Annie’s poem filled me with a sense of release and fulfillment that was real and pleasurable, much akin, I think, to what a skier feels rushing down a mountain or a potter shaping a new bowl on a wheel. It’s my kind of fun.