How I Discovered Poetry: Ellen Bass

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Ellen Bass

I think poetry itself is what lured me to fall in love with it. I didn’t come from a literary family, though my mother occasionally read a poem aloud, careful to read it well, as she was careful in all things, wrapping a sandwich in waxed paper or counting out change for a customer. She took a certain pride in knowing that you didn’t stop at the end of a line, but followed the thought through until a natural place to pause.

We didn’t have many books in our house until my brother, who is eight years older, went to college. On weekends, I’d cut myself a thick slab of salami, take a couple slices of American cheese, a knob of rye bread and a glass of milk and settle myself in the leather recliner in his empty room and read books from his shelves.

My first typewriter was a hand-me-down from my brother. I wish I still had it–a clunky black metal Remington with round silver-rimmed keys on which I taught myself to type using a fingering chart my brother made for me. Recently I was cleaning out my garage and came across a box of old papers, including some note cards on which I’d typed out poems and quotations fifty years ago:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to Cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

I added the accent marks in pencil and some of the letters are darker than others. The punctuation keys I must have hit especially hard because they have indented the cards with their force. I can’t help but wonder what this passage meant to me then, having had no experiences so painful that I would have wanted to erase them. Maybe I was preparing myself for the future. These lines certainly describe my struggles now–there’s so much I wish I could go back and do differently. Or maybe it was something beyond the content, the way poetry speaks to us about the human condition, whether we have had similar experiences ourselves or not. All I know for sure is that I had a hunger for this kind of meaningful communication–and I still do.

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2 responses to “How I Discovered Poetry: Ellen Bass

  1. ellen bass is my #1 favorite poet writing today. i picked up a copy of “mules of love” in a used bookstore, and read “poem to my sex at 51”. i fell in love immediately. i’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of ellen’s workshops — she’s as good a teacher and mentor as she is a poet. that woman is my hero!

  2. Nice post. Made me remember the first poetry book I bought as a kid “Picked Watermellon Rind”
    I should ckeck into re-buying it as it is long gone…

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