Poetry for Beginners

Wings will be given

or, How I got over my fear of poetry

By Kenny Mah

A few years ago, my best friend gave me a book of poetry for my birthday. Thanks, I told her, but what an unusual gift. I don’t really read poetry. I don’t understand them. She smiled and said I didn’t need to understand them, just read and enjoy. These are very short poems, she added, as if that helped a bit.

The book was a rather thin tome, so she was probably telling me the truth. The poet, Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian Muslim and a Sufi mystic. Apparently when he passed away, his funeral was attended by representatives from every religion – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. When asked why they chose to attend his funeral, they responded, “He deepens us wherever we are.”

Perhaps he was too deep for me. I flipped through some pages but could make no head or tail of the poems. Rumi seemed rather preoccupied with camel’s milk, human souls, rose gardens and some bloke named Shams Tabriz whose name he kept invoking. It was all rather twee.

I put the book aside, placed high on the bookshelf. I hoped my best friend would not notice her birthday present to me gathering dust.

I want these words to stop.
Calm the chattering mind, my soul.
Rumi, I Ask One More Thing

Some months later, my partner was hospitalised. We weren’t sure what it was; hopefully not dengue fever. (Later, it turned out to be tonsillitis, nothing meds and a couple of ward rest couldn’t fix.) I was fretting, of course, worried. So many thoughts going through my head, the usual ones like: What if something happens? What if it’s really bad? What if…?

Times like these, I realise I’m no different than most people. This makes sense, of course, but to be honest, don’t all of us think, at some unspoken level, that we are different, that we are somehow more special than others?

All it takes is one small calamity to bring our world collapsing down on us like a house of cards. And I was never any good at card games.

When I went back home, briefly, to shower and pack some toiletries before returning to the hospital, I grabbed the book of Rumi’s poetry too. I wanted something I wouldn’t be interested in, something I could get distracted by. There was no sleeping that night, I was certain. By the time I got back to the ward, it was very late. But I couldn’t sleep. So I opened the book and started reading.

The words calmed me. The silence that was contained between the verses calmed me. My mind stopped chattering endlessly and I simply read till I discovered, upon waking, that I had fallen asleep after all.

Do you run from joy?
Perhaps the lion
should not flee the fox.
Rumi, Look at a Fountain

Time passed.

Life has a tendency of going on when we aren’t paying attention. Things change; sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Opportunities arise. I discover, again to my dismay, that I’m not a unique special snowflake; just like everyone else, I’m afraid to change. I’m afraid of trying something new.

In my case, it was writing. See, I’ve always loved writing but would never have contemplated attempting it seriously. It was for folks with real talent, not me. Also, as my very Asian parents would remind me, no one could make a decent living from writing. You need a roof over your head and food on your table. Get a real job.

Only, I’m not sure if my parents ever told me that, not those words exactly. How much of this refrain was merely concocted in the discouraging recesses of my mind? Is it a self-defence mechanism or a self-fulfilling prophecy, one destined to keep me safe from adventure or chasing my dreams?

Sometimes I wonder if we are not all afraid we may actually become happy doing what we love.

Watch the man beating a rug.
He is not mad at it.
He wants to loosen the layers of dirt.
Rumi, Disciplines

I gave myself a chance.

That’s all we need, really: giving ourselves permission to proceed. Getting to this point isn’t always easy, of course; it usually isn’t. We beat ourselves up so hard. It does make finally giving in and claiming our own happiness, admitting gleefully to our pursuit of it, all the more satisfying.

Some of us will decide to take up ballroom dancing. Others join an NGO to do volunteer work and help the causes they believe in. Whatever we choose, it is always a challenge when we start. It’s scary. Friends who believe in us help, a lot.

Writing, for me, is tough. Every word, every sentence, comes at a price. (And in my mind, I suspect every other writer just breezes through this process, emitting finely-crafted paragraphs and stories the way spiders spin web or bears poo honeyed crap.) I don’t delude myself that anything I write is any good or that any of it will matter.

But the point is to complete. Get to the end of the sentence. There, at the finish line, lies the sweet silence Rumi promised.

Do you know this silence?
It is not the same as in your room
when you have no one to talk to.
Rumi, Pure Silence

Some of us are still waiting. For the day, when something clicks (or, and we hope this isn’t the case, something snaps) and we realise it’s now or never. Dreams that stay dreams rot our souls. We try, knowing that we may well fail, but comforted by moving, by acting, by allowing ourselves the opportunity.

When the writing is tougher than usual, I have learned to put the task aside. I pull down a book of poetry from its place on the shelf, flip the pages (now dog-eared and yellowed) at random, and then settle to read. There is sanctuary here in the words, and silence in the space between them. Here, I can believe that I am a unique and special snowflake, that we all are. Here, I believe, if we ask for them, wings will be given, and we can fly.

But this love path has no expectations.
You are uneasy riding the body?
Dismount. Travel lighter.
Wings will be given.
Rumi, No Expectations

Rumi: Bridge to the Soul, translations by Coleman Barks (HarperOne, 2007)