Lasting words – will they limit or inspire?

Lasting words - will they limit or inspire?

It’s not an option, even though it sounded it. The “required elective.”

My kids have gone through that struggle in college, and now I face it. As part of a two-year program, we’re required to take an elective outside our field of study. For me, the only option is a poetry class.

I am terrified.

Although I love snippets of poetry, have several books handed down to me by my poetry-loving father, and have more than a few quotations posted in my office, I’m about as poetic as a doorknob. Although I tend to think in pictures and describe what I see, claiming poetry as something that I’m drawn to and aspire to master is simply untrue.

My first and last attempt at poetry was when I was 16. Our family dog had died and I was devastated. Dad encouraged me to write a poem about it – the first time I’d tried to express feelings through words – and suggested I share it with my English teacher. I’ll never forget (obviously) the two words she used to describe it:

Morose and maudlin.

I had a good idea what morose meant. I was gloomy and yes, it was a sad poem. But “maudlin” sent me to the dictionary. “Overly sentimental” was the definition I found. “Overly” anything wasn’t good, especially for a fragile 16-year-old who just spilled her damaged heart onto the page.

However, the dismissive look my revered teacher gave me spoke louder than her brisk comment. It was one of those evaluative, “I-know-you-are-a-top-student-honey-but-this-is-not- a-strength-of-yours” looks given with one raised eyebrow. I never attempted a poem again.

But now, I need to face the demon. Beyond the readings, we’re required to write a poem – weekly.

I double-checked with the course coordinator to make sure it was a viable choice for me given my limitations. After all it was an elective, something supplemental to be explored outside the main course requirements.

Still, I did not want to fail.

She suggested I email the professor.

He assured me not to worry, that there were many ways of writing poetry, and that “the close attention to language that poetry can develop is extremely useful for writers of all kinds.”

I do love words. Words with Friends is my daily relaxing activity and I have a dictionary by most every place I park throughout the day, from the breakfast table to my bedside.

But it was his last comment that sold me. “In my undergraduate program at Northwestern, no one was allowed to take a fiction writing class until they had taken an introductory poetry writing class.”

A prerequisite for an intro class? Surely I could handle that.

So I signed up. Then the 4-pound 10.5 ounce, two-volume anthology arrived and intimidated me once again.

Focus on the words, I keep telling myself. I’m going to learn about words. And I settle myself again and prepare to press on, grateful for one wise instructor’s carefully chosen remarks.

This time, I’m hoping the powerful use of well-timed words will serve me well.

This column was written by Rebecca Faye Smith Galli, daughter of the late Dr. R.F. Smith Jr., a longtime columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Her email address is [email protected].

Poetry instructor: Peter Kline. Stanford University Continuing Studies!bio

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at