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You’ve probably seen this image before.  It’s a cartoon of your brain’s hemispheres and the kinds of thoughts each half of your brain handles.  Left brain is straight-line, logical, and full of words and numbers and measurements and stuff like that.  Right brain meanders around, spiraling in and out, just seeing what-is and mostly having a hard time talking about it.

I was reading Leonard Shlain’s book, THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS:  The Conflict  Between Word and Image.  In it, he does a cool riff on “metaphor,” a thing that is dear to poets.  Shlain says, “When people find it necessary to express in words an inner experience such as a dream, an emotion, or complex feeling-state, they resort to a special form of speech called metaphor that is the right brain’s unique contribution to the left brain’s language capacity….  Metaphors allow one to leap across a chasm from one thought to the next.  Metaphors have multiple levels of meaning that are perceived simultaneously.”

“Metaphor” = meta (over and above) + pherein (to bear across).

Hmmm….That translation from the Greek roots of the word sounds a lot like bridges, doesn’t it?  Poetry, very often, is just metaphors piled on metaphors.  The purpose behind stacking up all of those metaphors is trying to reach a new way of seeing or feeling.  Poems can contain worlds.  Metaphors are how you build them.

In order to use and understand metaphor you have to do the right brain dance.  Right-braining is not linear….no straight, a-b-c progressions.  Right braining is intuitive so any insight you get is experienced all-at-once with multi-colored layers and flash.  (A thing is not LIKE something else…it IS the something else.)

Right braining is not about symbols because the right brain perceives the world concretely.  Whatever’s right in front of you, ready to lick your face, is real and concrete and right brain helps you deal with being in the here and now.  Symbols, on the other hand, are the ultimate constructs and all the meaning in the symbol can be – and probably has been – endlessly explained by words and more words that are sort of packed inside those symbols.  Right brain doesn’t need the word “tree” to know what a tree is.

Or, as the wordy guy who wrote the book says, “Right brain has the ability to cognate images and can simultaneously integrate the component parts in a field of vision, synthesizing incongruent elements all at once.”

There’s one other interesting thing:  Right-braining is timeless.  (Your right brain can’t tell time.)  Shlain throws out a truly mind-boggling concept, that the “left brain is actually a new sense organ designed by evolution to perceive time.”  Whatever.

My own take on it is this:  With your very own brain you can either play with unicorns and leap around galaxies and parallel universes ad nauseum while stumbling around looking for the exit into the world where there’s a pot of chicken noodle soup waiting for you, or you can play around in time and never find the door into that other place with the rainbows you can slide down.  Or you can do both.

Metaphor’s the door that gets you there.  With metaphors you can travel into and out of both of the worlds your brain can see.  If you take a pencil and some paper with you, it’s quite likely that you’ll end up with a poem by the time you get done wandering around.

When I was playing with poem forms, I ran across a Persian poetic form, the ghazal.  Persian ghazals are rhymed couplets that evoke strong emotions.  You pile them, one on top of another until you get a gestalt-thing going.  American ghazals don’t have to rhyme.  Here’s one I did:


‘Merican ghazals don’t have to rhyme, it says here,  maybe ’cause
‘Merica’s home of the brave, land of the free, where the ‘Merican Dream is the only reality.

Picture:  Indian brave, tears rolling down his hardened face
As he rides through the smoking ruins of his un-made village.

Picture:  dark-skinned woman screaming out her pain behind a still face, her hands deftly making her master’s bread
As her man and her babies get dragged off to some other where.

Picture:  brittle young girl, shimmering young man, slivers of intensity wandering through dirty, dark streets,
Hey…they’re living the Life, bravely, brightly looking for the next:  meal, bed, death.

Picture:  poor man at his wit’s end, weeps, slowly walking out the door,
Dragging his broken heart away from love-burdens grown too heavy.

Picture:  brave young girl, growing a baby in her belly,
Walking along the bridge and thinking on her fickle man who never comes ’round no more.

Picture:  soldier for the free, down in the ditch, sobbing, cursing, quaking,
As friendly fire rains down from unfriendly skies.

Picture:  old man’s hands trembling, remember-eyes moist,
As he reaches yet again for the pair of faithful hands — gone now.

Picture:  not-pretty-any-more woman, bruised and broken,
Trembling, afraid her beloved monster will track her down again.

Picture:  ice-cold faces of the brave and the free, hiding insides that shake and shiver,
As they turn away from ones smashed by the Dream.

Pictures ain’t so pretty when you start looking real close.
Maybe ‘Merican ghazals don’t rhyme ’cause mostly, the ‘Merican Dream don’t.

By Netta Kanoho

image credit:  Allan Ajifo via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

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I am one of those poets Life built:  I have no “creds” as a poet, but I do know that making a certain type of poem helped me keep my head straight through a number of karmic dust storms that blew away the world as I knew and liked it.

I guess you could call it home-grown, dirt-cheap psychotherapy.  All you really need to do it is paper, a pencil or a pen, and an awareness of the need to mend the broken circle of your life.

The act of sitting down and writing out what is in your head and your heart does take practice.

There are all kinds of books that can tell you HOW to write.  Ignore them.  Just sit down and line up the words as they rise up.  Take dictation from yourself.  Go until the flow of words stops or until you are starting to repeat yourself.

Put the words away for a while, then go back to them.  Find the ones that ring truest for you about the situation you’re thinking on.  Put them together until they sound right to you, until they dance, and they show you how you are feeling.

When you’ve done all that, you will have a poem and, for you, it will have power.

Read it out loud and think on it.  Maybe you’ll find something in it that starts another round of writing and another poem.  Maybe you will be able to see what action you can take to resolve some impasse, connect with someone, or just clear up the confusion you are feeling about something.

It occurred to me that at some point every one of us needs a way to get our heads back together. Poetry is a powerful way to do that.

The Sufi mystic and poet, Melvani Rumi wrote, seven centuries ago, “Don’t be satisfied with the stories that come before you; unfold your own myth.”  That’s what writing life-built poems is:  a concrete way to think on your own story and make your own myth.

The practice and the process of making life-built poems help you untangle the thoughts in your head when life hits you with yet another curve-ball.

If you do it right, you begin to understand how you’re actually feeling about any confusing situation when the thoughts just keep skittering all over the place and morphing into more and more of a tangled mess.

Often if you can just get a handle on all the chaotic feelings and thoughts you are experiencing, you’ll be able to see where you stand in all the turmoil and maybe see the actions you need to take to move gracefully in the direction you want to go.  At least, that’s the way it seemed to work for me.  Maybe it can do the same for you as well….

This poem came to me nine months after the death of my husband Fred.  We had been married for almost 27 years and were having a grand time being symbiotic when he sustained fatal head injuries in a car wreck.

I had always played with poetry for years.  After Fred died, though, I just slogged on through the days for a while.

When I started doing the poetry again, the poems were…different.  They were not just about playing with form any more.


When you died, Ei Nei, I dropped ten pounds.
Our friends said it was the grief.
I joked that you loved my sweet ‘okole so much
You took it with you,
And scandalized their true hearts yet again.
You would’ve laughed and probably agreed.

I don’t tell them — no I don’t —
About the other things you took.

You took your arms,
Corded hard with your strong passions,
That cradled me quiet as I drowsed
That picked me up each time I stumbled,
The peacefulness enfolded in them,
You took that with you.

You took your voice:
The way it resonated through me,
Sending echoes through each cell,
Winding around my heart
And pulling me to you, time and again.
You took that with you.

You bound me to you, then you went away.
You took a lot of things when you left.

You took your mouth:
Your teasing and your laughter,
Your “betcha-can’ts” and “you-better-nots,”
That made me so wild, I’d want to hit you
Until your goofy smile melted me silly.
You took that with you.

You took your eyes:
The fierce tenderness that held me,
Flashing hot at my proud challenge,
Softly glowing and content,
Intoxicating to the core.
You took that with you.

You took a lot when you went.

You took your hands,
Their gentle, solid strength,
Their familiar, clever touch
That reached into the soul of me,
And always drew me in.
You took that with you.

You took your body:
That hunting-cat tightness,
The warm, sweet hardness of you,
Lithe as a serpent, flowing against me,
The heat I craved, my best obsession.
You took that with you.

Ei Nei, I can forgive you taking all of that…
Most of the time, I can.
But, oh, how my tears well up,
Mourning the loss of all the dreams
The two of us flew when we were friends.

You took that with you too.    

[In case you don’t know, ei nei is Hawaiian for “my dear.”  The word ‘okole means “butt.”  Hawaiian musicians Keola and Kapono Beamer had a popular song, “Sweet ‘Okole” about a certain hula dancer of their acquaintance….]

by Netta Kanoho

photo credit:  James Diedrick via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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