“Every good poem begins as the poet’s and ends as the reader’s.”
Imprisoned for more than three years, the Soviet poet Irina Ratushinskaya was given a paper and pencil only once every two weeks to write letters to her husband and parents — and was forbidden to write anything else. In defiance, Irina created more than two hundred poems in her cell, engraving her words with a burnt match into a bar of soap and then memorizing the lines. “I would read the poem and read it,” she recalled, “until it was committed to memory — then with the washing of my hands, it would be gone.”
What a story of fortitude, creativity, and strength! So strong was Irina’s impulse to capture the fleeting words that danced through her head that she defied not only her prisoners, but time itself — holding her poems within her mind until she was free to write them down and share them. For her, writing poetry wasn’t just a form of salvation, it was a sacred act.
This view of writing dates back to Greek times. The ancients believed that both the making of a poem and the hearing of a poem were acts of spiritual communion. Performing classical Greek drama was considered a “holy day” ceremony for playwright, actor, and spectator. The Greeks also believed that a poet’s powers of invention are divinely inspired and that a poet pens a poem only with the assistance of the Muse. Poets were viewed as magicians and priests. If people insulted a poet, they could expect to suffer from a rhymed curse powerful enough to afflict them with boils and to curdle their cows’ milk. Potent magic, indeed!
Today, we poets and storytellers may not be seen as viewed as magicians, but something of stardust clings to us all the same. Once when I was at a networking meeting, I met a woman who asked what I did for a living. When I told her I was a writer, she replied, “Oh, you’re the one who tells the stories that make our lives interesting.”
I am indeed — and so are you. Though we may find our wayfaring path long and sometimes rocky, in my mind, there’s no doubt about whether it’s worth traveling. We light a candle against the darkness. And who else but a poet, a writer, could summon up words etched with a burnt match from memory? Write on!