Growing as a Poet


By Joy Ladin

I started writing what I thought of as poems as soon as I learned to write. I have no idea why. My family wasn’t literary, and I don’t think we had any poetry (other than Dr. Seuss) in the house. But from the first, I wanted to put words into patterns, and my favorite patterns were those that ended with full rhymes. To me, when a word rhymed with an earlier word, it seemed like something incredible had happened. If I had known such ideas at the time, I might have said that it felt like a reunification of sparks of the Divine, or the bringing forth of order out of chaos, or the ringing, through my words, of the great bell of time. But I was six or seven, so all I knew was that my rhymes seemed to be magically changing a world that otherwise felt completely out of my control.

I never stopped writing poems, and as I grew up, I learned to write  poems that aimed for more than my personal satisfaction. But the root of my poetry has always been that primal childhood mixture of pleasure and power, the sense that the words I put together somehow changed the world.

I went to poetry workshops throughout high school and college, and after graduation, I kept on writing poems. I hadn’t published anything; my writing hadn’t won any prizes or fellowships; in fact, no one knew I was a poet unless I told them so. But that didn’t matter. I could feel something happening, something changing, something growing, as I wrote and rewrote my poems.

I now know that I was right. Something was indeed happening, changing, growing through my writing process. But that something wasn’t “the world” in general; it was me. 

MC Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948 Lithograph

When I was in college, many college dorms were adorned with reproductions of M.C. Escher’s works. The one that struck me most was the etching in which a hand emerges from a blank surface and draws another hand, which in turn is drawing the first hand. 

That is what happens when I work on poems. As I write and revise, the process of writing and revision changes me. As I grope toward meaning and beauty through the words of my poems, the ideals of meaning and beauty turn me into a person who can bring them into the world. 

Professor Joy Ladin is faculty advisor of YUJA.