Autism: poetry makes sense

I’ve tried a lot of art forms*, but poetry is one of the few that enhances my perceptions of the World. Poetry, especially writing poetry, clarifies things I didn’t know I knew. It spotlights those (often philosophical or metaphysical) dilemmas I’ve been struggling with. Poetry conveys what matters most to my benthic self.

As much as I love/d painting, I didn’t understand the World better because I painted.

Jane Hirshfield:

“Poetry itself, when allowed to, becomes within us a playable organ of perception, sounding out its own forms of knowledge and forms of discovery. Poems do not simply express. They make, they find, they sound (in both meanings of that word) things undiscoverable by other means.”

Poetry is a dissipative structure.


After my family of origin moved to Naperville (Illinois) in the mid-1970s, my mother set child-me up for oil painting classes at the Park District. I remember the carrying case for all my supplies she bought me at a garage sale — it cleverly resembled a briefcase, but of maple wood. Of course I remember all the paint names! Mixing colors was transcendent. I infinitely preferred the goopiness of painting with a palette knife, not a brush.

The classes were probably during summers, so I was newly 11, newly 12. I felt like a Real Artist, like my hero Claude Monet. I had Things to Say, and painting set me free to say them!

Not exactly.

We had to bring in source materials to paint from. The one I remember best was a nature photograph from a magazine, depicting an iridescent lavender-ish butterfly against an indistinctly leafy yellow-green background. Although I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the butterfly, I made lovely the yellow-green background (years before knowing those shades, in these proportions => “Amelia”, which is the flavor profile of Joy/Delight/Whimsy in my emotion-color synesthesia).

With thin washes of color painstakingly applied, I somehow managed to reproduce the interplay of nacreous hues in the butterfly’s wings.

Oh, I was so proud of that! It was gorgeous!

And then the teacher came over. She tut-tutted. “There’s no depth definition here! You need shadows!” Me, thinking: Um, I don’t think I do, but…

She took her paintbrush, dipped it in my paints, and painted in shadows!

If that wasn’t horrifying enough, she said her shadows, if I just stroked them through enough, would blend into my work. It turned out, though, that my wings were mostly dry, so her “shadows” sat on top, looking stupid and out of place, and utterly ruining my naïve style.

That was the worst example, because the butterfly wings were so difficult, I could never replicate them.

But she also interfered in 2 other paintings. One, I can live with; the other, I couldn’t.

The egregious one was an abstracted sea scene, in shades of cerulean blue, born out of my delight in the colors, and a feeling of lightness and happiness inside of me. My painting teacher, however, pronounced it “Ridiculous! No one will know what they’re looking at! It needs something for their eyes to focus on!” She, again with her paintbrush and my paints, inserted a tree. “There! Doesn’t that look better!”

I was aghast.

From those moments on, those paintings were no longer mine. No longer my vision, my unique sensibility and worldview. No longer my inner life. Those paintings had become visible replays of my traumas, reminding me relentlessly that I’d been, repeatedly, violated by an authority figure I’d trusted.

My mother couldn’t understand why I was upset. She said I was “too sensitive”, that I was “being a baby”.

After the classes ended, I tried a new painting on my own, sneaking away to spend time in the unfinished basement, where no one would find it. But it didn’t work, on any level. I no longer trusted my own judgment. Instead of clarifying myself to me, painting had become just another thing that hurt me, frustrated me, diminished me.

I didn’t paint again for 30 years.

= = =

Two years later, when I was almost 14, I had a similar experience with a teacher at my Catholic school and my first poem. Again, I was brutalized through my work being destroyed, but this teacher went further, telling me I was “depraved” for writing as I had. She wanted to get me expelled from school, so I had to beg her for “mercy”.

I knew better than to mention that incident to my parents, who, of course, would have taken her side. “Authority figures are always right! That’s why they’re in charge!”

I didn’t write another poem for 30 years.


An aspiring poet can take writing classes, or work with a writing group, but they don’t have to. If you’ve got paper and a pen/pencil/crayon, or an electronic writing device, you’re good to go.

I’ve taken writing classes and poetry workshops, I was a part of a Poetry Meetup for a few months, I’ve exchanged poems for critique with Twitter-friends, I’ve submitted poems for publication. No one has ever inserted their own words into mine, never mind insisted that doing so improved my work — I can’t imagine how that even could happen.


I actually started writing this post to talk about a new project: I have a spreadsheet that I’m populating with all the significant** words I’ve ever used in a poem, and their frequencies. I have to prevent myself from working on it day and night — categorizing is catnip — but even only 20-some poems in, it’s already evident that I use a high percentage of distinct words (so far, ~ 60%). Lots of wildlife: 20+ words for plants or plant structures; 40+ words for animals. Water bodies, precipitation, or watery habitats = 15 words.

Motifs that (so far) I write about most frequently include:

  1. Animals
  2. Body
  3. Celebrating
  4. Container {“vessels”}
  5. Craft
  6. Direction {spatial orientation}
  7. Emotion
  8. Fiber
  9. Food
  10. Geography
  11. Geology
  12. Heritage {culture, not always my own}
  13. Hidden
  14. Imaginary
  15. Literary
  16. Machinery
  17. Motion & Dance
  18. Music
  19. Mythic
  20. Person/s
  21. Plants
  22. Relationships
  23. Texture
  24. Water

Some overlap and interconnect, which I can’t show linearly. In fact, some probably join together to emergently create hyper-motifs, like Synesthesia.

I haven’t yet arrived at visual poems, and I’m not sure how I’m going to account for their nonlexical elements.

But just from the above list, there’s a strong sense of what kind of person I am. And therefore, what aspects of the World are likely to catch and hold my attention.

Luckily, words in my poems < 10,000 — my poems tend to be short, and I’ve only written 137 of them. (2 outliers at 900+ words are skewing the total. Excluding them, the average number of words per poem drops to ~ 56.)

{ Analyzing my prose would be cool, too, but almost 6 years of blog posts, for instance, number > 600, and their total word count is approaching 500,000. I’d need a database; I’d need to write code. I haven’t created a database in years, and I never got to the point of writing specialized code. Learning curve! }


I learn from writing prose, but I don’t, necessarily, heal. It often doesn’t illuminate what’s been spackled over, but festers underneath.

Poetry lances.

In prose, I’ve written about my mostly-awful childhood, about being raped as a teenager by my cousin and disbelieved by my mother years later, about relatives treating me with casual contempt but calling it ‘respect’ and lambasting me for not being obsequious in response. I’ve written over and over and over. I learn something new each time, but… it doesn’t fix anything.

But Poetry…

No matter how many times I’ve tried to communicate with my relatives about being raped, they don’t respond. Or respond wildly inappropriately, such that I’m re-traumatized. (I’ve had extensive therapy; I’ve healed my inner wounds as much as can be.) But ‘social’ wounds remain: there no longer seems to be a ‘place’ for me in our extended family, because when people pick sides, they always pick his. Even my mother.

No matter what I’ve said, or what words I’ve used, none of them seemingly could hear what I was saying.

I had written a poem about that whole period of my life, in 2011. I worked on it intermittently (when I could bear to) over the years. A few months ago, I felt an urge to just finish it and be done with it. Finally, I had sufficient emotional distance to craft it. To polish it.

To aim it.

I sent that poem to my cousin (my rapist’s sister) whom I was breaking off ties with. She’s actually in the poem, because as things were happening 30 years ago, I went to her for help … and she betrayed me to him. In response, his behavior towards me escalated. That long ago breach of my trust had always prevented me from feeling at ease with her. Yet it was something I couldn’t conceive of how to talk to her about, since no relative will admit to me, “yes, I believe you that X raped you. He was wrong to do that. You deserved better.”

So, I sent the poem. She read it. She told me she read it.

Of course, she didn’t apologize for her part, or for anything. She said, “I’m sorry you’re still in so much pain. You should get over it. . . . Have you tried ‘thinking positive’?”

Breaking up with her was not only the necessary thing, it was long overdue.

A poem allowed her to hear my pain. Thousands of prose words on my other blog (which she used to read) did not.

= = =

When I broke ties with that cousin, she was the last member of my family of origin that I was in contact with. Writing that poem, then sending it, allowed me to realize… I don’t want to be part of a family where everyone denies that they mistreated and abused me.

Ironically? 30 years ago, my rapist was a huge fan of Bill Cosby. I bet he still is.

= = =

My pain is a boundary. My pain delineates who is me, or on Team Mea; and who isn’t. My pain has kept me alive, kept me sane, kept me myself.

Anna Deavere Smith:

“Your pain can be a source, like the color blue, or orange, for that matter. It can be one of your colors; it can be a tool . . . As artists, we can tolerate, for a while, great discomfort in order to explore discomfort.”

My pain spurred me to become an artist, a writer, a poet: I define myself.




*DANCE: ballet, tap, modern, ballroom; MUSIC: acoustic guitar, recorder, singing; THEATER?: acting, modeling for a photographer; DRAWING: pencils, charcoal, colored pencils, pastels; PAINTING: oil, acrylic, watercolor; PAPER: 2-d design, collage, paper garments for photography; MIXED MEDIA: handmade valentines, building miniature rooms, flower arranging, beading jewelry, collage, “balancing/sculpture” for photography; FOOD: baking, cake decorating; WRITING: letters, poetry (age 13 only), essays; FIBER: braiding, rug hooking, embroidery, machine sewing (from a pattern), knitting on a machine, tapestry weaving, floor loom weaving, fabric painting, fabric dyeing, hand sewing (freeform), quilting, knitting by hand, fiber jewelry; PHOTOGRAPHY: nature, portraits –nonhumans, ongoing series of Spouse, self; CERAMICS: hand-built vessels, tiles; FASHION: my own wardrobe building, styling models for a photographer; CONCEPTUAL ART.


**I was originally going to track every single word, but I’ve since removed ones like ‘a/an’, ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘at’, ‘as’, ‘by’, etc.