The Blue Collar Bookseller review: April is National Poetry Month | Reviews

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, though I much prefer my Swiss army knife. Still, I could not help but be fascinated by a class called “The Pen and the Sword”, taught by an Aikido* master.

Truly now was my chance to learn to kill a man with a ballpoint pen, and land that job with the CIA. If he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, then he who lives by the pen…? Writing is not for the weak. I must be strong. I must be prepared. I must be ready.

I was ready to become both master of the pen and the sword. Anxiously I awaited the sensei’s (Japanese for teacher) arrival. The room is filled with gymnastic mats-also called tatami-and nervous energy. Here I would forge the weapon of my mind, the strength of my spirit, the tool of my will.

A stout man came waddling into the room with a Grizzly Adams beard and blazing blue eyes, like a half-crazed Viking warrior who forgot where he put his bearskin. This could not be the teacher? Surely such a man was born to wield an ungainly battle-axe, not the elegantly crafted katana. Lost? Searching for a Wagner opera? A drumming circle?

His voice boomed, “You have to write a poem. You have one minute. Go!”

A mad rush of students surged to the back wall where a table sat loaded with clean, white paper and pencils. Quickly, I grabbed a pencil. “Only a minute to craft a poem of truth and beauty, and it has to be great!” I looked to the heavens for inspiration; I pleaded to my muse for guidance. I looked within myself, and found me.

There’s a saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And there I was. There’s some that might say I’m bull-headed, or have a blatant disregard for authority figures. Maybe, maybe not. But I was in the moment, and that rebel grabbed me that pencil and wrote four quick lines that spilled out of me.

I have to write a poem.

It has to be good.

No, I don’t.

No, it doesn’t.

I put my pencil down and smiled smugly like that smart-ass kid in geometry class that always finishes his test before anyone else. Don’t you just hate that? The berserker glared at me and snarled, “Are you done?”

“Yep.” I arrogantly replied.

“You now have thirty seconds!” roared the madman…

Aikido (aikidō) is translated as the “way of harmonious spirit,” and emphasizes joining with an attack and redirecting the attacker’s energy. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So this class was not to turn me into a lethal weapon, but it did make the art of poetry more accessible to me. The arts of war have strong traditions in many art forms, from poetry to calligraphy to flower arranging.

Martial arts are more than what you do, or do to someone. Martial arts can help build confidence, fitness, discipline and awareness of one’s surroundings. It is something that you feel. Being what you are. Being in the moment and it ain’t always pretty.

What is poetry? Is it more than just words? If it has no structure, is it poetry? If it doesn’t rhyme, is it poetry? If it’s in free form, or freestyle, is that a poem? Poetry, and discussions of it, have a long history, and poets and scholars will never agree on a definition.

For me, poetry is a means of expressing an idea, emotion, feeling, or memory in a concise way. It may be graceful, beautifully expressed, or even brutal—an elegant arc of a well-honed blade or a swift body blow to the breadbasket.

No, my aikido teacher was not a tyrant, or a bully, but a kind, gentle man with lessons to teach and a wicked sense of humor. The real power of a poem is the honesty and truth to it. You can dress it up, flesh it out, or make it dance the salsa, but if it isn’t real, it really isn’t anything at all. What is poetry? All I can say is, “You’ll know it when you feel it…”

For further reading, check out, Sword and Brush by Dave Lowry: The way of the brush reflects the strategic principles of the sword, Lowry is master of both.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: A celebration of the act of writing, by a master storyteller. I am unaware of his progress in the deadly arts, but I do not recommend meeting him in a dark alleyway.

The Art of the Lathe by BH Fairchild: a collection of poems centering on the working-class world of the Midwest, the isolations of small-town life, and the possibilities and occasions of beauty and grace among the machine shops and oil fields of rural Kansas.







Kevin Coolidge is currently a full-time factory worker, and a part-time bookseller at From My Shelf Books & Gifts in Wellsboro, Pa. When he’s not working, he’s writing. He’s also a children’s author and the creator of The Totally Ninja Raccoons, a children’s series for reluctant readers. Visit his author website at kevincoolidge.org


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