The very first creative thing I ever wrote was a poem. It was based on Little Bo Peep, with whom I had always been very irritated. It seemed to me that she didn’t look very hard for her sheep if the moment she stopped looking they followed her home. In consequence, I wrote a poem chastising her for her lack of common sense.
The first thing I memorized, outside of Scripture, was a poem. It was ‘The Land of Counterpane,” by Stevenson, and I memorized it simply because I could. (The second thing was the first page of The Hobbit.) After that moment I flew through my illustrated copy of Mother Goose, memorizing poems, making them into dramas, forcing my younger siblings to listen as I declaimed about the house that Jack built, or the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. Poetry set my mind afire: not only could stories be interesting, they could sound good. My earliest notebooks are full of childish scrawls with attempts at rhyming and meter—painful rhymes; decent meter, for that age.
In that vein, I have always had a better grasp of meter, I think, than anything else about poetry. In my music as well as in writing, the best thing I have going is my intuitive grasp of time, which falls apart almost every time I deviate from a four-beat (or four-stress) system. Before I even knew what iambic tetrameter was, I wrote in it.
When I was about thirteen, my mother had me do a one-year poetry course. That course opened my eyes to the possibility of different poetic feet; I am still trying to write a halfway-decent poem in dactylic pentameter. It also enlightened me to the wider world of English poetry: ‘Tyger, Tyger burning bright…” and “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold.” My poetry devolves there a bit; I was so fascinated by the interplay of words and rhythms, and the enormous variety of tropes and tricks that could be used in poetry, that I often sacrificed a good poem on the altar of cleverness.
The most recent swing in my affair with poetry is thanks (oh-so-surprisingly) to C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. The poetry of Middle-Earth made me once again see poetry as not just a display of cleverness, but a vehicle for story and a descriptor of beauty. It also gave me a longing for more Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its alliteration and swaying meter. C.S. Lewis, in Till We Have Faces, helped me to see the relations between poetry-as-art and prose-as-art. I learned that language can and should be beautiful no matter where it is used, and that part of the beauty of language is communicating exactly what is intended, without both excess and dearth of words.