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CODA, Poetry, & Diversity of Self-Expression

In a scene from the Oscar-winning film CODA, the central character, Ruby Rossi, takes her best friend up to her bedroom after school to listen to music. She puts on a vinyl copy of the Shaggs’s 1969 album Philosophy of the World and cues up “My Pal Foot Foot.”

Only the most astute of cult music fans will likely recognize the song. The Shaggs were composed of three sisters that started the group after their father reportedly had a vision from God that his daughters were to form a rock band.

Their music, from a technical standpoint, is horrible—off-beat drums, out-of-tune guitars, flat vocals, and childish lyrics (“Foot Foot” relates the saga of the family’s lost cat).

The album, recorded just two weeks after they began playing their instruments, unsurprisingly went unheard, selling a small amount of copies via their few live gigs at church socials and neighborhood events.

Yet, the Shaggs eventually secured a small, but faithful fan base that earned them a place in rock history. Frank Zappa said they were better than the Beatles. Kurt Cobain counted Philosophy of the World among his favorite albums of all time.

Many people even credit the Shaggs as being the first girl punk rock band, the forerunner of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney.

In CODA, Ruby drops the needle on the record and begins to rock out while her friend watches, baffled. At a particular moment in the song, she aggressively points at the record player and declares, “THIS is my favorite part!”

There’s so much chaos in the song that it’s almost impossible to know which part she’s talking about. But the scene nonetheless reveals a crucial trait about Ruby: her ability to find artistic value in places where there doesn’t seem to be any, seeing something moving in the frenzied mess of a song that the Shaggs themselves weren’t able to recognize.

Ruby is a child of deaf adults (CODA, where the film’s title comes from), the only member of her family who is able to hear. Over her lifetime, she has become the de facto interpreter and mediator between her parents and older brother and the hearing world. She has accepted this role out of not just duty to her family, but love.

But when her choir director at school tells her that she has enough talent as a vocalist to audition for the prestigious Berklee College of Music, she begins to rethink her goals and imagine a direction she wasn’t aware her life could take.

April is National Poetry Month, a time for not just writers, but anyone who loves words, to stop and enjoy this art form. More than anything else, poetry is about uniquely expressing someone’s point of view, giving readers the opportunity to glimpse a world they’ve never entered, an angle they’ve never tried to see from, or an idea they’ve never considered.

It is the author’s unique combination of words and images that bring these expressions to life and help readers enter into them, giving them a one-of-a-kind experience that cannot be found from any other piece of writing.

CODA embodies what it means for people to uniquely express themselves to others, portraying the full range of tools we have at our disposal to do so.

There are the passionate verbal words Ruby shares as she tries to make her deaf parents understand the importance of music in her life. There’s the sign language her family uses to interact, which captures a brutally frank family dynamic complete with swear words, innuendo, insults, dad jokes, and emotional outbursts of joy and anger.

And of course, there’s Ruby’s music and the emotional connection she makes with the lyrics and tone of the songs she sings. Each character has his or her own unique language of self-expression, whether it’s expressed through words, music, or signs.

The beauty of CODA is not just that it gives audiences an intimate look at a marginalized population and asks us to enter their world. It’s that it showcases the full range of human emotion and the many instruments we have to express it and give others the gift of our words.

This is what we accomplish when we choose to write poetry.

Self-expression is what gives poetry power.

But I also think it’s what scares people away from writing poetry.

Perhaps you’ve felt this way. Maybe you’ve thought that there’s no point in trying to write poetry because you don’t know how.

Maybe you read a poem in seventh grade English that inspired you, but when you commented on it in class, your teacher shot you down and sucked all the joy out of the experience.

Maybe you’re worried about not having anything to say, or making it too emotional or corny.

The heart of all these thoughts is fear, and poetry is meant to be fearless.

In CODA, when Ruby attends her first choir practice, all the members are asked to sing “Happy Birthday” so the director can gauge their vocal range. Ruby has been ridiculed and bullied for most of her life, both because of her unusual family and a previous speech impediment.

When it’s her turn to sing, her voice fails her. Although she has an incredible gift (which we’ve already seen at this point in the movie), she turns and runs out the door.

It is only when she is alone at a cliff overlooking a quarry where she comes to find peace that she allows herself to sing.

I think that oftentimes when we write poetry, we allow our fear of other people to overcome our desire to create. And it’s understandable—sharing your writing with others means choosing to be vulnerable before them, especially if you write personal or confessional poems.

Choosing to write a poem is an act of defiance against your fears about creating something new. Your need to express your experiences and thoughts becomes more important than your fears about being criticized.

Ruby eventually returns to music class, where her instructor gives her the courage to embrace her unique voice in spite of her insecurity. If you want to write poetry, even if you just want to try it and see if you like it, this is what needs to happen.

You don’t have to share your work with anyone. You don’t have to be Emily Dickinson right out of the gate. You don’t have to judge yourself and crumble up your poem because you think it’s stupid.

You just need to try. Perhaps that act will be enough to make you discover that you have something important to say.

This is what lies at the heart of CODA. All the characters have something to say, whether it’s Ruby declaring her passion for music as well as her sacrificial love for her family, her father’s drive to fight for the family fishing business, or her older brother’s yearning to be given the chance to protect and defend his sister.

What do you have to say, and how are you going to say it?

We’ll talk all this month about exactly how to make that happen, but I know that for now, a lot of what I’ve said seems easier said than done.

That’s why I made The Ultimate Poetry Workbook.

It contains writing prompts, instructions, and words of inspiration to help you discover your voice as a poet and begin to create.

Also…do you have thoughts about CODA and how it impacted you? If so, drop them in the comments section!

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