The most frightening assignment I have gotten was given to me by a fifth-grade teacher. He asked me to define poetry for his students. This was a couple of weeks ago.
Rattled by the request, I forummed (if that’s not a word, it is now) the problem and got a lot of interesting ideas. I stuck to my own, rather juvenile, explanation, which Mr C posted here along with several other definitions offered by other poets. Mine is the worst by a mile. (Serves me right for focussing on the fact that I was writing for ten-year-olds. They’re clearly far more intelligent than I was back then. Also, why do I not remember doing anything this cool when I was in school?)
JM suggested that our understanding of what poetry is “is reached by a kind of reading consensus”. Impractical from a pedagogic point of view, because it’s hard to go over everything that might be considered poetry. Or very practical, if you have all the time in the world.
I continue to believe that poetry is a kind of experiential knowledge. Definitions and explanations of poetry don’t seem to work without at least a cursory experience of poetry, especially contemporary poetry. One of my favourite “definitions” is by Peter O’Leary (also found in my Poets on Poetry series):
To dwell in language is to dwell in the moment of epiphany, even to elaborate it and conjugate it by stretching the word out into its grammar. The word is what hits the poet and goes all over him or her. Enshrining this moment is the act of poetry. The life spent making such a shrine is the burden — or the affliction — of the poet. The poem does not heal. Like life, poetry is something from which we cannot be healed.
I attempted to share this with other people — people who don’t read poetry (but who claim to write it anyway). They didn’t seem to appreciate it at all. The best answers to the “What is poetry” question tend to be like O’Leary’s — whimsical, oddly spiritual and terribly poetic themselves. Those are my favourites. ( See also Marianne Moore, Fernando Pessoa, Carl Sandburg, Bashō and Stéphane Mallarmé.)
And then there are those explanations that take the form of advice, to poets or readers or both. They’re good, too, especially if the purpose is clarity. The most stunning of these is Marvin Bell‘s advice to a poet.
Back to Mr C’s teaching blog, you’ll find some great definitions by the other poets he asked. I think if I had to pick a definition to start a poetry class/workshop, it would be Christine Potter‘s: “poetry is like frozen orange juice, which is to say that it’s concentrated.” (Secretly, I’ve learnt a lot about poetry from Chris, and plan to keep on learning from her.) It’s the sort of thing people keep forgetting.*coughme*
If there’s a lesson to be learnt from this it’s that while poetry is undefinable, attempts at defining it can achieve partial truth. You can then glimpse a larger picture when you have a bunch of these definitions. Also, these definitions, according to me, make more sense when accompanied by reading lots of poetry. And they’re fun, aren’t they? I love going through my Poets on Poetry series. Which reminds me, if anyone’s is going through that series and finds links going to the wrong place (e.g. Milosz taking you to Moore), please let me know. I seem to have gone through a brief phase of horrendously inaccurate linking.
Mm, yes, mundane end to potentially interesting blog post.