Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Welcome to Nat'l Poetry Month - Part 3

Here it comes...the world's
dumbest question.
Today as we conclude our meditations occasioned by the arrival of National Poetry Month (NPM), I'd like to ask the world's dumbest question.

It's a question I seldom notice teachers and readers of poetry considering.

In fact, if you go to, the official home of National Poetry Month, you'll find 17 questions under "What is National Poetry Month?" Yet this question does not appear:

                                    What is poetry?

Lots of people want to appreciate poetry, even write poetry, including my students each fall, but do they have any idea what poetry is? If not, how will they know if they've succeeded?

Of course, we think we know what a poem is. Sorta. And sometimes that might be a problem.

Sloppy Definitions
I'm often told that "poetry is an expression of feeling using heightened language." All right, but how does that distinguish it from some lines in a bathos-filled chick-flick? A paragraph in a novel in which a character rages? Can't prose writing be expressive of feelings and tread the waters of heightened diction? And what about poems that eschew heightened language and are written in plain speech? Is the following not a poem?

So much depends...
upon definitions of poetry.
     so much depends

      a red wheel

      glazed with rain

      beside the white

At this point, the definition-maker usually backs up and states that a poem's words have to be written in shorter lines than prose. The poem's lines don't just wrap around arbitrarily depending on page margins. Instead, the poet deliberately "pauses" or "stops" each line before continuing on to the next. This tends to create a rhythm and emphasis in poems that's different than prose.

And oh yes, they might add, poems, as a rule, are more concise and compressed than their prose cousins.

Hmm. Is this enough? Armed with this information could a visitor from another planet set out to find a poem? Perhaps. The above information at least describes the shape and look of a poem.

Something More
With the above definition of a poem it is as if we've outlined the characteristic curves and smooth texture of a glass wine bottle. Now we can find such a bottle. But there's still one more thing to address.

What is goes in the bottle?

Poetry: It's not about the bottle or the glass, the mere vessel
that contains. What we're interested in is the quality
of the wine...
You see, when it comes to poems, and distinguishing good ones from bad ones, we're not so much interested in the equivalent of the wine bottle (the deliberate use of lines, the concise language, the rhythmic flow) as contents thereof.

Because many of us are thirsty. In our souls. So a perfectly serviceable wine bottle that's either empty or filled with Pepsi or Coke won't do.

All this is to say that what I'm most intent on exploring is what goes inside the bottle of poetry.

What is the magical substance that makes something poetic? What is the mysterious quality in a great poem that causes it to be the word equivalent of wine, that makes it taste good on the tongue and lifts the human spirit?

Where poets hang out
 Ask an Expert
A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in the annual Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop. About sixty of us had been deemed worthy to hang out in the Sierras above Lake Tahoe in July for five days. All we had to do was each day write a new poem and bring it to class.

A new poem that had to be critiqued by others every day?

Now that was pressure. It's also called the "Squaw Valley method" and is designed to get the creative juices flowing.

A tradition at the workshop is that one of the famous poet-teachers uses Friday afternoon to answer questions placed by students in a box. It sounded like a great opportunity.

I put my little question in the box. By now you can guess what it was.

Robert Hass: Excellent poet, excellent definition of poetry.
 The poet performing Friday services that year happened to be Robert Hass. Hass is one of the most highly esteemed and honored poets in America. A few months after our gathering his latest volume of verse, Time and Materials, would win the Pulitzer Prize.

Hass dug around in the box, looked at a handful of questions, and chose one. It was my question: What is poetry?

For the next 45 minutes he answered it.

It was a very erudite, improvised lecture that started with evidence of Paleolithic humans burial practices in Russia and moved forward in time to give a glimpse of poetry of the future. Hass's point was plain: every generation decides for itself what poetry is.

There is one unifying factor, he said. "Poetry is always the expression of what it's like to be human in an amazing world."

With that, he named for me the wine that goes in the bottle. He gave me a reason to read and try to write poems.

Final Stanza
These days I'm not much worried about the style of a poem or the credentials of the person writing it. What I'm looking for is that recognition the poet's words can give me: Yes! This is what life is like.

The way I look at it, the poem--with its careful choice of words and fine crafting of how the words are arranged--is only a means to an end.

The poem isn't the words.

Instead, the poem is a signpost that points to an experience of life or feeling about life that the poet wants to share with me.

An anonymous poet I ran across recently puts it like this:

     You ask me what
     is a poem.

    The purple dress of the girl at the mall.
    The pink stab of gum on the sidewalk.

     I saw these poems today
     and the crumpled ones in the receipt box

     my father left behind after
     he died on St. Patrick's Day.
     What is a poem but a pile of stones,
     each stone a word.

     The stone is rolled into place,
     heaped upon other stones.

     The poem is a marker.
     Some human being stood here.

     Someone felt something, turned eyes
     far away, deep within.

     Then he, then she, walked away
     and now the stones stay

     in the sun, in the rain and at night
     when the stars shine

     and the occasional stone,
     caught up in the gravity of my emotion,

     streaks from the sky,
     burning all the way to the ground

     as I stand here on the grass
     in front of his grave at midnight.

- V.W.

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