Liz Garton Scanlon (liz_scanlon) wrote,
Liz Garton Scanlon

What IS poetry anyhow?

"If there would be a recipe for a poem, these would be the ingredients: word sounds, rhythm, description, feeling, memory, rhyme, and imagination. They can be put together a thousand different ways, a thousand, thousand... more." - Karla Kuskin

So for the past 27 days, teachers coast to coast have been featuring poetry, front and center, in the classroom. It's National Poetry Month and dadgumit, these kids are gonna make poems.

We've got acrostic poems and concrete poems and haiku. We've got Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. We've got simile and alliteration. And we've got the little one in the back row, raising his hand and pleading, "But what exactly IS poetry?"

Is it short or long? Is it rhymed or unrhymed? Is it about love or nature or brushing your teeth? 

And the teachers knead their furrowed brows and mutter, "Is is May yet?"

But, really. What exactly IS poetry?

I tend to make camp with the Moving Us Deeply campers. This school of thought defines poetry as an attempt to make sense of the world in human terms and, in so doing, arousing kindred emotions in its readers. Poetry says the unsayable, discovers the undiscoverable, touches the untouchable. "A poem," says Frost, "begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness...." 

But if you leave it at that, all the eager, budding poets will write rivers of verse about Love (capital L), Grief (capital G), Faith, Sorrow, and Exaltation (capital F, S, E), and we'll be wishing we'd said something about concrete imagery, tangible metaphor, or red, red wheelbarrows.

Or mud puddles, as the case may be: 

"Never forget that the subject is as important as your feeling; the mud puddle itself is as important as your pleasure in looking at it or splashing through it.... in many ways, the mud puddle is the poetry." -- Valerie Worth

So what distinguishes poetry and, at the same time, allies these perspectives? I'm pretty sure the answer is little instead of big, and simple rather than overwhelming. 

I think it is conscious, concentrated language, such that whatever the subject, it is evocative. 
Whatever the form, it will resonate, echo and sing. 
In poetry, language is semantic and notational, but also metaphoric, aesthetic and emotional. 

Who knew words could do all that?!
How strange. 
How magical. 
Like "a dragonfly catching fire," says Ferlinghetti, or "a rope... a real canary... a passionfruit." 

Yeah. Like that. Something like that. 

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