I know Papa Francis canceled Easter, but I wanted to prove to you guys that I am not in fact dead!
This is slightly embarrassing to say, but here goes: I actually didn’t know about this literary holiday until last year. And it wasn’t even one of my writer friends who pointed it out to me! It was the holiday I didn’t know I needed!
Maybe more than ever this year.
When I was at the ripe old age of 14, my English teacher had us watch Dead Poet’s Society. Towards the end, the headmaster asks the group of students, “What is poetry?” Upon watching it again a few times *cough cough several thousand cough cough*, I realized that the headmaster was expecting someone to say that poetry was this amount of lines, this amount of rhymes, about this subject, and too many limiting things. The headmaster wanted a quantitative response–not a qualitative. Had I been in that class, I would have answered it, naively believing the question was open-ended.
But, fellow students, the headmaster is not here.
And so I ask you and myself: what is poetry? What is it really?
Sure, it’s Shakespeare; he knew what was up with that summer’s day. Of course it’s Uncle Walt and the echoes of his barbaric YAWP. Yes, it’s Coleridge–the man who re-introduced me to God and Nature. Begrudgingly (to me, personally, anyway) it’s T.S. Eliot and his April angst. It’s the Raven and Poe(try. Get it?! Oh, never mind). Emerson, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Sappho, Bukowski, Ginsburg–Louis and his son Allen–Keats (and Keating–God, I miss Robin Williams), Nerida, Browning (Elizabeth and Robert–whose love story is poetry in motion), Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and, so, so, so many more. And of course, us. Yes, it is all of us and all of that.
But what is it really? We are the hands through which it manifests. So what is the soul of poetry?
From my vantage point, at least? It’s waking up in the morning and appreciating the sunlight through the blinds. It’s hearing the “thank you” as a customer takes her groceries home. It’s a puppy sniffing at the grass. It’s the sound of a child chewing gum. The cat sitting on the mat. A lady bug guarding the strawberry seeds you planted while you get soil and water. The shadow of the tree branches reaching across your bed, trying to tuck you in. The empty streets right before the morning rush. The person picking a dandelion and choosing to see it, not as a weed, but as a wish. Bumping into the person you were just thinking about. Hearing the song you were singing the other day on the radio. Watching how your crush’s eyes shine when the light hits him right. The comforting words of a friend. Plans for the future–immediate and distant. This breath in. This breath out. This moment, right here.
Some of you are reading this thinking, “That’s ALL you listed? What about this? What about that? Why didn’t you say this or that?”
Robin Williams’ character in the movie tells the students, “Anything with the stuff of revelation” can be turned into a poem. It all depends on what has been revealed to you.
Whatever revelations you have, though, in the end, poetry is just life in its most concentrated form.
That definition has either helped put poetry in context, or maybe I really did miss the point if poetry can be tamed into one sentence (cue William Carlos Williams laughing, toting his red wheelbarrow along).
What are your favorite poems? Your favorite poet? Have you written a poem lately?
What are you waiting for?