I am a teacher of Poetry.
This means that several times a year I walk into a classroom, the seats filled with Bright Young People between the ages of 18 and 22, and try to make them fall in love with poetry. This, I admit, is a challenge. Poetry is difficult to define and defend—and past the age of 8, is difficult to learn to appreciate.
To read poetry, we need to cultivate a mode of reading that is less frantic than the hunt-and-gather method instilled in us by content-driven disciplines (not to mention daily life), to discover how to be patient with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to give ourselves permission to read for the pure pleasure of it.
As W.H. Auden once observed, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” A poem exists for its own sake, and the experience of the poem—for both the writer and the reader—is its only reason for being. It won’t earn you a grade, it won’t get you a job, it won’t even buy you a latte.
“So what’s the point?” my busy, practical, and brutally-honest students often ask.
“Exactly,” I answer.
And so the courtship begins.
The first step towards falling in love, of course, is the cultivation of friendship. And so I have to convince my students that poetry—and the poets who write them—are friends worth getting to know. My strategy here is simple: I trot out the smartest, handsomest, wittiest, most engaging poems (and poets) I know, invite them into the room with us, and let them talk.
Who could resist Shakespeare whispering, “When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her though I know she lies.”
Who would ignore young John Keats as he ponders his own impending mortality (at age 23) when he confesses “Then I stand alone upon the shore and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”
Who doesn’t laugh, albeit ruefully, along with John Gay, when he inscribes upon his own tombstone, “Life is a jest, and all things show it. / I thought so, once. And now I know it.”
Who does not grieve, with Edna St. Vincent Millay, as she regrets her bygone youth and beauty, confessing, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why / I have forgotten.”
Who does not yearn, with W.B. Yeats, for a return to the paradise of childhood as he dreams aloud, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.”
Who does not comprehend, along with Elizabeth Bishop, the unassuageable agony of loss, even as she bravely claims, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
Who could resist Emily Dickinson’s injunction, “Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant,” Robert Browning’s invitation, “Grow old along with me. / The best is yet to be.”
We are charmed.
Not just by the words, but by the outrageous beauty of their arrangement. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once offered this homely definition of poetry as “the best words in their best order.” The poems we fall in love with contain words that are ordinary enough (love, life, lips, kiss, woods, sleep), but poetry makes them new by making them into music. Poetry is newspaper talk turned Jazz, corner-bar kvetch-and-gossip gone Bach, daily domestic dispute ascending into opera. Poetry sings—so much so that John Keats thought poetry a genre that occupied a space between music and visual art, partaking of both yet belonging to neither.
In my (hypothetical) classroom, after my students have delighted in the discovery of these poems—shouts of Where have you been all my life? all-but-audible in the room—our next step is to make them our home-boys and –girls. We need to be at ease with them, to lay claim to the poems, somehow—and what better way to do that than to memorize them—to eat their words, breathe them with our own breaths, speak them with our own tongues, mimic their rhythms with the beat of our own iambic hearts.
At this point, our relationship to the poems has become sensory, physical—one might say incarnational. (And the words were made flesh and dwelt within us.) We have entered into communion with them and they have become part of us through a strange, new kind of eucharist. Thus, we have arrived at the final stage of passionate friendship, intimacy.
My students (at least the game ones) have fallen in love with poetry. I know this because they no longer ask “What’s the point?”—and they no longer worry about what Poetry is. Instead, they’ve begun to recognize it when they hear it.
I’m reminded of Louis Armstrong’s quick and clean response to an interviewer who once posed the daunting question, “What is Jazz?”: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know!” Somehow, now, these students know.
I’ve confessed that I am a teacher of Poetry. I should also confess that I am a poet, for this condition allows me a second perspective from which to see poems—as writer and reader, as giver and receiver, both.
This means that several times a week I sit down with a blank piece of paper and play at making poems. I use the word play instead of work as it conveys the paradox of poetry as the exercise of freedom in the face of constraint.
Play suggests the challenge of discovering ways to subvert the rules of the game, even as we observe them—to figure out how to use limitations to our advantage.
Work, on the other hand, connotes duty, dullness, and drudgery—none of which has anything to do with poetry. (The final—fabulous—lines of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” describe and enact the dynamic of poetry-as-serious-play better than any I know. They also serve as his epitaph: “Time held me green and dying / though I sang in my chains like the sea.”)
Though I’m sure there are writers who make poems in solitude and silence, I don’t. In fact, I’m talking most of the time. I do this, partly, so I can hear what the poems are saying and whether or not they sing. I also do this to remind myself that when I write I am with someone.
W. H. Auden once said that poetry is a way of “breaking bread with the dead,” and he’s right. All of the poems I’ve ever fallen in love with—and all of the poets who wrote them, dead and alive—are in the room with me as I write. They are informing the language I choose to use, the music of my lines, and the timbre of my voice, even as they stretch the limits of my vision. They are the Company I keep, and in return for their long and good companionship, I offer them my own poems.
Finally, speaking, singing, and listening to my own poems serves to remind me of the constant, yet invisible, presence of The Reader, whoever he or she may be. Just as surely as there are readers who fall in love with poetry, there are poets writing poems with the specific purpose of wooing them. I know this because I am one of them.
Robert Frost once said of the process of writing poetry, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He might also have added, “No love in the writer, no love in the reader.” Within this dynamic, poetry becomes a gesture, a set of signs and symbols expressing the shared humanity of reader and writer—concepts expressed through the material substances of book and ink, paper and pen—and so aspires to the condition of sacrament.
Any effort to define Poetry (with a capital “P”) in an exhaustive way is doomed to fall short, and this brief essay is no exception to that mighty rule. One reason for this inevitable incompleteness is that Poetry (like Love) is an abstraction, whereas true poetry (like true love) is found in the flesh-and-breath experience of it. Given this, it somehow seems fitting that I must finally resort to poetry to elucidate Poetry, and close this meditation with a poem I wrote some years ago when asked to define what Poetry meant to me.
“I feel that the Godhead is broken up like bread at the supper,
and we are the pieces.” –Melville, Letter to Hawthorne, Nov 17, 1851
I’m a Sicilan woman
and my poems say mangia!
I want to feed you
bread and wine, fruit and feast,
blessed and broken words
to chew, chew, chew.
I want you to eat them
purely for pleasure,
to put your lips around p,
crack k’s with your crowns,
roll l’ s across your taste-budded tongue,
to swallow sweet & easy
the meal of your life.
For it is what your body craves,
your heart sorely wants,
what your gut loves.
It is lies & truth, death & life,
what you have always
and have never known.
It is itself and you besides,
every thing & no thing at all.
It stuffs you full and leaves you
heavy, hungry, starved for more.
It makes you glad.
It troubles your sleep.
It is my body & my blood.
Here. Take. Eat.
Poem from Saint Sinatra & Other Poems.
This essay was first published at TWEETSPEAK POETRY (http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2011/09/12/what-is-poetry-falling-in-love-1/ and http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2011/09/21/what-is-poetry-falling-in-love-2/)