Why Poetry?

  • Poems on Poetry

    One of William Stafford's definitions, from his essay "Making a Poem/Starting a Car on Ice," where he says that "A poem is anything said in such a way or put on the page in such a way as to invite from the hearer or reader a certain kind of attention." That seems to locate at least part of the the poem-ness where it belongs - in the mind of the person doing the perceiving. How else to explain why some are able to find poetry where others do not? I like the implication that there is a latency in poetry which only manifests itself when "a certain kind of attention" is turned upon it.

    But if you don't like Stafford's definition, here are some others to add fuel to the fire.

    I would define poetry as the rhythmical creation of beauty.

    - Edgar Allen Poe

    Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best
    - S. T. Coleridge

    ... the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an
    illusion of the imagaination...
    - Macaulay

    ...the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and
    happiest minds...

    - Shelley

    ...speech framed...to be heard for its own sake and interest even over
    and above its interest of meaning...
    - Gerard Manley Hopkins

    ...the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from and overclothed
    blindness to a naked vi- sion...
    - Dylan Thomas

    ...language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction,
    something that can not be said...
    - E. A. Robinson

    ...the art of saying everything and reducing it to nothing...

    - Barbara Hyett

    POEM: a composition designed to convey a vivid and imaginative sense
    of experience, charac- terized by the use of condensed language chosen
    for its sound and suggestive power as well as its meaning, and by the
    use of such literary techniques as structured meter, natural cadenc- es,
    rhyme, or metaphor.

    - American Heritage Dictionary

    A poem is "a sonorous molded shape of form".

    - Osip Mandelstam

    ... a verbal artifact which must be as skillfully and solidly constructed
    as a table or a motorcyle...
    - W. H. Auden

    Poetry amounts to arranging words with the greatest specific gravity in the
    most effective and externally inevitable sequence.

    - Joseph Brodsky

    A poem is an instant of lucidity in which the entire organism participates.

    - Charles Simic

    A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it...by way of the
    poem itself, all the way over to the reader.

    - Charles Olson

    I sometimes begin a poetry unit by asking the students, since everyone
    knows what poetry is, how they would define it. Then we compare our results
    with some of the above definitions, noting, of course, that some are
    themselves more "poetic" than others. Whatever that means.

    I love the book and the look of words the weight of ideas that popped into my mind I love the tracks of new thinking in my mind. -Maya Angelou

    If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm
    me, I know that it is poetry. -Emily Dickinson

    Be yourself. Don't imitate other poets. You are as important as they
    are. -Gwendolyn Brooks

    Don't worry about not measuring up to other writers. No one has the same
    genetic makeup, the same life experiences as you. No one else sees the
    world quite the way you do, or can express it quite the same way. You're
    already the worlds foremost expert on you. -Charles Webb

    If you want to write poetry, you must have poems that deeply move you.
    Poems you can't live without. I think of a poem as the blood in a blood
    transfusion, given from the heart of the poet to the heart of the reader.
    Seek after poems that live inside you, poems that move through your veins.
    -Ralph Fletcher

    One good way to start writing poetry is to read all kinds of poetry: not
    just in order to imitate but to fill up your head with it, to absorb it,
    to make poetry an essential part of how you view the world. -Valerie

    Writing poems can be a way of pinning down a dream (almost); capturing a
    moment, a memory, a happening; and, at the same time, it's a way of
    sorting out your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the words tell you what
    you didn't know you knew. -Lillian Morrison

    To me, poetry is a marriage of craft and imagination. The making of a
    poem requires attention to form, sound, revision, and precision. But
    imagination lifts you from a lawn chair to the clouds. And this is the
    mystery of poetry. -Christine E. Hemp

    A lot of people think they can write poetry, and many do, because they can
    figure out how to line up the words or make certain sounds rhyme or just
    imitate the other poets they've read. But this boy, he's the real poet,
    because when he tries to put on paper what he's seen with his heart, he
    will believe deep down that there are no good words for it, no words can
    do it, and at that moment he will have begun to write poetry. -Cynthia Rylant

    I write first drafts with only the good angel on my shoulder, the voice
    that approves of everything I write. This voice does'nt ask ques- tions
    like, Is this good? Is this a poem? Are you a poet? I keep this voice
    at a distance, letting only the good angel whisper to me: Trust yourself.
    You can't worry a poem into existence. -Georgia Heard

    Valentine for Ernest Mann
    You can't order a poem like you order a taco.
    Walk up to the counter, say, I'll take two
    and expect it to be handed back to you
    on a shiny plate.

    Still, I like your spirit.
    Anyone who says, Here's my address,
    write me a poem, deserves something in reply.
    So I'll tell you a secret instead:
    poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
    they are sleeping. They are shad- ows
    drifting across our ceilings the moment
    before we wake up. What we have to do
    is live in a way that lets us find them.

    Once I knew a man who gave his wife
    two skunks for a valentine.
    He could'nt understand why she was crying.
    I thought they had such beautiful eyes.
    And he was serious. He was a serious man
    who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
    just because the world said so. He really
    liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
    as valentines and they became beautiful.
    At least, to him. And the poems that had been
    in the eyes of skunks for centuries
    crawled out and curled up at his feet.

    Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us,
    we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
    in your drawer, the person you almost like, but
    not quite.

    And let me know.
    -Naomi Shihab Nye

    Went to the corner
    Walked in the store
    Bought me some candy
    Ain't got it no more
    Ain't got it no more

    Went to the beach
    Played on the shore
    Built me a sandhouse
    Ain't got it no more
    Ain't got it no more

    Went to the kitchen
    Lay down on the floor
    Made me a poem
    Still got it
    Still got it
    -Eloise Greenfield

    After English Class
    I used to like Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
    I liked the coming darkness,
    The jingle of harness bells, breaking--and adding to
    --the stillness,
    The gentle drift of snow. . . .

    But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
    The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep--
    They all have hidden meanings.

    It's grown so complicated now that,
    Next time I drive by,
    I don't think I'll bother to stop.
    -Jean Little's _Hey World, Here I am_

    Keep me from going to sleep too soon
    Or if I go to sleep too soon
    Come wake me up. Come any hour
    of night. Come whistling up the road
    Stomp on the porch. Bang in the door
    Make me get out of bed and come
    And let you in and light a light.
    Tell me the northern lights are on
    And make me look. Or tell me clouds
    Are doing something to the moon.
    See that I see. Talk to me
    'Till I'm half as wide awake
    As you are. -Robert Francis

    What's in My Journal
    Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
    things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
    But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
    Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
    discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
    Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
    Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
    anyway. Deliberate obfusca- tion, the kind
    that takes genius. Chasms in character.
    Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
    a new grave. Pages you know exist
    but you cant find them. Someones terri- bly
    inevitable life story, maybe mind. -William Stafford