What Makes Poetry, Poetry?

It is Valentine’s Day 2016, and I have been spending the morning with poetry. So when I came across Peter Anderson’s Line and Stanza Breaks in Free Verse Poetry – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 5 pt. 1, I was suitably primed to do something I believe I have failed to do here on my blog—write about teaching poetry as a poet.

A couple years before I would discover that I am a teacher (the fall of my junior year of college), I was sitting in my first-year dorm room in the spring when I wrote my first real poem, and thus, had that quasi-religious experience of becoming a poet.

Being a poet is not something I chose to do, not something I can control. There are weeks, maybe months, when no poems come, and then there are manic days and days and days when they come like tidal waves, avalanches—unbidden but gathered frantically out of the writer’s fear that at any moment this may end, abrupt as a fatal aneurism.

Now comes the really embarrassing part, where poet/writer intersects with teacher.

The first moment my foot touched the floor of my classroom, I envisioned myself as a teacher of writing, but also a teacher who would instill in my students my love for reading (devouring) literature, especially poetry.

I worked hard, intensely—as I am prone to do—to teach my students to write, willing all the while the love of literature and poetry into their adolescent hearts and minds.

Yet—this is embarrassing—I was casually murdering everything I loved, and scrubbing the life and blood from my students’ possibilities as writers, poets, and the sorts of joyous readers I had envisioned.

My godawful teaching of poetry and efforts at having my students write poetry—despite my precious poetry unit built around the music of R.E.M.—were all mind and no heart.

The most important aspect of ending these horrible practices as a teacher who had divorced himself uncritically from his Poet Self was dropping my transactional methods (opening the poetry unit by giving students “the four characteristics of poetry” [all nonsense, by the way] and then asking them to apply those to their analysis of a poem they chose [I thought the choice part was awesome]) and embracing an overarching discovery approach driven by a broad essential question: What makes poetry, poetry?

Early and often as we meandered through dozens of poems and R.E.M. lyrics, my students and I kept returning to a Thoreau moment: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

No matter how hard we tried, we could discover nothing a poet did that writers of other types of writing didn’t also do—except for the purposeful formation of lines and stanzas (including that prose poets create poetry by the negative of avoiding the conventions of lines and stanzas in poetry).

Prose, we recognized, is driven by the formation of sentences and paragraphs, as a contrast, but poetry is almost exclusively as well composed of complete sentences (despite the argument by most students that poetry is a bunch of “fragments,” leading to examinations of enjambment).

Reading and writing poetry became investigations, opportunities to play with words and witness the joy they can bring.

All writing, including the work of the poet, including the work of any artist, is a creative act endured in the context of some structures that the writer/artist either embraces or actively reaches beyond.

What makes poetry, poetry? The purposeful construction of words into lines and stanzas.

“A poem should not mean/But be,” poses Archibald MacLeish. But as a young teacher, I sullied that simple dictum.

Instead, I committed the act of teaching, about which Marianne Moore declares: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond/all this fiddle.”

School and teaching can and often are the death of poetry, of writing, of the magnificent joy of human expression.

As poet/writer and teacher, mine is to resist “all this fiddle,” and to allow for students the moment when poetry comes, unexpectedly while your dog sleeps on your feet.

2 comments

  1. Poetic Justice

    As the great Poet Laureate from CT, Leo Connellan, explained, “if it makes an image, it’s poetry.” Write on poets …. write on even in this time of massacring our muse and our students’ muses.

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