Christmas day I spent with friends. We ate, all day, played Scrabble, read poems (not necessarily Christmasy), shared gifts and talked. Typical and lovely way to spend a holiday. My gift from that event was a book by Robert McDowell, Poetry As Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions (Free Press, 2008). Lovely, appropriate, and challenging, because I don't restrict poetry to the realms of devotion. But I like the opening gambit, a discussion of the queasy feeling many of us have over the uses of poetry, our reluctance to announce our liking for it in the open space of public discourse: "We fear it is not practical, that it will somehow turn others against us, that it will impede our day-to-day progress." Yes! Exactly. Poetry has impeded my progress, or not impeded, but changed my direction, reset my goals, rearranged my mind. Knowing this about myself, I took up my pen and in this morning's journal entry, attempted one of McDowell's initial exercises, making a list of my definitions of poetry. Note the plural.
Here's what I think. I disagree with WC Williams; a poem is not a machine made of words. A poem is more organic, less clock, more leaf and stem. Nor do I see a poem as an expression of emotion "recollected in tranquility" (Wordsworth). Maybe that's because I'm not tranquil when I create. I'm intense, taut, waiting to see what finally appears on the page, and what comes is rarely what I expected. I do think poetry might be any or all of the following: a sharing of experience and insight through words arranged in a concise, musical form; sensory information captured in lines of coherent syntax, often arranged in lines that break purposefully, rather than hitting the margin and bending automatically; an expression of human experience combining images and metaphoric language in a new way. Do you see those two words in italics? I look for those qualities in my own work and find it in work that I admire.
Finally, I like the quote McDowell uses from Tom Lux: "We have to stop writing poems that make people feel stupid" (19). Right! Poems make us feel stupid when their language is too elevated, esoteric, or fractured to give us the information we might get from a more conversational diction, sane syntax, and a reasonably common vocabulary. Poems make us feel stupid when we look and listen for something new and can't find it; did we miss it, are we too insensitive to catch it, or did the poet neglect to tell us that she/he doesn't feel the need to include us in the discovery?