For Jesse, whose words still sing.
The rendering of a moment as it unfolds in time; the essence of an object or experience in concrete language that makes the familiar and mundane once again new; inhabiting the senses through verse; a literary utterance on the spirit of our time; the pleasure of linguistic and imagistic patterns in rhythmic lines; the quintessential music of syntactical and semantic spheres; the hum and resonance of all that has come before and all that will continue to be: all these and more, are poetry.
There is, of course, no way to impart all of this to students in a short, five-week, one-credit Understanding Poetry seminar, even when we host guest readers/lecturers to embody such elevated abstractions or mysteries. We spend the first class discussing our preconceived notions of the genre, and consider the ways we might define it, asking which of its characteristics distinguish it from prose? For guidance, we look to the great poets’ definitions, noting that even these experts cannot agree though their words offer us some parameters. Ultimately, if the students can come to their own evolving definition of poetry, if they are willing to give poetry the time of day, to turn to it in the darkness, to listen to its buzz and beat, then that is success. If they keep it in mind, confess to it, pray with it, then we might be alright.
All this is too lofty, though, isn’t it? It lays an untenable burden onto poetry’s slight shoulders. How can we affirm this feared and misunderstood genre’s significance within but also beyond university (where even English professors have to defend it to colleagues)? In addition, what use do we have for poetry in a blue age of screens? (Yes, there are poetry apps, but they aren’t that great since the demand to improve upon them is likely low.) We think of poets and poetry readers as a wan bunch, antiquated with feather pens and flimsy livelihoods (see Mark van Doren’s essay about this; don’t take my word for it). Other poet stereotypes such as “a loony, a misfit, a dreamer” don’t entice suspicious readers among us, either (Zavatsky 1-2).
Luckily, I did not know much about it when I came to poetry. Like most children, I had what my mother read to me, then what I read by nightlight after bedtime: nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss story-songs about green eggs and ham (with tightly knit metrics), Disney books, and the relentless repetition of a children’s Bible. I loved singing along to records, so poetry’s bouncy sounds attracted me. Soon enough, I was reading and reciting poems for a school contest in the third grade; I won a second-place trophy that is now long gone, but one of the poems, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I still know. A poem that speaks to, or for you will often stick to you. Later, I was reading Dickinson, Hardy, Bogan, cummings, Bukowski, Harjo, Espada, et al. I was writing poetry, and joined a group that would read at coffeehouses and bars. I was in a poetry club my first year of college. Then, I met professors like Mindy Ross, Jan Schmidt, and Pauline Uchmanowicz who encouraged my curiosity in artful, polysemic lines. Their classes reminded me of what Anne Sexton, one of my favorite poets, imparted to her students: that poetry is largely shaped by developing selective imagery and telling, imagistic details by intuiting “what to leave out” (Sexton & Ames 335). What’s unsaid, the space on the page, the silence suspends us. There we might reflect and fully feel the currents in stillness.
What is more concrete than a poem, more measured? William Carlos Williams reminds us that there are “No ideas but in things,” (“About William Carlos Williams” ) and Ezra Pound before him warns us to “Go in fear of abstractions” (“A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’t’s”). Pound submits to his own dictum in the 33-line-turned-3-line poem “In a Station of the Metro,” where the blurry commotion of transitory, ephemeral faces in a subway station transform into pale petals stuck to a wet tree branch; this imagist moment of indistinct features, stark contrasts of light against dark, and the juxtaposition of the industrial with the natural creates a striking snapshot. My poem “First Snow” attempts imagistic compactness in short lines: “Storm silence slows/ Slim veins of water, stills/ branch sway, weekend rush. / Banks rise: bodies breathing” (3-6). Archibald MacLeish provides complementary instruction in “Ars Poetica” that “a poem should not mean, / but be” (lines 23-24), placing emphasis on inhabiting description as opposed to offering exposition on the subject. Poetry’s condensed language in compressed space demands that every word works. Samuel Taylor Coleridge asserts that prose is “words in their best order,” while poetry is “the best words in their best order” (Mills). The arrangement and unfolding, the multiple layers of meaning and word play, the furthering of poetic argument through the symbiosis of content and form—all this requires indefatigable revision. Poetry is all in the details and the timing.
What about the visceral, physiological response that poetry has on us? As Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry” (Spengemann & Roberts). There is some suspense as a poem unfolds, and as we love a twist (with the hope of potential resolution), we expect something wild or unexpected to occur. This often brings horripilation, a term one of our distinguished professors, Dr. Robert Waugh, taught me when he lectured on horrific poems for Understanding Poetry. Current research published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by Eugen Wassiliwizky confirms the chilling effect that poetry has on readers or listening audiences, even when it is not macabre; essentially all the study participants experienced internal chills, while forty percent had visible goosebumps (Delistraty). Yet what is more striking than this physiological phenomenon remains that poetry induces a specific neurological reaction—engaging particular parts of the brain not prompted by other mediums such as film or song. Musicality is clearly essential to poetic language, but songs and poems are distinct, even in our expectations of them.
While Wassiliwizky concludes that the “poetic lines that most emotionally stirred people were the most memorable for them later,” poetry “transcends this type of methodical scrutiny” (Delistraty). The very reasons people detest poetry might be traced not to alphabet songs or nursery rhymes of childhood, but to the earliest academic floggings of poems in classrooms. As Bill Zavatsky notes in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Poetry,” the “Hunt for the Symbol means the death of poetry. Would you discuss the movements of a ballerina by taking your students to an anatomy class and have them watch leg muscles being dissected? […] but dead parts don’t get up and dance. Neither does the poem after autopsy” (1). In light of this, my Understanding Poetry class begins with Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry”: the speaker comments on the antagonistic rigor with which we approach the genre, the way we train students to attack the text like a hostage, or “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. […] to find out what it really means” (lines 13-16). The compulsion to make meaning is common among us. For academics, it is perhaps especially difficult to sit in unknowing, or to admit to those we are supposed to provide answers for that perhaps there are none, or at least there is not a single one—all we can do is imaginatively inhabit the stories/experiences of others and cultivate compassion.
Well-crafted poetry requires us to notice, to listen. A poem unfolding, line by line, is a discovery. Unlike utilitarian writing, poetry creates that indescribable anticipation mentioned in Wassiliwizky’s study: [Poetry] valorizes the unconscious, opening us up to new perspectives. […] When every aspect of a poem comes together—form, cadence, emotional appeal—it doesn’t just provide the literal chills that Wassiliwizky examined. […] it instills a feeling of a great unknown” (Delistraty). It unsettles us, wakes us from our daily tedium. Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” suggests the significance of a single tool for the sustenance of family, a farm, and beyond; it meditates on an object in slender, specific, ordinary language. The poem annoys many who feel there is no artistry without linguistic or symbolic obfuscation; others distrust its deceptive simplicity. It must mean more, this quick glimpse about a common thing that we would otherwise ignore. Poems make big things small and microcosms immense.
Jorge Luis Borges observes, “Verse should have two obligations: to communicate a precise instance and to touch us physically, as the presences of the sea does” (Ormsby). There is nothing more unknown or vast than the sea, except the cosmos, but that feels farther from us. We don’t feel or fear its weight as with a wave’s undertow, a tsunami, the feel of sand being sucked out from under our feet. Nature attests to how small we are, how little we know, how much we cannot control. Even tidal flow becomes a metronome, an interior reverberation of heartbeat and blood pump. In a few lines, a poem can soothe us with its rhythm, overwhelm us with existential dread, contest political dogmas, or stir in us awe or the excitement of new love. Once students see that poetry functions for more than dissection in papers for a deadline (or grade so seemingly tied to their self and capital worth), they become more amenable to it. Of course, lyrical language resists ease and seems serpentine. Poetry uncovers and discovers us with its alchemy; it’s no wonder so many don’t like it.
As one of my former students writes, “The world will never be perfect nor will it be just, but it is a beautiful and amazing place. Poetry is one of the mediums that can remind us of this fact when the sadness becomes too much […]. Poetry is a medium of social critique, mourning, and joy. […] [O]ur lives would be far less interesting without it; in addition, there would be no music to sing out with” (Keplinger). While poems are not quite songs, Dr. H.R. Stoneback reminds us of the intersection of “Poems, Songs, and Ballads” in his annual lecture for the Understanding Poetry course that he created over thirty years ago. From the perspective of singer, poet, and scholar, he reminds us of the innate joy of nonsense words and sounds (that some over-reaching critics have analyzed as evidence of post-war, nuclear anxiety). Stoneback argues that much our wonder and playfulness is lost in such grave misinterpretations. The people, their dialect, and their emotional and topographic geographies shape folksongs and poems in oral tradition. Such transmission colors the words that leave or call to us.
We come to the communal text of poetry innately tied to some preternatural understanding that, even when words are never exactly enough, they are almost all we have. Ultimately, poetry “is first and last the document of a human experience” (Zavatsky). As poet Ocean Vuong recently remarked during a reading on our campus, through poetry we can reclaim our stories, our histories; the “language leads back to a life.” Great works of art can inspire us to be ourselves; they will sit with us in sadness and joy, meditating on mortality and humanity. Regardless of milieu, poetry confirms we are not alone in the expansive dark.
Notes and Sources
 I often turn to the Defense of Poetry by Percy Shelley, who states, poetry “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar: it reproduces all that it represents…”
“About William Carlos Williams.” Poetry Archive.
Collins, Billy. “Introduction to Poetry.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.
Delistraty, Cody. “This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Read Poetry.” The Cut. 11 May 2017.
Keplinger, Jesse. “Poetry: Tears, Joy, and Song.” Understanding Poetry Essay, SUNY New Paltz, 2013 Oct. 18. New Paltz.
MacLeish, Archibald. “Ars Poetica.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.
Mills, Billy. “Finding the Right Words to Define Poetry.” The Guardian, 25 Jan. 2008.
Ormsby, Eric. “Jorge Luis Borges and the Plural I.” The Free Library. Foundation for Cultural Review, New Criterion Vol. 18, No. 3 1999.
Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’t’s.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.
—. “In A Station of the Metro.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,
Shelly, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.
Spengemann, William C. and Jessica F. Roberts, eds. Introduction. Nineteenth Century American Poetry. 1965. Penguin Classics, 1996.
Stoneback, H.R. “Poems, Songs, Ballads.” Understanding Poetry Lecture, SUNY New Paltz, 17 Oct. 2017. New Paltz
Vuong, Ocean. Poetry Reading, SUNY New Paltz, 9 Nov. 2017 New Paltz.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.
Zavatsky, Bill. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Poetry.” Academy of American Poets, Academy of American Poets.
Understanding Poetry In-class Writing Prompts
-What is poetry? What characteristics seem to distinguish it from prose? Consider the definitions that we’ve considered by canonical poets as you develop your own definition.
-What are some functions of poetry? Why do these matter, ultimately? How do these functions or its purpose anchor its place among other genres and art forms?
Understanding Poetry Final Essay Prompts
- Consider the function of poetry (choose one or two only) as an art, one of music, meditation, distillation of a moment or slowing time, storytelling, political or social critique, historical record, or as communal text. Why is this function significant to our larger need to connect, right injustices, and understand ourselves, one another, our world/the natural world /our space in the universe? Analyze examples from class.
- There is no one agreed-upon definition for what poetry is, yet, how do we define it, traditionally, in the academy? Is this definition fully accurate based on what we’ve explored and heard from our presenters? Offer a more complete vision about what constitutes this genre. Focus your claim by referring to one or two of the quotations by poets on what poetry is. Ultimately, what should ideal poetry be or do, according to your argument; where does your definition reside within this larger and ongoing conversation? Analyze examples from class.
- Consider the possibilities that poetry can explore, from the effect of both lyric and/or narrative poems, or the power of brief, epigrammatic forms (as with Uchmanowicz), object or thing poems, persona poems (as with Patricia Smith), nature and eco poems (as with Carr, Schmidt, and Waugh), explorations of family and self (as with Doherty), coming of age and identity (as with Ocean Vuong) the ballad tradition/songs (as with Stoneback). In relation to one of these categories, consider poetic architecture, traditional form poetry versus free verse.
How does structure enhance and further meaning; what might the form mean in relation to the emotion/tone/content of the poem?
- How do you respond to local poets’ poetry on the page versus hearing the poems aloud? What transforms in these various modes of delivery? Poetry is an auditory art that emphasizes musicality; discuss the power of performance, and the sounds of lines in the air all around…Consider the relationship between a physically present audience and the performer, and the ways poems transform from page to stage. Analyze examples from class or a local performance.
Creative Writing I Assignment
Write a 6-8 page memoir about a pinnacle moment or time. For your portfolio, translate your nonfiction/prose memoir into poetry. Distill the emotional center into a core image by writing your memoir as a Haiku or Haiku series.