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What Is Poetry?

A student once asked if I would read some of his writings and tell him if I thought he was a poet. My response follows:

To be a poet you must write poetry ... so your first question should be, "what is poetry?" The writing of poetry has little to do with form or the proper alignment of words or evenly distributed stanzas that appear uniform to the page and quite well behaved. It has even less to do with if or where a piece of writing would fit into any of a great number of categorical boxes of silly titles given by ...… men

In my estimation poetry is either to be gotten along with or not. Like a neighbor who comes around on some days to converse in congenial manner and on others is as Ill-tempered as a displaced hornet. No one man, or any group of the species of man should be allowed to deliver commentary, any measure of worthiness or weight of value to any words of poetry not written by themselves. The value of a poem is incalculable and immeasurable … to some it may be worth more than a cavern filled with treasures of gold … to others no more than a copper penny … but no man possesses such authority or wisdom to assign to poetry a mark of worth.

Poetry is passion in written form … it is emotion represented by markings on paper … it is pseudo-physical psycho-dynamic lettings of the heart … it is the rendering of meadows, mountains, streams, forests and oceans. It is the calm and the stillness and the silence, just before dawn, that seem to tell us that God is pleased. … it is also rains and storms, anger, outrage, apathy, helplessness, hopelessness and despair that seem to tell us that God is not happy ... and, of course, poetry is love at its purest … it is all of these things and their intertwined relationships expressed by not the brush of paint but by the fantastic flavors, notes and colors of words.

Poetry, at best, is healing and cathartic of mind. Often, though, it is the unadulterated truth … possibly on a deeper level than we are able to comprehend … it is what is not owed to us … it is the truth explained.

Poetry is the naming and Illuminating of evil. It is the essence of life … our spiritual birth. It is from where we come.

Poetry is a sun-burdened gravel road that winds its way through and past the lives of the downtrodden. It comes from within and often it comes by the force of great emotional conflict.

Poetry is as unpredictable as it is indescribable. It can come to us as a warm and soft breath exhaled as a whisper that, in an instant, leaves us disheveled and concussed to the degree that we are left without words to speak.

Poetry can be found universally .. not only upon the stars but between them as well. It might be found in the hearts of the kind and caring or in the eyes of the disillusioned ... it could be observed in the dust particles that float in directionless slow motion in the air of a room lit only by slatted sun streaks let in by the blinds of a window.

Poetry might be heard in the hearty laughter of old black men as they sit and tell tales on a dilapidated porch of an old shot gun house in the Mississippi Delta summer. It is the scent of sawdust after a rain or of pine that is brought to us by an infrequent but welcomed New Augusta breeze.

Poetry may give as much courtesy to the mystery of God as it might to the removal of a scab or it might elevate the scab to be above religious fare and not give a thought to any possible consequence.

Poetry is not to be owned or governed by men whom in the dusk of their lives claim to have studied all of the relevant poets from the beginning of time and sit upon a lofty perch espousing style, meter, pentameter, form, right, wrong, good and bad … at universities where God may visit ... but cannot stay.

Poetry and access to it is not to be escorted, guided, advised, corrected, lectured or disciplined. Poetry is all things represented by all words … it is all emotions known to man … it cannot be deceived.

Poetry is our best attempt at recording the lives of mankind … … and although we perpetually fail at doing so … we are much better for it.

So, I say to you, young son, do not seek glory and good name through poetry … seek your own way, by your own path and find your own peace ... but if by some sudden epiphany of language you find your words, or the words of others to be good and comforting or as a vessel of clarity, then hold them up as poetry ... and then yes, you are indeed a poet ... and so every man, woman and child can be poets as well.

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