WHAT IS POETRY?
by David B. Axelrod
Years ago, when my daughter was only three, we lived atop a high bluff overlooking Long Island Sound. Summers were spent climbing down a six-flight steel staircase to a beachfront where we could sit or swim for hours.
On a particularly hot July day, my daughter and I set out for a cooling swim with our towels and beach toys, and I, with my poetry notebook. When we got down to the scorching sand, my daughter, smart little kid, immediately wanted to swim, but I, the family poet, insisted that I capture the moment in my notebook first.
I opened to a blank page and contemplated. She waited. I contemplated some more and she continued to wait. After a while, she tugged at my arm and, pointing toward a remarkably blue sky she asked, “Daddy, what is the blue sky made of?”
I reviewed a few facts of science and looked for words a three-year-old could understand but she didn’t wait for my answer. Instead, pointing to one particularly puffy white cloud, she asked, “Daddy, what is the white sky made of?” And then, without hesitating, she said, “Look, the sky is blooming!”
Startled, I watched the white cloud expanding upward into that gorgeous blue sky just like a perfect magnolia opening to full flower. I closed my notebook, sure I couldn’t match the brilliance of her observation and we took the long-awaited swim.
My three-year-old daughter, without having taken a single course in literature, without having studied poetry or even knowing the word “metaphor, ” had written a wonderful poem:
What is the blue sky made of?
What is the white sky made of?
Look, the sky is blooming.
For me, and much of modern American poetry, that is all it takes. A good poem has the capacity to observe something–often a perfectly ordinary thing–in a way that makes it remarkable, makes it new.
The American tradition is often first person, experiential, imagistic. If it doesn’t tell a story, it has the quality of careful observation. If it doesn’t have a touch of dialog in it, it is nonetheless “conversational.” Whatever defines American poetry in our time, what makes a poem a poem is that transformation that makes the subject seem “true” for the reader.
Poetry comes from a variety of traditions, so that it is not clearly any one way of writing or another. Early poetry was as likely an oral history which used rhyme as an aid for the teller’s memory. Or, it was a song done, as likely with a dance, so that the music–sonics, metrics–were as critical as the words themselves. Poems could be prayers intoned by priests or the babbling of fools.
The beauty and, indeed, the challenge of poetry is that even the most formal poem can take some license–poetic license–with the rules.
There is, therefore, no rule for how long a poem should be. One of the shortest published poems of record is by Archibald MacLeish:
Clearly, it can be spoken with a great variety of inflections, from a howl to a moan, implying as great a variety of interpretations. Try this to test the cleverness of it: close your eyes after looking at the poem and picture the moon.
Time and time again, students asked to picture the moon after looking at the poem, in the vast majority, picture a full moon. Hence the poet has not only played with sound, as poets often do, but controlled our eye as well!
It should be reassuring to know there is no rule for what a poem must be. Rather, it is a pass-time or a profession that allows the practitioner to observe well. The only challenge is to do it with a slight of hand akin to the stage magician who can, after all, take a simple coin and make it appear and disappear in the most fascinating ways!
Poetry can be the faithful companion of the solitary soul, and as often prove therapeutic for those who need to give voice to their trauma or pain. It can be the word-game of the witty, the slight of hand for the clever, offering a neat verse for any occasion or a literary puzzle for those who just love to parry words.
The best of poetry continues to renew the language, using words in new ways, inventing syntax that others haven’t tried, observing the ordinary in the most extraordinary ways.
David B. Axelrod, Daytona Beach (my new home), Florida