I have been hanging out with poets and people who want you to believe that what they are writing is poetry, for many years.

Identifying that which deserved the tag of poetry back when studying language and literature was a requirement, in ones school years, was not so challenging.

I didn’t much care for what it entailed. I never liked learning all those lines by rote and then being asked to recite it in class. None of our teachers delved any deeper into the subject. Studying English was generally fun because textbooks came with stories, but poetry was like a bump in the road, something for which one did the bare minimum required in order to get by.

I am certain many of you would say that it wasn’t so in your schools and that your teachers made the study of poetry meaningful for you. That is entirely possible but it wasn’t the case for me.

We studied a lot of poetry in school. We were asked to read it, learn it by rote, recite it and perhaps answer a few questions about it on exams. Nothing more, no painstaking exploration of ideas. But despite its resemblance to an onerous chore, identifying what set poetry apart was never a problem.

One noted rhyme, rhythm, meter and an exploration of thoughts an ideas within those bounds, as though these explorations were endlessly possible, in infinite combinations within these bounds, as though these limits, these external constraints didn’t even exist or impede. In the final product one sensed that which differentiated prose from poetry.

Beyond those student years, life ensured a rigorous and methodical schooling for me in the prosaic and mundane non-arts. I fell headlong into soulless pursuits. Poetry was a distant memory. But it has managed to become a part of my history in recent times.

I came in close contact with writers, many of whom told me they couldn’t express themselves in prose and preferred poetry as a means of expression. Many of the folks I met were close in age, so they were probably schooled in the same manner, in the same era as me. So I marveled at their love for poetry and their distaste for prose.

I started reading what they were writing. Later on I graduated to asking them why they called what they were writing poetry, their works were nothing like the thing that neatly slid into the exalted slot reserved for poetry in my brain. These so called poems came without form, without structure, without a spine. They resembled words slithering around on a page or a screen in rather messy configurations where a few lines were longer than others, nothing rhymed and no ideas other than yearning, loneliness, lust and longing were ever explored. They appeared to be journal entries that were being aired out with line breaks and mushy language.

I wasn’t criticizing, I was just puzzled. Perhaps this indeed was poetry and ideas like consonance in recitation and adherence to meter belonged in the dark ages. Perhaps poems were supposed to be like yawns or tears or other impromptu ejaculations, delivered in the moment of their creation.

But with so much wondering and seeking going on I was bound to run into a poet who has kept up quiet but sustained efforts at telling the world that poetry wasn’t a yawn or a tear. Rather it almost always needed to be a wondrous alchemy of words, observation, metaphor and structure and that sacrificing linguistic excellence and elegance was never an option.

I now sought poetry where a larger thought, a larger idea could be explored even through the casual observation of the most mundane. Poetry could now be found in ink drying on paper, in waiting lines, in waiting rooms, in hospitals, in cafeterias, on buses, on ferries, in the spaces between things. I didn’t need to accept longing, yearning, loneliness or, at the other end of the spectrum, the verbatim description of recent events as poetry. It was liberating.

I tried writing some of my own poetry. The streets of New York City glitter at night, have you noticed? In the day time Lincoln stares up at us out of pennies embedded in the sidewalks, homeless people push their lives around in shopping carts, no one looks at anyone in an elevator, there’s a certain air of desperation in interviewees and an air of extreme discomfort in interviewers, there are people who draw smiley faces or baby’s feet on misted up bus windows when they are stuck inside a bus with steamed up windows on a wintry night, all these things make for poetry in the truest sense because there is that which the eyes see and that which can be attributed to what one sees.

The key to poetry lies in this attribution, this is the realm where the concrete and the sublime come together seamlessly.

There are those who write about world events and natural disasters. They want to tell us about the people who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy and they reproduce news reports in rhyme. This is not poetry. You cannot describe an earthquake and the resultant loss of life, limb and home and call it poetry. In these instances the poetry lives in the aftermath, in between that instant when one was whole and contemplating one’s things to do list for the next day and the instant when one’s home was reduced to rubble, rendering all such lists extinct.

And when poetry is all of these things, when it explores all that’s interstitial, that’s when it becomes irresistible food for ones soul.

1 Comment

  1. That is precisely why i have always been uncomfortable about my words being called poetry….and felt a fraud when called a poet!

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