Poet Laureate's blog: May 2018

What the Heck is Poetry Anyway?
Let’s face it: poetry is weird. Novels and short stories have the decency to proceed in an orderly fashion from beginning to end in structured sentences and paragraphs, filling one page before starting another. Poetry wanders around, paying little attention to any rules but its own. 
 
Some poems rhyme, but others don’t. Some have a prescribed number of words, syllables or lines, while others jump all over the place. Poems take liberties with grammar, spelling, punctuation‒marching to the beat of their own drums. Some poems don’t even have the decency to stay in books where we expect to find them. They’re happy to have snippets of themselves displayed on greeting cards and posters and are even so bold as to expose themselves in public places like parks and the sides of buildings. Just who do these poems think they are?
 
Unruly as they may be, let’s see if we can come up with a definition: poetry is a form of writing that uses a distinctive style and rhythm to express feelings and ideas.  A lot of the communication we’re used to‒written and spoken‒is to convey information (textbooks, instructions, articles in newspaper and on-line) or to persuade us in some way (ads and commercials, paid political announcements, opinion pieces). Poems on the other hand capture in a concentrated form some imaginative awareness of the poet’s experience by language chosen and arranged to evoke a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm. If non-fiction engages our thinking and novels and stories our imagination, poetry that works goes right to our core. 
 
One of the most noticeable characteristics of poetry is economy of language. Poets are stingy about the way they dole out words. They carefully select language not just for conciseness and clarity but also taking into consideration how a word makes us feel, its musicality, its spacing, even its spatial relationship to the page. Like all artists, poets create something out of thin air. A poem can be described as a painting by an artist who uses words instead of paint, and the canvas is you.
 
The poet hopes that when you experience the poem‒whether reading it or hearing it‒you will feel intense emotion. It might be joy, sorrow, anger, release, love, even surprise‒one of those aha! moments when something snaps into focus and you see yourself, another person or the world differently.
 
Poems have a big job to do, and there are so many ways and forms they can take that it’s no wonder that they’re the free spirits of the literary scene. Once you get to know them, you’ll discover that poems these days are playing hooky from school, escaping from libraries and climbing down from bookshelves everywhere to make their way out into the world in their own unique way. You’ll be meeting a lot of poems on this site but keep your eyes open and you’ll  discover poems cropping up in all sorts of unexpected places throughout our community. They will welcome your attention; just don’t try to define them too tightly. Keep in mind the words of contemporary literature expert Mark Flanagan, “Perhaps the characteristic most central to the definition of poetry is its unwillingness to be defined, labeled or nailed down.” As I said, weird‒ and wonderful.
 
Here’s a poem I wrote about the process of writing poetry. I’d love to hear your reaction.
Sugaring Off IV
 
Summer is the time for blooming, 
spreading your arms wide as you lift your face to the sun.
Winter is for hunkering down, 
drawing close to the warm fire and dreaming of the past.
But in the spring and fall of your life,
you may become aware of the shifting light 
as the days stretch or shrink 
in accordance with
the dance of the sun 
and the whirl of the seasons.
 
If you notice, you may respond by reaching down 
deep into the earth to discover an aquifer of words 
waiting to be drawn up through your peculiar roots.
You have the power to transform 
the water you find buried beneath your life  
into barely sweet sap. 
 
Do not stop there.
Tap that sweetness, gather it up.
Boil buckets of words down,
luscious, golden, thick.
 
Keep going, 
until all that remains is 
a lump of intense sweetness.
 
You are the author of nature’s alchemy:
water to sap, sap to syrup, syrup to sugar
 
poem.
-Day Merrill