My engineering students used to say things lie, “I’m just not that kind of person.” The truth is that we are all ”that kind” of person. Psychologists tell us that we have an emotional, intuitive side to our brains and an analytical side. Now it may well be that we use one side more than the other and probably we like using one side more, but people are not 100% one type or the other.
One of the reasons that people are uncomfortable with poetry is that we are not used to it. How much of our daily living is poetry? Prose (non-poetry) is more than 99% of our daily usage.
In first semester in grad school at Iowa, perhaps rashly, I enrolled in the graduate literary criticism seminar. The working subject for the semester was to the American poet, Hart Crane. I told my professor the truth, that I knew very little about the craft of poetry: rhyme and rhythm and so forth as I had only studied literature seriously for one year as an undergrad. He smiled and said that those were not the most important things. If I could read, I would be all right. This is the same advice I gave to forty years’ worth of students.
What then is the most important thing? What distinguishes poetry from prose is the desire of the poet to present the words as poetry. Poetry is how the words are laid out on the page. Poetry is language that calls attention to itself and says” Wait a minute. This is not the usual use of words. Pay attention to what I do.”
This is very daunting to some people. The first question that students often have is “What does the poem mean?” In other words, we seem to have a natural tendency to want to turn poetry into prose. We want to turn poetry into information because we are really good at processing information.
One of the things that I found myself telling students was that they were not to be afraid. They often looked at me the way non-swimmers would look at someone who was about to throw them into the deep end of the pool. I gave them definitions that I believe are perfectly correct and as my professor said, if they could read, they would be just fine.
Here are some of the definitions that my students found useful.
Poetry is chemistry with words. A poet uses a dictionary in the same way that a chemist uses the elements in the periodic table. There are an infinite number of possible combinations.
Poetry is architecture with words. Words are structural members. Civil, architecture and construction students liked this definition.
A poem is a machine made out of words. This is not only the absolute truth it is also immensely appealing to mechanical, electrical and computer students.
I always dropped in that some poems are meant to be spoken, not just read. After all this how the whole thing began: people sitting around fires using word in ways that the hoped their listeners would find interesting or compelling.
The last of my working definitions was that poetry was a “seeing-saying-doing-making-telling.” (The hyphen is a wonderful thing that allows you to make any compound word that you want.) As one of my kindly Jesuit professors observed a poem is each one of these things and several or all of these things and all at the same time.
Mix these definitions with some examples from the works of Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams and you have yourself a good short course.