What the Hell is Poetry?

A missive from Santa Fe’s new Poet Laureate

Every poem addresses a pair of implicit questions.

The first is “What is poetry?” Is it sound? Is it sense? Is it nonsense?

After you’ve spent awhile reflecting on this, the next question is “Poetry? What is its purpose?”

It can be easier to define a poet than it is to describe or define a poem. A poet is usually someone who has spent a lot of time pondering both questions and come to definitive answers—or someone who never stops asking both questions, never stops revisiting them, never stops finding answers. I think of myself as being the type of poet who relishes a mystery.

I am also, by hook or crook (or dumb luck), Santa Fe’s 2021-2023 Poet Laureate, and I’ve begun the position when national frustration is at a fever-pitch, and truly a time of absurdity. National leaders could have controlled the coronavirus through commonsense measures, for instance, except for the irony that so many people refuse to get vaccinated. So the ongoing crisis is both pathetic and slightly absurd. It’s a time when the escalating toll of the virus lends an edge to any questions of sickness, death and art. How helpful or relevant—in a time of both absurd and tragic crisis—is versifying? And so, my pointed title asks, what the hell is poetry? Or its purpose?

Scholars and poets have addressed these questions for centuries. Congratulations if you have already cultivated an interest that’s led to a firm commitment to a definition of poetry I’m about to list. You’ll find that definition alongside my uncertainties:

Poetry is song—but speech is also poetry.

Poetry is the ancestral spirit of praise—but I like lots of poems that damn.

Poetry upholds nature—but some good poetry is completely solipsistic.

Poetry is a language construct—but hey, every poem I like somehow moves me emotionally.

Poetry is oral onstage, or literary on the page—but aren’t many poems both?

Poetry as truth-telling, though? I am unconvinced. I call my own poetry anti-racist, anti-colonialist and so forth. Alas, if anti-racism were an intrinsic value, why are there thousands of racist poems that necessitate my stance? Poetry usually has something to do with language. There is, however, sound poetry and asemic writing that doesn’t use coherent words at all.

Call me skeptical of every approach, but I also say I’m impressed by them all—by the intensity or beauty in a particular poem. If I’m listening to a powerful spoken word manifesto and feeling carried away in the rhythms, I believe for a second that “This is real poetry!” Or, if I’m reading some accomplished piece in a difficult verse form, I’m certain “This is authentic poetry!” And I live in a world of passionate commitments that come and go like the spring wind.

There are tricks to my way of thinking. It hinges on a certain regard for poetry that acknowledges poetic energy and participation are more important than any individual poem. You probably have a favorite movie. If you think it through, you’ll see cinema itself is a source of pleasure, too, and to a certain extent, when you go to the movies, you’re reliving the basic joy of tales told in sequential motion.

Remember, too, that all poems are failures. How so? It sounds like a peculiar notion because the critical mind wants to immediately assert values that select which ones are good, but a more expansive mind acknowledges the following: all poems may not be masterpieces, and all poems fail. Poetry has accumulated so much baggage surrounding what it should be—or is and isn’t—that the very art form represents an ideal or a dream impossible to fulfill; there is no poem which cannot be called too short, too long, traditional, too experimental, etc.

No poem won’t fail someone’s ideal standard. And no poem won’t fail your own. As writer Ben Lerner explains, “You’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.”

Taking all of this into consideration, my advice to writers is to not worry so much about writing *quote* good *unquote* poetry as they should work at not writing stale poetry. Stale poetry relies on clichés and crosses genres. It’s the formalist whose sonnets are hackneyed; the spoken word performer whose riffs resemble everybody else’s. I also suggest that, when writers get too knowledgeable—even accomplished—in a given genre, they at least experiment with a style radically different than what is found in their comfort zone. Never stop learning (as the motto goes). Furthermore, your ability to build bridges and bend genres can enhance your ability to live in today’s multicultural world.

If you travel in the sphere of poetry critics, you’ll find that, regardless their own ideological baggage, they know the etymology of the word poetry is from the Greek, poiesis, which means “making.” That’s all. So what the hell is poetry? It is to make. I believe this is the most useful definition. Its purpose is and always has been to make, whether in pre-history, before written words; during the Renaissance; or in troubled times today. To make is the assertion of the human capacity to create something new.

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