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by Kenzie
Rated: E · Essay · Educational · #951984
What do famous writers and poets say about poetry?
Poetry Refreshes the World
by Marilyn Mackenzie

I have been working on a series of lessons for senior citizens in retirement centers and nursing homes about writing freestyle poetry. While researching what others have done along this line, I’ve also read some books for elementary educators who teach children about reading and writing poetry. It was in one of those books - Pass the Poetry, Please! by Lee Bennett Hopkins - that I found the title above. He said a child told him that "poetry refreshes the world." I have to agree. And I wish Mr. Hopkins had recorded the name of that wise child.

Before beginning my lessons on writing poetry, I decided to see how others have defined poetry. To me, poetry is like abstract art. If the poet says that he/she has written a poem, I tend to agree. But how do others define poetry? What do famous poets and writers say about poetry?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines poetry as "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm." On the other hand, this same dictionary defines prose as "a literary medium distinguished from poetry especially by its greater irregularity and variety of rhythm and its closer correspondence to the patterns of everyday speech." It would appear, then, that rhyming is not a huge factor in creating poetry. Rhythm and flow is what distinguishes poetry from prose.

There are so many definitions of poetry - probably as many definitions as there are people reading them. Or at least as many definitions as there are poets.

Gerald D. McDonald said in his collection A Way of Knowing, "Poetry can be wittier and funnier than any kind of writing; it can tell us about the world through words we can’t forget; it can be tough or it can be tender; it can be fat or lean; it can preach a short sermon or give us a long thought (the shorter the poem sometimes, the longer the thought). And it does all this through the music of words."

I liked that thought. The music of words. That is another wonderful definition of poetry, at least in my opinion. As I read poetry, if it makes me sway, if I can imagine the words flying through the air as musical notes would, then to me the poet has accomplished his/her task.

Carl Sandburg said about poetry, "Poetry is a series of explanations of life, falling off into horizons too swift for explanations." He also said, "Poetry is an echo asking a shadow dancer to be a partner."

Poetry is probably some of the most personal writing we have available to us. I realized that a few years ago. I worked for a local newspaper on that horrible day - Sept. 11, 2001. Normally, our newspaper didn’t publish any poetry. But our managing editor and our publisher wisely knew that people would want to comment on that horrible event. And, just as wisely, they knew that people who had never written poetry would suddenly do so. Sometimes poetry is the only way we can express ourselves properly. Sure enough, that editor and publisher knew without inviting poems that they would arrive. And they did!

We published poems about Sept. 11th every Sunday - sometimes 4 pages! - from about Sept. 15, 2001 and had enough to keep doing so for almost a year. Poetry often tells a tale of real life. Some poets are inspired by the beauty of nature around them. Others are inspired by city sounds. But that tragedy shared by the U.S. and the entire world inspired people world-wide to write about it.

It makes me sad to think that children and young people often moan at the thought of studying poetry in school. I don’t blame them a bit. I did too! For to teachers, studying poetry meant studying meter and rhyme and cadence and balance. It meant dissecting a poem, cutting it to shreds, then trying to reconstruct it.

I had been writing poetry since I was ten years old. No one "taught" me to do so. I read poems and then tried to write my own. My limited exposure to a great number of poets made me think that all poetry had to rhyme. My limited vocabulary made me force rhymes.

For instance, at the age of ten, I wrote:

Roses are red
Daisies are yellow
I’m glad I’m a girl
And not a fellow.

When I entered high school, in addition to my regular English classes, I took classes in poetry. That was more enlightening, since we not only studied the "traditional" poets but the lyricists of the times. Imagine our teen delight to discover our favorite songs were actually beautiful poems set to music!

Still, even the high school years didn’t prepare me for really enjoying reading and writing poetry. That was something I had to learn on my own - by studying and reading all kinds of poetry. And by feeling brave enough to just sit and write poems as the mood hit, without worrying about whether or not anyone would understand or appreciate my words. I think that’s where we fall short in teaching our children - or adults - about poetry.

When teaching art, we don’t spend years and years studying works of art. Early on, we allow students to try painting, drawing, sculpting. We encourage their creativity. We don’t insist that their works mimic other artists.

I think we frighten more students about writing poetry. I think we sour them on reading it as well because we don’t just let them enjoy both the reading and creating of musical words.

Another mistake educators make is by making poetry something to study alone. Poems are appropriate all the time. Couldn’t a mathematics lesson be followed by a poem about counting or numbers? We’d all be more comfortable reading and writing poetry if it were introduced not solely as something exclusive to language arts.

Does it really matter how we define poetry? Perhaps not. Perhaps if we can finish reading a poem and think, "I can feel that" then we have experienced a poem.

Arnold Adoff explained his definition of poetry: "...a fine poem combines the elements of measuring music, with a form like a living frame that holds it together. I really want a poem to sprout roses and spit bullets; this is the ideal combination. My poems should be read three or four times - once for the meaning, once for the music, and once for how the music and meaning go together."

I think that’s wonderful advice! Too often, we rush to read a poem without really taking the time to savor it.

Harry Behn wrote, "Almost everyone is as full of words waiting to sing as a forest is full of birds before sunrise. My first memory is of a profound and sunny place, of leaves, birds, animals, changing seasons, spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter, and the wonder of being alive. Those are the mysteries I later tried to evoke in poems I wrote about my childhood." Peter Roop wrote of Harry Behn’s work, "Fortunately for us he had the ability to capture a few of life’s elusive wonders and cage them on a page. We can’t squeeze these poems too tightly for they might escape, like everything else that slips away when grasped. They are the breath beyond what it is."

"Writing is a delicious agony," said Gwendolyn Brooks. On being a poet, she said, "I think a little more should be required of a poet than perhaps is required of the sculptor or the painter. The poet deals in words with which everyone is familiar. We all handle words. I think the poet, if he or she wants to speak to anyone, is constrained to do something with those words to they will ‘mean something,’ will be something that a reader may touch."

Barbara Juster Esbensen told that her favorite thing to tell children was that poets lie. Then she went on to explain how poets lie. She used examples from her own poem ‘Performance’ in Dance with Me - ‘trees lock crooked arms’ and ‘a breeze remembers how to rhyme.’ She said, "Of course trees do not have arms to lock and a breeze cannot remember. But poets have to be poetic. And we sometimes have to lie." More importantly, Esbensen described poetry as "merely a dance of breath that has learned to fly."

Aileen Fisher has shared her thoughts on poetry. "Poetry is a rhythmical piece of writing that leaves the reader feeling that life is richer than before."

What a challenge for the poet!

What did Robert Frost say about poetry? "Like a piece of ice on hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting."

Nikki Giovanni said, "I think poetry, when it is most effective, tells of capturing a moment, and I make it the best I can because it’s going to live." She also wrote, "When I think of poems most children read, from Robert Louis Stevenson to some of the modern poets, I think of an idea being conveyed. The image is important but the idea is the heart."

The idea is the heart. What a beautiful thought; what beautiful words.

Another Nikki - Nikki Grimes said of poetry, "Poetry is a literature of brushstrokes. The poet uses a few choice words, placed just so, to paint a picture, evoke an emotion, or capture a moment in time, often though not always with the measured use of rhyme."

Much has been written about the poet Langston Hughes. His first poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers,’ was published in 1921. Of being famous, Hughes said, "Fame is loverly - but hard to eat." Despite his extraordinary literary output, Langston Hughes lived in poverty most of his life. Still, he wrote poetry and penned..."hold fast to dreams."

Said X. J. Kennedy, "Poetry helps us travel beyond ourselves."

Karla Kuskin said, "If there were a recipe for a poem, there would be ingredients: word sounds, rhythm, description, feeling, memory, imagination and perhaps rhyme. They can be put together a thousand different ways, a thousand, thousand...more. If you and I were to go at the same time to the same party for the same person, our descriptions would be different. As different as we are from each other. It is those differences that make our poems interesting." She also wrote, "Poetry can be as natural and effective a form of self-expression as singing and shouting."

J. Patrick Lewis described poetry as, "a blind date with enchantment."

And said David McCord, "Poetry is so many things besides the shiver down the spine. It is a new day lying on a new doorstop. It is what will stir the weariest mind to write. It is the inevitable said so casually that the reader or listener thinks he said it himself. It is the fall of syllables that run as easily as water flowing over a dam. It is fireflies in May, apples in October. It is a hundred things as unexplainable as all our foolish explanations."

Eve Merriam once said, "There are a few rules I have for poetry. NO RULES!" She also explained what a poem can do. "Just about everything."

"Poems should be like fireworks...ready to explode with unpredictable effects." That’s what Lillian Moore said.

Valerie Worth’s idea was this, "Never let the mud puddle get lost in the poetry - because in many ways the mud puddle is the poetry."

"Poetry is the most effective way of saying things." Matthew Arnold

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Emily Dickinson

"A poem...begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness." Robert Frost

"Poetry is speaking painting." Plutarch

As I read what famous writers and poets said about poetry, I realized that my thoughts about poetry were right all along. Poetry is very personal. And it isn’t the specific type of construction that makes a poem beautiful and touching; it’s the word crafting and how much of ourselves we include in our writings and poetry that makes it sing. As we grow as writers and poets, we can certainly perfect our craft. But sometimes our first attempts - and not the refined versions or the edits - are the most beautiful words we create, because they have gone from our hearts to our pens.

About a year ago, an attorney who secretly wrote poetry all of his adult life asked me to read his collection of poetry and help edit it for publication. Each of his poems had been written and re-written over and over again. He attacked writing poetry much like he would have attacked writing a legal brief. Over the years, he became discouraged at his ability to paint word pictures. I took his notebooks home with me and typed up his original poems, the words that first burst from his heart. He cried when he read those words again, and thanked me for the wonderful editing job I had done with his works. I smiled and told him that I merely typed his original words. Those words, the ones that poured from his heart were beautiful. It was when he tried to perfect them the he lost the beauty and became discouraged. Sadly, he had almost given up because he had rewritten the words for almost twenty years.

Remember, "In poetry, syntaxes have little meaning, the order of the words is the order of your heart." - Peter A. Rosado

Poetry refreshes the world, especially if we are confident enough to share! Take the plunge when the mood hits you. Sometimes poetry is the best way to express one's thoughts. Don't be shy; share your heart with the world. According to the experts sharing your heart's thoughts is all that's required.

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