One day two boys from a middle school social studies class come up to my desk wanting to know whether all I ever do is substitute teach. I tell them, no, I’m also a musician and an artist. And I write plays and books. “What kind of books?” they want to know. “Well I wrote a book about the wind and the grass.” “The wind and the grass?” “A battle between the wind and the grass.” “A battle between the wind and the grass?” I’ve got their attention. “Yes.” “What’s that?”
“You have to understand the grass I’m talking about is very long, not the sort of grass you see on your lawn. And one day, this boy, this ‘lazy farmer boy,’ utters a very deep, heartfelt sigh in the middle of his long, grassy field. And, due to the almost inexplicable, but very real, scientifically demonstrable, laws of chaos theory, this sigh manages to multiply its effects until pretty soon it becomes a fierce, howling wind. And the wind just whirls around and whirls around gaining strength and then, for no reason anyone’s ever been able to determine, takes off across the farmer’s field, bullying the delicate long grasses backwards practically till they can see their own roots.”
“Do they fight back?”
“Yes they do. Because the grasses are brave and also long and sharp and there are many rose bushes among them and other thorny plants, so as the wind rushes across the field, the grasses, bushes and thorny plants try hard to stand their ground and they tear at the wind and the wind begins to bleed. And the wind bleeds rain and so it rains and pretty soon it’s thundering and there is a terrible storm, with lightening too, and so the field catches fire.”
By this time the boys’ eyes are bugging out of their heads and they both take a step forward with looks that say: “We gotta talk some more.” And believe me I’d love to do just that. But these kids have an assignment and it’s my job to see they do it, so I have to tell them to back off for now and finish their work and then look for me at lunch time and maybe we can continue then. Only when lunch time comes they are nowhere to be seen, probably because this is first lunch and their lunch is second lunch. Or this is third lunch and their lunch is first lunch. Or maybe they just got distracted, because, after all, they were pretty young.
So I’m writing this in the hope these boys will some day read here the answer to the overwhelming question I could tell was on their minds, and that they desperately wanted to ask me, which was: what is poetry?
Well, one thing poetry is not it is not the poetry written by poets. I mean, yes, certain poets have it in them, no question. But usually not. For example when Shelley writes “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,/ Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/ Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,” no he doesn’t have it, that’s not poetry. Clever yes. And what’s with these “leaves dead”? Who talks like that? Now on the other hand, his pal Keats writes (and we need to wind down a bit before reading this -- take some deep breaths and then maybe five seconds of silence to slow the metabolism): “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,/ Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/ One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:” Oh yes, he has it, this is poetry. Four lines and we’re trembling in the grip of pallid death.
Because poetry is a lot like a joke. Except instead of laughing something else happens to you, something grabs you deep inside and tears you to pieces, like what the long grasses did to the wind. In my book, remember?
Or take John Clare, a farm boy really, not a poet: “The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside/ The battered road; and spreading far and wide/ Above the russet clods, the corn is seen/ Sprouting its spiry points of tender green,/ Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,/ Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.” Wow. That’s it. That’s really it. The rest of the poem is also very fine, but that opening verse cuts really deep, don’t ask me why. (The question was “what,” not “why.”). You don’t even need to know what a “rolls and harrows” is. It’s a kind of old fashioned wagonny farm implement used to tear up soil. “The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside/ The battered road;” Yes. “and spreading far and wide/ Above the russet clods, the corn is seen/” Oh yes. Even just “The corn is seen.” Poetry. Even just that much, that one simple phrase.
T. S. Eliot once said the most beautiful word in the English language is “cellar door.” He actually said that, so I’ve heard, yes. Of course really it’s two words, not one. But think about it: “cellar door.”
In Neil Simon's play, The Sunshine Boys, one of the characters gives a lecture on what’s funny:
Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say "Alka Seltzer" you get a laugh . . . Words with "k" in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. 'L's are not funny. 'M's are not funny. Tomato is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland . . . Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cockroach is funny -- not if you get 'em, only if you say 'em.Poetry is not the same as humor. But not that different either.
Now Shakespeare, even he doesn’t always have it: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments.”? Wah????? Sounds like a minister or a speech therapist. Or “To be or not to be, that is the question.”? What kind of a question is that? But the followup is terrific: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” Yes. Almost as good as Brecht.
No, despite certain notable exceptions, which are, admittedly, quite good, real poetry cannot be found in the work of poets. And it’s definitely never “poetic.” Which reminds me of a story about one of my favorite poets, Charles Olson, returning to Wesleyan University, his alma mater, to recite in the “Honours College,” where sherry was always served either before or after, I forget which, and Piranesi prints lined the expensive walls. He starts off (I was there) with this poem about these bikers on a beach somewhere and how they took over the beach, looking almost like certain ancient gods, and it’s getting very interesting, because he really knows how to write poetry, and also how to read aloud -- but then he stops dead, sits down right there on the floor, and puts his head in his hands. “I can’t go on,” he says, “I can’t do this.” Moment of stunned silence. “Oy, this is such a poetic atmosphea.” He’s not even Jewish but he says “Oy” and yes the word “atsmosphere” comes out with a New Yawk accent and then he just sits there and will not be consoled.
“Oh they call me hangman Johnny/ Come away my Bonnie/ But I never hanged no body./ Oh hang boys hang.” Lots of these sea shanties are poetry. Or have poetry in them. Often they’re made up of disconnected or almost disconnected couplets or stanzas, framed by tiny refrains. Some of these stanzas, well, they’re not too great. But many are. “Oh hang boys hang.” Now that’s very special because it’s a punch line too and the whole stanza is basically a joke. Only to get the humor you need to know something about how the song was used. It’s a song for hanging sail. Get it? But it’s also a very efficient little machine, with a wind up spring that gets wound up very tight in those first three lines and you don’t really have to know what the song is used for to find yourself caught in the trap.
“We’re sailing down the river from Liverpool,/ Heave away, Santy Anno!/ Around Cape Horn to Frisco Bay,/ All on the plains of Mexico./ There’s plenty a gold so I been told,/ Heave away, Santy Anno!/ There’s plenty a gold so I been told,/ ‘Way out in Cal-i-for-ni-o./ So heave ‘er up and away we go,/ Heave away, Santy Anno!/ Heave ‘er up and away we go,/ We’re bound for Cal-i-for-ni-o.” You’ll find many versions of this shanty, but this is one of the best. Word has it “Santy Anno” is Santa Anna, the old Mexican general. But I prefer to think of it as another name for the wind, namely the “Santa Anna” winds, which rage along the coast of California. So that refrain then shouts defiance over and over in the teeth of some half forgotten storm. (Remember my story?) But what’s really important here is not what we interpret the words to mean, but the tremendous weight of each and every syllable, with no room for any half measure anywhere. Just listen, say it and listen and feel it on your tongue: “Around Cape Horn to Frisco Bay.” Say it, feel how it resonates through your soul, makes you more courageous, more foolhardy, more of a pirate.