by Dave Lucas, Ohio Poet Laureate
But you don’t hate it.
At least that’s what I hope you’ll discover as you read this column.
I don’t want to convince you that you should love poetry. I want to convince you that you already do.
If you know by heart the lyrics to your favorite song, you already love one kind of poetry. You love another whenever you laugh at a joke or groan over a bad pun. The jargon of your profession and the slang you speak with friends are poetry. So are the metaphors we use to describe this world we are all trying to understand.
For instance: We are so immersed in poetry that to hate it would be like a fish hating water.
Silly and inexact as it may be, my fish simile is a poetic gesture, an attempt to present an abstract idea in concrete terms. My metaphor might not be good poetry, but it’s still poetry.
Poetry is a name for the pleasure we take in the language we hear and speak, read and write. We savor words for how they sound and what they mean, the wonderful alchemy of their sound and sense together, no matter how practical or mundane their uses.
We find poetry in poems, of course—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers”—but we find it elsewhere, too.
In this column you’ll encounter some traditional (and some nontraditional) poems. But I also hope the words we will share can welcome you to the pleasures and challenges—the poetry—of words, wherever we find them.
An example: I also teach a college course called “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry.” On the first day of class we introduce ourselves: name, major, hometown, etc. But then I offer a strange icebreaker. What is your favorite word?
They hesitate. What an odd question. They look for the door. Just pick one, I tell them. It won’t be etched in stone; you don’t have to get it tattooed on you. So—if a bit suspiciously—they do.
“Serendipity,” they say. “Defenestrate.” They say “Home.” “Dream.” Their responses often divide them into two camps: some choose a word because they “just like the way it sounds.” Others select a word that holds some personal meaning for them in addition to its “dictionary definition.”
Readers of poetry tend to divide along similar lines, as the poet and critic James Fenton has observed. There are “those who, confronted with what appears to be like a code, insist that they must crack it, and those who are happy to listen to the spell. . . .”
That “spell,” as Fenton calls it, was cast on all of us long ago. It is the spell not only of poetry but of words themselves. Poetry happens—in metaphors or jokes or in poems themselves—when words’ sound and sense blur into each other.
We may not realize that we are under the spell of poetry, because poetry is made of ordinary language (if language can ever be ordinary). Some words we use to toast a wedding or to bless the dead; others we use to order a pizza.
Language is the medium of our speech and thought and being, so it is natural that we would take pleasure in it. It is also natural to take that same pleasure—not to mention its profundity—for granted.
Stare at any word for a while, say it again and again to yourself, and it becomes a foreign language. Its meaning bleeds from it, and the word reclaims its original, utter strangeness. “Every word was once a poem,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1844. “Every new relation is a new word.”
Twenty years ago the word bling was just a clever nugget of slang from a half-forgotten hip-hop song of the Eighties. Now, thanks to the Cash Money Millionaires and digital media, we can find it in the Oxford English Dictionary. I can even type bling into Microsoft Word without worrying about the red squiggly line warning me of a spelling error. It is a part of speech, a kind of poetry.
Poetry is a name for the pleasure of language; it is also a way of trying to name the world. Poetry indeed offers us pleasure, but it can offer much more than that. I believe poetry can be a way of making meaning of our lives and of the lives of others.
Simple sounds in the air or marks on a page become profound human comedy and tragedy, the scripts for our most beautiful and awful acts. These marks and sounds can be Hamlet and the Letter from Birmingham Jail; they can be Mein Kampf.
How those marks and sounds become so much more remains miraculous to me even now, twenty years after first falling in love with poetry. They remain my way of making sense of my world, of myself and of you—stranger, reader, friend—too.
Not all of us read poems. Not everyone needs poems. I believe we all need poetry, though, because we need language. We need to communicate, and we need just as much the pleasure and meaning it can offer to our lives.
This is why I want to share poetry with you in whatever form we might find it. I hope you will find some of it in reading this column. I hope you will find even more in listening to the words you hear and those you speak every day.
There and here, I hope you will find a kind of poetry that you can love, or even some that you have loved all along.
DAVE’S PICK OF THE MONTH — “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I remember all too well drowsing over the Bible-thin pages of my Norton Anthology in the John Carroll library. But Emerson was different: an electric current of joy and wonder ran through even his most florid prose. I love this essay for its emphasis on the life of language itself, the poetry that inhabits and invigorates words that might otherwise seem mundane. “For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten,” he writes, “each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.” I tell my poetry students that, like any other artist, they need to fall in love with their medium. If I ever doubt my own love for the medium of language, the work of poetry, this essay brings me home.
Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012
Ohioana Book Award in Poetry. In 2018, he was appointed the second Poet Laureate of
the State of Ohio. He lives in Cleveland.
(Photo by Heidi Rolf)