What defines a poem? That sounds like a simple question. Would you care to answer? I won’t claim to be a poet, by any means, but I think I can answer. I have been known to write a few stanzas, tying them up with whatever happens to be the flavor metric of the moment, and finishing up with a bundle of rhyming lines but… Is that what truly defines a poem?
Maybe to some. But to others…
Last week, I visited a local poetry/jazz tasting here at the RVA. I was invited by none other than La Poetessa herself, J.S. Lee, when we met at a gathering for local authors a few weeks back. I had said yes, partly because I wanted to promote my book, and partly because I was curious of what I might find about poetry. Hey, we writers are selfish and curious by nature, right? So, she handled me a card with the information about the event. “I’ll be there,” I said.
On the night of the venue, I had an idea of what to expect. I “knew” poets, in their natural state, are bohemian types. I thought there might be smoking involved, and that the lighting would be set to low, and that the word “groovy” would be sold a dime for a dozen. Oh yeah, I went with an idea of what to expect.
Let me tell you, I learned more in two hours that night, than from what my grammar teacher attempted to shove inside my skull for an entire school year.
For poetry, as it is for prose, writing is just the beginning. In their most fundamental forms, they both involve words and a story. But what makes a poem, a poem? Is it the metric used? The rhythm method? The length? What is it?
That night I was captivated by words, rhymes, and metric, either tight, loose, free, or otherwise. I was inundated by music, heart, soul, life, death, depression, honesty, dishonesty, betrayal, sorrow, laughter, wham, bang, trains, butterflies, brotherhood, sisterhood, thunder, and lighting!
In that room, I saw a bunch of people, of several heritages, and of different ages (the youngest was at least of drinking age), from different societal backgrounds, of different professions, with different beliefs come together, and stand behind the microphone under one flag: poetry. Of what type? I can tell you that night there was only one possible answer to that question.
I sat with a colleague writer, who I had met at another event, and that luckily recognized me when I entered the place. He was sitting alone, and offered me the seat across him at the table. Lonely people must stick together, they say.
Enjoying the spectacle, I sipped from my glass of Riesling wine (I ordered this three seconds after arriving at the place, when I thought I knew what I was doing), while my colleague drank his tab beer. We exchanged small talk during the live jazz interludes (from yet another local artist) between poem rounds. We talked about prose, and theater, and motorcycles. But not poetry. There was no sense in talking about it. Poetry must be lived. In the moment.
Every person that took the stage that night, one way or another, reached out into my chest and grabbed me by the spine, and shook my soul, and left me changed. At least for that moment.
Needless to say, I was moved.
So much so that when the hostess approached me after the first hour and asked, “Will you like to share?” I felt I had to oblige. There was no saying no. Actually, I couldn’t help myself. After all, I have written a few poems, right? Matter of fact, I had written a few for this blog. I was ready, yeah, I could do this. “Sure, I’ll read something from my blog,” I said.
I was finally called up to the stage, and with a warm welcome, I made my way behind the microphone. After a brief introduction, I read with all the rhythm, metric, and gusto I could gather. I learned something else that night: poets are a forgiving bunch.
I saw their eyes as I read my poem, which felt like the longest one all night. The poem was of epic proportions, by comparison. I saw them intent on hearing every word. I’m not sure if it was because the poem was good, or because my accent made it difficult to understand what I was saying. I finished, and said thank you, and sat down, as quietly as I could.
My colleague didn’t say anything after I sat back at the table. I’m still not sure what to make of that. We aren’t necessarily friends, but I was nonetheless intrigued by his silence. Luckily for me, there was still plenty of poetry to be recited that night. Enough to erase my futile attempt from the minds of the ones gathered.
I am a writer. A novelist. A blogger. But not a poet. Just like with the perfect love, there’s got to be a spark. A chemistry. Poetry can’t be rushed, and it can’t be measured. Anyone who engages in that experiment will find out that the total is more than the sum of its parts. Only a select few, the most talented ones, really get to understand the recipe.
My advise next time you meet a poet, don’t judge. No matter how much you think you “know” about the subject, I promise you won’t know a thing until you get to experience it. Until then, you won’t really understand. You see, poets are unplugged. The rest of us are just living in the matrix.
So, do yourself a favor. If you want to have a good time, or maybe impress a loved one, find out when and where there’s a poetry night in your community, and support your local poet. You will feel right as rain. At least for that moment.