Monday, November 8, 2010

What is Poetry? A Judgement Call

Dave Lordan and I were messaging back and forth recently around the topics of writing and why you write – is it for yourself? Is it for readers? Publishers? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a writer writes and no one is there to read it, does it make a difference? This led me to thinking of when I was young, and wrote alone, in my bedroom, with no intention of showing any of it to anyone.

I bring this all up in context.

Zach walked up to me recently and asked, “What is a poem?”

I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Me, the lady who studied fiction and poetry in grad school, and likes to talk. I’m kind of staring at him.

He looked at me, “Mom?”

I had to think about it for a minute, “Uhm...its words...”


“Like a story...but not...not as many words on the page. Also, there’s not necessarily a beginning, middle or end like a story...but there could be. Sometimes it does tell a story, and is really long...Sometimes it rhymes...but not could be really, really has rhythm like a there’s no music playing when you read doesn’t always make sense the way a story does, but you figure out what it’s saying by listening to the words and making a picture in your head...” I was struggling, pitifully. Ms. Manrique, I hear Marilyn Hacker in my head, you get an F.

Zach’s staring at me.

“Uh – let’s go to your bedroom and get the STORIES AND RHYMES FOR BOYS book. I think I have to show and not tell on this one.”

I was wondering why the sudden interest in poetry, then I found out. I picked Zach up from school subsequently, and the teacher handed me a note. It asked my permission for him to participate in a poetry reading competition. The teachers would prep him in reading and interpreting the piece. It would be my responsibility to drive him into town, to an auditorium, where he would stand, on a stage, in front of judges and other children and adults, and read his poem, with expression. He could win or lose or get honourable mention, or whatever it is kids get these days when they’re good but not the best. He would be judged.

He’s 5 (as of yesterday).

That seems awfully young to be standing up in front of crowds of adults who will judge you. Maybe he’s judged all the time. The teacher – he’s always trying to please her. His mother and father – we’re always observing, hovering, encouraging, whatever you want to call it. This child – has he been performing the whole time? He performs when he says he didn’t hit his brother, and I know that he did because of the way Max is crying and the way Zach is looking at me (the slight curl up one side of his mouth and the questioning glint in his eye, which asks: “will she buy this?” No, I won’t. I have eyes like CCTV cameras, strategically placed throughout the house. I know when a baby has been pushed from 2 rooms away).

My husband and I signed him up for the competition. I consoled myself, thinking: I can always pull him out of this later if he’s not happy, if it isn’t working out, if he can’t stand up in front of people...

In the face of the judgement, will he lose his interest in what poetry is, and turn away? Maybe I need to leave him alone to just like poems. If Zach one day writes and no one reads it, it’s still worth something. It’s worth Zach writing it. It’s worth Zach.


  1. For what it's worth I found myself quoting Shel Silverstein yesterday - I bet Zach would dig it. I'm sure I've got some of it wrong but: "What a day, oh what a day! My baby brother ran away. And now my tuba will not play. What a day, oh what a day!"

  2. I've always thought of poetry as a song that will never be put to music :| hope that helps! :)

  3. I suppose the undefinability of poetry is the property which makes it a practically infinite field of creation, innovation, exploration. The common idea of what a poem is, or, specifically, what it looks like or should look like, is defined by what makes it into the primary and secondary schoolbook. An awful lot is left out of that pedagogic selection, of course.
    dave lordan

  4. Your attempt to describe what is a poem could stand also for life itself in a way.
    Such a struggle to make swift decisions on the things the external world throws at our children
    Like what you say about writing making a difference no matter whether read or unread.
    Like you I think


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