Coleridge’s assertion that poetry is “the best words in the best order” would be a laughable notion to [the author's father], a man who prefers to get the news from The Washington Post and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. And it’s not just lay readers who find poetry difficult. Some of my brightest English majors feel this way. The chair of a local high-school English Department shared with me that her colleagues are so afraid of poetry that they find ways to avoid teaching it altogether. When faced with the task of coming up with a “definition” of poetry for a state curricular rubric, her group was unable to begin to frame a response, let alone reach a consensus. They finally came up with something like “unusual language that sometimes rhymes and sometimes doesn’t.”
I’m quite sure I can’t come up with a single definition of poetry either. But I suspect that the most resistant or wary readers of verse, even if they can’t say what poetry is, have written or received a poem—in a love letter, a diary, a condolence card, a Valentine, a school assignment—a bit of language written under especial duress or frustration or longing or sadness, language forged under pressure, perhaps at a Dickinsonian “White Heat,” words that came out not as prose but as something else, something more … intense, musical, playful, figurative, compressed. Something urgently expressed, with something at stake in the telling.
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