Sometimes I ask myself how I would answer my 3-year-old daughter if she asked me what poetry is. I anticipate this question from her at some point in the near future, and I want to be prepared! As of yet, I am unprepared. But these past few mornings I've been reading Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach (which I recommend to you all), and here is what he says poetry is:
Poetry is a love. Of what? Of the discovery and the celebration of words, things, feelings, ideas, undigested memories, insights, other people, yourself, other selves, mystery, sense, eternity, other eternities, nonsense, nothingness, the whales and the foam and the shadow of grass on the mountain, the bones of the dog buried in the garden. Of love itself. And it is an engagement with all of the above. It is a love-act.. . .
Poetry is a love of that art of making which will take you away from self-indulgence -- for even as you fashion it, it takes on a life of its own.
And what poetry is not:
...it is not a way to power or riches or status or position. Not even at university. It is not answer to loss and it cannot assuage the sorrows of the world. It will not bring down governments. It is not a blotting paper to life, sopping up the bloody ink to give back a fuzzy 'truth'....
you must be reckless but patient...
Don't be 'nice." Don't try to be clever. There is such a thing as creative intelligence, kneaded into the dough of your art. It has little to do with the acquired monkey cleverness of the person wanting to impress and please the powers that be. Wanting to be 'relevant' is piddling pomposity. Leave that to the politicians.
Please don't imagine that poetry is a cool way of double-speak so as to hide meaning. Don't make of the poem a cheap riddle. Don't be a furrowed brow in quest of wisdom. Enough already! The poem is meaning.
Breytenbach is writing to a young reader/writer of poetry, and I like what he says. But I'm wondering -- how could I put his words into the words of something a child would understand? Or, perhaps even more challenging, how could I put his words into the words of something someone who doesn't read or write poetry would understand?