What is Poetry?


My first day in 6th grade didn’t start as expected.

Mrs. Zinn waited for every one of us to sit down in our little chairs with a determined glare.  She had bright red hair matched by a strong, willful presence demanding immediate stillness.  We sat still like tiny statues.

Her first words were, “I’m going to introduce you to poetry.”

I thought, “What????”

And she rolled right into an exquisitely dramatic reading of “Sea Fever” by John Masefield.   She read in a rich voice … beautifully, with fire, lots of meaningful pauses to let each line sink in.

I was as if struck by lightning, utterly enthralled, captivated, mesmerized.  “Keep reading!” my 10-year old mind willed.  That 6th grade September morning began my love affair with poetry.

To my extreme satisfaction and gratitude, Mrs. Zinn started every morning of the school year with a poetry reading.  Bliss.  I would settle into a complete stillness, close my eyes and  listen to her vibrant voice.  She introduced us to a vast world of poets and poetry.  Many of the poems she read us are still favorites of mine.

When I left her class for 7th grade I had severe withdrawal symptoms accompanying the depressing realization I was now in sole charge of locating new poetry … I was dismally on my own.  Once I got over the shock of it, and faced down the confusion of where to hunt (my aunt was, fortunately, a librarian), my life-long search for good poetry began.

Do I like all poetry?  Heck, no!

And most probably neither will you.  You shouldn’t expect to.

It helps to understand what poetry is.

Poetry’s a type of writing. It’s super concentrated writing.

Poetry propels an intensity of emotional impact directly from the poet’s pen straight into your psyche before you have time to think about it.  It bypasses logic.

If it doesn’t pierce every emotional protective barrier you’ve installed, if it doesn’t shoot unswervingly straight into the tenderness of your soul, if it doesn’t make the world suddenly stand still and fill you with profound joy and the sense of being intensely and amazingly understood by another human being you’ve never met, it’s not your kind of poetry.  It’s a very personal experience.  You decide.

American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Over the years I’ve found many poets I’m bonkers over.  I’m willing to skim along the surface of numerous poems and poets to find the precious ones who pierce the thick veils of reality and living with new lightning bolts for me.

These are the ones I read aloud (to myself and anyone who will listen), over and over for years, finding never-ending pleasure in hearing their beautiful words and meanings that fill and nourish my soul.

Thank you, Mrs. Zinn.  You gave me a gift for life.






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