“What is poetry?” I ask my classes. This question always causes trouble, which I like, because confusion about what makes poetry can lead to some of the best poetry. In one class, our discussion ranged all over the place.

We tossed up definitions to see how badly they fit. It rhymes! Well…no, not necessarily. It has a meter! Again, nice try, but not always.

It looks like a poem on the page! This one kept us going for a while as we thought about white space, line breaks, and other things that make a poem look like a poem.

I let the students get really comfortable with that definition before I knocked them all down. “What about prose poems?” I asked.

One student threw her pen across the room. “I give up!” she shouted.

I couldn’t leave them all in such distress, so I provided my personal favorite definition of poetry. Poetry is highly distilled language. Every single word, every single syllable must be sharp and ready to burn. If prose is wine, poetry is triple distilled moonshine, and it should make your head spin.

When I’m reading I often find that certain phrases, sometimes only a couple of words, will hit me especially hard, and I know I’ve just taken a swig of the good stuff. Sometimes it’s not even poetry that does this to me, and I love finding little phrases that sound like they could show up in a poem—accidental poems just waiting to be picked up.

This happens, too, when I’m at poetry readings. I’ll be listening to the reader and then a line just bursts out of the rest of the language of the poem and makes me happy. A couple of weeks ago we had a faculty creative writing presentation on campus, and one of my friends (and former students) read a couple of her poems. Her command of language is exquisite, and she has a wonderful sense of the rhythm of poetry. As I was nodding to the beat of her poem, suddenly I had to sit up straight as if I’d been smacked. This is the stanza:

If the heart is allowed to calcify

these processes do not cease,

But rather halve,

So there is only suffering left.

The lines surprised me. The image is utterly perfect, and the sense and meaning are clear. The surprise came from the jolt I get when a feeling I’d always known is suddenly defined perfectly. This, to me, is what defines poetry.

So, if you’re reading this, let me give you a little task. As you’re going about your day, keep your eyes and ears open for the surprisingly perfect little morsels of luscious language that are waiting to be picked up. Hold them close.

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