The Definition of Poetry
My very first class at Wesleyan College was Survey of American Literature taught by Dr. Leah Strong. The class met on the second floor of Tate Hall. The ceilings were tall, the walls plaster and the dark wooden windows so heavy that when they were opened, which was fairly often because there was no air conditioning in Tate at that time, you could hear the chains creaking in the sashes halfway across campus. It was a beautiful Indian summer day and the sunshine seemed to move in waves with the breeze that ruffled the leaves of the gingko trees that grew outside. My classmates and I, probably 10 or 12 of us, were sitting in old wooden desks whose tops had been scarred with 50 years of graffiti carved by the pens and pencils of daydreaming Wesleyannes. We’d been there for several minutes and I was wondering just how long one was supposed to wait for a professor (I learned later that the “rule” was five minutes for an assistant professor, 10 for an associate, and 15 for a full professor.) when a figure came scurrying through the doorway. It was a short, chubby gray-haired woman wearing grannie glasses, black polyester pants, a Hawaiian print shirt and shoes my father would call brogans. She was carrying under her arm, not a briefcase or a textbook or a sheaf of lecture notes, but a motorcycle helmet. She strode determinedly across the front of the room, set her helmet down in the middle of the desk and then walked around to the front and jumped backward onto the desk, leaving her short legs dangling like those of a marionette. She looked around the room at us and said, “The definition of poetry...” We hurriedly opened our brand new spiral notebooks and poised our pens over the clean white pages.
“The definition of poetry ...” She looked around the room again. “When I was a child, my father used to bring home packages of paper pellets. These pellets were the size of BB’s and when you dropped one of these pellets into a glass of water it would slowly begin to unfold and unfurl until, a few minutes later, the pellet had become a beautiful flower. Each of the pellets was different. Each one produced a uniquely beautiful flower.” She looked around the room a third time. “The poem is the pellet and you are the glass of water.” I realized I was staring. I had not written a single word. And all I could think was “Oh, my Lord, I’m going to love college.” I don’t know how many times I’ve told that story. It is one of the seminal moments of not just my college education, but my life. It articulated a truth that I’d carried around in my heart, believed with all my heart, and never been able to put into words. Now I could: Beauty exists without permission, without license, but it needs a vessel, a conduit through which to make itself known. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak to an audience, mostly students, at East Georgia State College. I told them the story of the paper pellets. And I told them about The Little Prince, my favorite book which is also, now that I think of it, about a uniquely beautiful flower. It’s all now become an earworm, repeating itself over and over as I make the bed, answer emails, walk down the road lined with bright yellow asters and broom sedge as tall as a 10-year-old. The idea of beauty, of all things, needing help to accomplish its purpose is astonishing. And perplexing. A whole different way of thinking is required if we acknowledge that particular truth, if we admit to ourselves that beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, but dependent upon the beholder, if we accept our own responsibility in bringing beauty into the world. I watched the sunrise this morning. Pale stripes of orange and pink and peach, a few streaks of deep purple. They would have been there – the stripes and streaks – even if I hadn’t seen them, even if I hadn’t stood in bare feet on a wet deck, hugging myself against the chill. They would have been there, but they wouldn’t have been beautiful if I hadn’t seen them. But I did and, because I did, they were.