“But poetry says things that nothing else can. It snares the edges of the unspeakable. It grazes dreams. It stands with feet in several worlds. It says two or three things at once, and then denies them all in favor of silence.”
-James Tate, in his introduction to James Welch’s Riding the Earthboy 40
Over the last few years, poetry has become my favorite thing to teach. I think everyone can write a poem. That’s not because it’s easier than prose, or because it’s harder, or anything about the difficulty. Perhaps its because poetry, in the end, is grounded in silence, and however loud we think we are or pretend to be, we’ve all been silent.
Whenever I start with a new group of students, someone asks, “But what is poetry?” Sometimes I ask it just to get ahead of the question, but the truth is, I’m always a little “Oh boy…” when it comes up. Not “Oh boy!” like excited for the first snow, but “oh boy…” like when you come back at 11 pm and realize you put your only pair of sheets in the washer that afternoon, but not the dryer. You’ll have to do something, and whatever you do it’ll be okay, but it’s not going to be great and (if you’re me) it’s not going to be the last time you do this.
Back at Amherst, when someone gave The Question to Professor David Sofield, he opened our book and pointed around the words: “This stuff,” he said. “The blank space. That’s what makes it a poem.” I thought he was joking, but reading Tate, Sofield’s answer comes back to me. It’s the blank space. It’s the margin around a moment. It’s the room we sit in, listening. Last semester, when my students kept pushing, I eventually told them: “You know when you’re sitting in the cafeteria, and you’re talking about some BS TV show or a piece of gossip, and you couldn’t care less about it, but you keep saying it all the same? Poetry is not that.”
Everyone can write a poem. These days, I love trying to open that space for someone to try. Try to say the things you can’t. Try to graze a dream, which could mean brushing a finger against it, and could also mean bending down your head and tasting it, intent and careful like this morning’s deer. Notice that there are two or three things you mean, and once you’ve done that, notice the silence. Sometimes it’s the silence that has something to say. Whenever I sit down a moment, whenever I make a little space (instead of trying to or pretending to), that silence is there.