I’ve been worrying about something with increasing distress.
Yesterday, after I wrote a poem about walking
to lose Covid weight I’ve gained since March of last year,
I wondered if I knew what a poem was anymore.
Poetry, I’ve always thought of, as an accretion of fragments,
a collecting of scattered words we turn into phrases, images,
the author’s imagination a magnet pulling them together,
hooking them along like some kind of tapestry,
size dependent on whether the author decides the poem is complete.
Which, I’m leaning toward, is never.
A poem is never-ending,
always approaching some kind of goal that keeps receding.
We stop writing a poem; we don’t finish it.
Death finishes a poem. Ask Walt Whitman.
If he were alive today, he’d still be adding to his ball of string,
another poem/leaf integrated into his Leaves of Grass,
another crack at editing every poem already included.
Seriously, I don’t think I can figure out anymore
what differentiates poetry from prose.
Why didn’t I write about losing Covid weight as a short story? Why a poem?
I have no idea.
Nowadays, any subject seems equally suitable for poetry or prose.
I could have easily turned my poem last night into a story.
Shakespeare turned poetry into plays.
This poem could be an essay.
Even more worrisome than that, I think I’m understanding poetry less.
I’ve been writing poems almost daily for eight years.
Whenever I read another poet’s work now, I don’t look for some big picture.
I can’t explain it, don’t recall the academic ins and outs of interpretation.
I refuse to say, however, that I wasted my years as an English major.
I learned plenty, I know.
But I spend all my time digging into the nitty-gritty,
figuring out techniques, wondering if I can use them and how,
borrowing phrases, whole lines and more,
cool images, and imitating clever writing games.
In the end, if people ask me to help them understand a poem,
I fear I have no idea what to say.
Except maybe: I fear you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Boy, would I make a lousy English teacher now.
I remember I used to know something about reading poetry.
But the more I fool around with my own writing these days, the farther afield I drift,
and all the more I worry I’ve forgotten how to read much of anything at all.