What is a Poem?

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Welcome, and thanks for stopping by. These occasional short essays, of which this is the first, hope to show that poetry is that rare place in contemporary experience where legitimate magic can still happen.

So, what is a poem? Allow me to riff. It arises out of the ordinary, out of the gravitation in whose haul we daily live. It seeks out and consumes the otherness in matter, for in all poetry there is an otherness. A poem can be angry — pugnacious, mean-spirited (call it the vinegar proxy). It can also be an affirmation, an expression of love through fresh perception, a descant on the world.

A poem is a pursuit of local perfection, as unrelenting as a telephone number in its need to be exact. But if it merely records, even with exquisite sensitivity, it is no more than camera film. A poem is a report from deep in the mind: a report on the human condition, a profit and loss statement of the spirit. Like a bill of lading, it documents a cargo and its journey, which is the slow migration of a soul.

The poem and its subject are like the random alliance of an acorn and the ground on which it falls. Wherever it looks, the poem gathers the earth into its hands. It grows like Aristotle’s definition of a riddle: “a song in crooked words beyond intelligence.”

A poem is a celebration, like a turbulence of cut flowers. A poem is a village breathing by its own set of rules. A poem exists in its tension like the Hindenburg: a hydrogen bubble waiting to see if it finds its self in flame.

A poem is like a mariner’s compass, swinging
with slow recoveries until,
to the pull of a distant absolute
responding, the knowledge in its atoms,
overshooting each time less — lightly
but persistently on this one point —
settles on what it true.

Then in three degrees of freedom
it points the way. Coins and watches,
our rolls and recoveries
do not dispel its equilibrium.
Housed in a binnacle, lit from below,
its amber radiance includes the helmsman’s face.

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