a series in partnership with the Massachusetts Poetry Festival
This piece is part of a series brought to you by Read Write Poem in partnership with the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which is being held Oct. 15-18 in Lowell and various cities across Massachusetts. Visit the organization’s website for a complete schedule of events, to watch videos of poets performing at the 2008 festival, for ticket information and more.
For this series, featured readers at the festival were asked to answer the question, “What is poetry?” Below is the first response, from Jill McDonough.
On Being Asked ‘What Is Poetry?’
by Jill McDonough
I ask that a lot, ask a lot of students that. Whitman,
Dickinson, Dietz. There are hundreds of ways
to say you don’t know, most of them
pretty good. Anne Bradstreet, Anne Carson, Anne
Sexton, Annie Finch. Right now I teach Understanding
Literature. They didn’t Understand
that people still write Literature, that it’s alive. Bishop,
Pinsky, Lowell. It took me three weeks to make them
stop saying they don’t like poetry. No to Baudelaire.
Ditto John Clare, Gwendolyn Brooks. What the hell
are you talking about? Don’t like poetry. Don’t like food.
Vessels, buildings, days. Don’t like lumber, time.
Poetry: whatever we say it is. We’re
in charge. Homer, Akhmatova, Frost. I don’t know
art, but I know what I like. Here’s
what I like. Fresh chalk on my hands, marking stresses
on the board. a PLUM. a PURple FINCH: three
iambs. Hopkins, Herbert, Fred Marchant. Then reading
aloud from Alan Dugan who, I admit it, is dead. But not
much: the purple prick of that skunk cabbage is still
erect in its frost-thawing fart gas. Basho, Bronte, Keats.
Berryman, Ashbery, Yeats. Poetry means you get to say
whatever whatever you want. Your professor might close the class
with Dugan’s prick in her mouth. It’s poetry, so it’s
allowed. Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? Sure.
Also, They Fuck You Up, Your Mum and Dad. What is poetry?
What is poetry? I don’t know.
Jill McDonough’s poems appear in The Threepenny Review, The New Republic and Slate. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA, the Fine Arts Work Center, Stanford’s Stegner Program and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she has taught incarcerated college students through Boston University since 1999. Her first book of poems is Habeas Corpus (Salt Publishing, 2008), 50 sonnets about legal executions in American history.
McDonough will be reading as part of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s Boston kick-off event on Thursday, Oct. 15, at 6:30 p.m. at the Boston Public Library and again in the New Works Reading, Saturday, Oct. 17, at 4:30 p.m. in Lowell. She is also participating in The Medieval Poetry Workshop, Saturday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m. Learn more about the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival by visiting the festival’s site.
Jill McDonough’s poem, “On Being Asked ‘What is Poetry?,’” was written in response to this series and is shared with permission from the poet. McDonough retains copyright on the piece. Contact her before using or reproducing the poem.