what is poetry?, featuring jeffrey harrison

a series in partnership with the Massachusetts Poetry Festival

Jeffrey Harrison, on 'What Is Poetry?'

Jeffrey Harrison

This is the third installment in 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?” Here is Jeffrey Harrison’s response.

What is poetry?
When a question is so vast and unanswerable, it is tempting to resort to humor, for instance by quoting Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Or Paul Valéry: “Most people have such a vague idea about poetry that this vague feeling itself is their definition of poetry.” But those of us with more than a vague idea hanker for more than a vague (or funny) definition.

The other approach (which I’m already using) is to turn to what others have said. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of definitions out there, none of which is adequate in itself, or there wouldn’t be so many. Here are a few definitions of poetry (and of what a poem is) that I like, and that are not as well-known as Wordsworth’s spontaneously overflowing feelings, Coleridge’s “best words in the best order” or Dickinson’s unwarmable body and head with the top taken off.

Octavio Paz: “Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice.”

Osip Mandelstam: “Poetry is the plow that turns up time, so that the deep layers of time, the black soil, appear on top.”

Allen Grossman: “A poem is an occasion for loving exchange of perceptions among the company summoned.”

Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.”

Charles Wright: “The poem should be a mixture of revelation and arrangement … ”

There’s a lot to dwell on here. And, come to think of it, one definition of poetry is a kind of dwelling, in the several senses of that word: a place of habitation as well as the idea of lingering and pondering. Reading and writing poetry provides us with a mental, emotional, and linguistic space in which to dwell, one where we are not in a hurry but have the time to ponder whatever it is we’ve turned our attention toward.

But maybe it’s impossible to say what poetry is, and maybe that’s why we keep writing poems, each poem trying to answer the question for itself.

Jeffrey Harrison is the author of four full-length books of poetry — most recently Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, New York), which was runner-up for the 2008 Poets’ Prize — as well as of The Names of Things, a selected poems published in England by The Waywiser Press in 2006. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, he has taught at George Washington University, Phillips Academy, where he was the Roger Murray Writer-in-Residence, College of the Holy Cross, the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program, and, during the summer, at the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H. He has new work in recent or forthcoming issues of The Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Tri Quarterly, The Southern Review and elsewhere. For more information, go to http://home.comcast.net/~jeffrey.harrison/index.htm

Harrison will be reading as part of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in the “Four Poets from Four Way Books” reading, Saturday, Oct. 17, at 1 p.m. at the ALL Arts Gallery in Lowell. Learn more about the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival by visiting the festival’s site.

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6 comments to what is poetry?, featuring jeffrey harrison

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