When I teach poetry, I tell my students that poetry has two functions:
1) to make the concrete abstract (“For all the history of grief, an empty doorway, and a maple leaf” – MacLeish)
2) to make the abstract concrete (“My love is like a red, red rose” – Burns)
Of course, that leaves out what some may argue is the main focus of poetry:
“To woo women.” (Dead Poets Society)
But what those definitions leave out, even the wooing women one (especially the wooing women one), is that poetry has so many more functions than can be described in a pithy, sounds good on a final exam soundbite or two. Poetry is depth and soul. I don’t believe poets are the conduits through which Nature speaks, despite what Percy Shelley may want to tell us, but I do believe poets give voice to that which has no discernible voice to those of us without a poetic soul: love, Nature, grief.
I am married to a Poet, but I am not one. I thought for the longest time I would be one, and then I realized, I have no talent when it comes to poetry. I am, instead, a novelist, and that’s where I feel comfortable. I have room to move. But being married to a poet, I know how much hard work writing poetry is. He inspired me, even, to realize that writing itself is hard work. Watching him labor over image or one or two words made me understand that I had, for the longest time, tossed off writing in a Romantic flair: with zest, passion, and no work.
I am no Romantic; I now know that writing is hard. Graduate school and writing novels taught me that; being an academic and a novelist continue to teach me. But if I could impart knowledge, it would be that it’s worth it if you love it. There has to be passion of some kind, so mayhap the Romantic pretense is not so wrong after all?
That is, we have drafts of “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” We know how hard Wordsworth worked. We need to work hard, just the same.