My onboard dictionary lists two basic definitions of a “poet.” One is simple: a person who writes poems. The other, more to my liking, is more expansive: a person possessing special powers of imagination or expression. Of course, if you wade into definitions from sources more literary in nature, the definitions become a bit more esoteric and define poetry by contrasting it to prose. But the key element of poetry remains—its rhythmical (metrical) structure.
Most of us itinerant poets enjoy the interplay of words and the tension between the objective and emotional facets of words. In poetry, words become more than vowels, consonants, and syllables; they take on a flavor and can be electrically charged. As has been said, the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug.
But in poetry, the word with the proper glimmer may be exactly what you are looking for. Rather than some bright or explosive flash, all that might be called for is a bit of a glow. Poetry is the language of subtleties and as such provides the perfect playground for the writer. Poetry nearly always is multifaceted in its word usage, as described in the Bedford glossary:
“While poetry can be approached intellectually, it is equally an emotional experience; one might even say that poetry is meant to be experienced rather than simply read. Poetry is rich with a suggestiveness born from the interplay of words and sounds.”
You can easily get mired down in the definitions and classifications of poetry. Spend too much time labeling butterflies and you miss the mysterious beauty of their flight. As a teacher, I taught my students how to diagram sentences, not as an end but a tool to understand the role and interplay of words in a sentence. If you want to understand how something works, take it apart. As a child, I was good at the taking things apart part but putting it back together without having parts left over was a bit more challenging. In writing, however, you want “things” left over. They are the words you don’t need, are redundant, or obscure clarity.
Even though I write poetry, I do not classify myself as a poet and certainly not as being gifted with any “special powers.” That’s because poetry is not the core of my writing. It resides a bit on my literary periphery—a place I occasionally visit, and, as such, always need to perform some warm-up exercises to get back into the poetry groove. Although not otherworldly, writing poetry takes a writer, at least this writer, into a different place where words have greater depth, intensity, and emotionality—visually descriptive or figuratively so—and produce imagery that rises above and goes beyond the page on which they otherwise would merely reside.
Admittedly, my definition of poetry is a bit old fashioned as represented in the poetry I write. To me, poetry represents a very wide range of words formatted and used in out-of-the-ordinary ways in some pattern of rhyme and rhythm to tell a story that generates emotion and imagery, or, perhaps more accurately, creates motion through the imagery of words.
I do not sit down with pen and paper and say, “Okay, let’s write a poem.” A true poet can do that I suppose—see, hear, feel, maybe even taste, the poetry in everything around him or her. Something has to forcibly nudge the poet in me—an image, something said, even a piece of news that contains some element of poetry lurking in its image or word structure and hints at or projects an emotion. Yes, a true poet may say the same thing about the sources of his or her “inspiration,” but for me the volume has to be turned up a little higher before I see or hear it. A true poet is perhaps more nuanced in his or her sensitivities. Perhaps it’s a matter of practice! I see poetry as less akin to writing words on paper and more akin to chipping into a slab of marble.
Where a “normal” person might see a dirty window, a poet perceives one covered in the dust of life. It’s the imagery through which poets view the world that make them poets rather than journalists. My limitations come from the fact that I was trained as a journalist. I have to back up and unplug lots of objective connections and predilections toward objectivity to find my poetic—emotional–perspective. But I don’t think you have to be a trained journalist to acquire this, let’s call it, a limitation of sensibilities. It comes naturally from exposure to an objective world.
A person who writes poetry also has to have a fondness for the flow of rhyme (some sort of rhythmic structure) in order to express emotion or tell story, and might have some difficulty, if asked, to explain how his or her internal creative engine that produces poetry is initiated and operates. But because I do not consider myself a writer first and a poet somewhere beyond second, I know that once in the poetic mood, everything tends to become, well, poetic and take on some form of rhythm or rhyme. Play in the sandbox of poetry and you start to find rhyme everywhere; like the sand, it clings to everything and that which doesn’t naturally occur you find yourself making up. Wouldn’t it be funny if the reason for that was that, in more ancient times, humans spoke in rhyme? It might be fun to try to communicate that way for a day. I suggest that you first read a lot of Shakespeare! Still, it would be a great way to force yourself into a greater sensitivity for words and their sounds and meanings.
This is the value to a writer to occasionally sit down and write poetry. It connects a writer more intimately to words. You quickly discover that beyond definition, words consist of textures and rhythms and special affinities to and preferences to be connected to the “right” word. You understand the hesitation in another’s conversation as “they search for the right word.” And you will find that you spend more time finding the just right word not just for your poetry but your prose, and that will make you a better writer.