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Poetry Is

By Jason Guriel

Recently, over at Slate, John Dickerson posed a challenge to readers: define the game of baseball in 150 words or less. Dickerson had been trying to figure out how to explain baseball to his six year-old son, without losing the son’s attention. He got many responses, which got me thinking: how would one (e.g. a teacher or a parent) define poetry to a six year-old, quickly, without losing the six year-old’s attention?

Comments (28)

  • On May 11, 2009 at 5:55 pm Erica Mena wrote:

    I’ll bite. For a six-year-old I might say: “Poetry is words that sound beautiful, say interesting things and paint a picture in your mind all at the same time.” Since that’s only 21 words, I hope elaboration will be added.

  • On May 11, 2009 at 6:44 pm Galen wrote:

    The late-great HERE COMES EVERYBODY asked hundreds of wonderful poets this question: How would you explain what a poem is to my seven year old?

    Read the answers here: http://herecomeseverybody.blogspot.com

  • On May 11, 2009 at 6:48 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Thanks, Erica.

    Galen, I wasn’t aware of that link! Thanks for it, though it probably renders this thread somewhat irrelevant. Still, those who haven’t posted a definition are encouraged to do so here….

  • On May 11, 2009 at 7:35 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Poetry is your grandfather, when you’re around six years old, bouncing you on his knee, and making up little rhyming songs about your name.

  • On May 11, 2009 at 8:34 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    Poetry is bad for you. Don’t read it. If I catch you reading it, you’re in big trouble.

  • On May 11, 2009 at 8:55 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Good ones, Mary and Zach!

    Zach, it occurs to me that if we presented your ‘definition’ to teenagers, we could build a huge audience for poetry.

  • On May 11, 2009 at 11:09 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    The first poem I can remember is:

    “Twinkle, twinkle little star,
    how I wonder what you are.”

  • On May 11, 2009 at 11:35 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    Given that Dr. Seuss outsold all contemporaries combined, perhaps six-year-old should be defining poetry to adults.

    The challenge is in doing this without losing the adults’ attention.

  • On May 11, 2009 at 11:43 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Assuming that adults ARE paying attention.

  • On May 12, 2009 at 12:20 am Michael j wrote:

    Poetry is…

  • On May 12, 2009 at 4:37 am Desmond Swords wrote:

    Eryn Rowan Laurie translating Amergin from Old Irish. Poetry is:

    “vast, mighty draughts of death-spells
    in active voice, in passive silence, in the neutral balance between,
    in the proper construction of rhyme,
    in this way it narrates the path and function of my cauldron.”

    Reality happening in musical wrapping,
    a stray note stolen and put in the cauldron
    of motion “which bestows the merit of every art,
    through which treasure increases,
    which magnifies every common artisan,
    which builds up a person through their gift.”

    This is 8% of the total word count in an untitled 7C text first translated in 1983 from Old Irish and needing no title because it (with the other 92%) was the first text given to the focloc on their first day at singing school.

    “It is greater than every domain
    it is better than every inheritance,
    it brings one to knowledge
    adventuring away from ignorance.”

  • On May 12, 2009 at 6:24 am Desmond Swords wrote:

    oops, didn’t read it’s for kids

    poetry’s what God made mummy
    and daddy with little blossom,
    heart warming child of two
    people who made you, lightly

    lilting the swing in a voice
    you can hear it in your tummy
    where kittens come from, who
    stay warm in the basket, yoy
    stop pulling ears offa bunny
    and hitting your sister, you
    little horror, poetry monster
    lilting in your ear, whisper
    for to be horrid ‘n naughty
    hit your brother, hurt, kick
    your mother and father for
    not giving you enough cash
    to spend in the mall, pack
    it in now – ow, arghh, ha ha
    ha, poetry silly, only make
    beleive, Reality dearest one
    glimmer, cuisle the very
    heartbeat and essence of all
    here before us, poetry is
    love and peace, hate and war,
    the music of what happens
    here in the now of it all
    life lullaby baby, sleep now.

  • On May 12, 2009 at 7:05 am Luna wrote:

    Good question. Kid or no kid, exemplify it. The (often misused)metaphor of game can be misleading: we cannot understand what the concept of poetry refers to by becoming acquainted with a set of rules…

  • On May 12, 2009 at 10:24 am Daisy Fried wrote:

    What I thought about this question, and the answers to this question, was “Why would you *explain* poetry to a seven year old. Why wouldn’t you simply read poetry to a seven-year old, or give her lots of opportunities to read it to herself?”

  • On May 12, 2009 at 1:27 pm graywyvern wrote:

    A poem is a butterfly. A butterfly, that can live for a thousand years.

  • On May 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm Howard Partch wrote:

    Poetry can be like looking at the grass outside your window and pretending there is a beautiful tree growing there with a chickadee hanging upside down from a branch.

  • On May 13, 2009 at 11:04 am Don Share wrote:

    Emotion recollected in tranquility without meter.

  • On May 13, 2009 at 1:16 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Good suggestions, all!

  • On May 13, 2009 at 7:29 pm manny cartola wrote:

    “a magazine in chicago.”

  • On May 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm Jason Guriel wrote:


  • On May 13, 2009 at 7:48 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Good idea, Manny! (Just get the six year-old a subscription!)

  • On May 13, 2009 at 7:57 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    PS That last comment wasn’t meant to be sarcastic.

  • On May 13, 2009 at 11:22 pm Bradley Paul wrote:

    Poetry is a linguistic and metaphorical representation of experience, though that experience may not have the dramatic “events” that typify fiction. You know what a metaphor is, doncha, son?

  • On May 15, 2009 at 1:09 am Manoel Cartola wrote:

    let’s stop the insanity.

    (maybe) poetry can’t be defined because it exists in a place where definition is made (and broken).

    (or that poetry is what defines and therefore isn’t definable)

    or it is just something silly people do

    or it’s a “if you have to ask you’ll never know” type of thing…

  • On May 17, 2009 at 8:07 pm Terreson wrote:

    My first reaction is to say I would no sooner try to tell my daughter, when she was seven, what is poetry than I would try to explain it to a hard headed businessman, an engineer, an accoutant, or a scientist convinced that evolutionary genetics is a matter of hard-wiring only. But that would spoil the game. So here might be my answer:

    Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross
    to see a fine lady on a white horse.
    With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
    she shall have music wherever she goes.

    And that, my dear, is poetry.


  • On May 17, 2009 at 9:13 pm Ian wrote:

    My favourite definition of poetry is Coleridge’s “…the best words in the best order”. I also like “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” (Thomas Gray) and “Poetry is language at its sharpest” (Owen Sheers).

  • On May 17, 2009 at 11:45 pm john wrote:

    My son’s school just had a school-wide celebration. All of the grades wrote collaborative poems on the theme, “Hands together make the world a better place.”

    Poetry is sententious.

    They got it.

    My six-year-old doesn’t like poetry unless it rhymes or is sententious. He tends to prefer cheerful rhythm & rhyme. I don’t blame him.

    Sandburg has some nice definitions of poetry, as has Paz. And many others.

    Poetry is an utterance made by someone who is aware of the history and/or culture of poetry and who intends the utterance to be recognized and received as a poem in that history and/or culture. The utterance can be visual or oral, or signed visually or tactilely. Poetry serves a cultural and/or aesthetic function for anybody who desires it.

    Some say that poems are made of words, but I don’t trust ’em — poems can be made of sounds or silences, letters or numbers or marks, gestures. I don’t particularly trust words anyway — in phrases I trust. Except when . . . except when . . .

    I wouldn’t try to define poetry to a six year old. Give examples, not definitions.

    Same with baseball. Watch it; play it with the kid if possible; don’t explain it without examples in hand.

  • On May 29, 2009 at 2:55 pm bob b. wrote:

    Poetry is what prose hopes to be when it grows up.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, May 11th, 2009 by Jason Guriel.