Tuesday Poetry: Jill McDonough “On Being Asked ‘What is Poetry?'”

I got to meet Jill McDonough at a poetry reading back in 2012, where I bought her book Where You Live. She’s a great local poet with several fellowships and prizes under her belt. Today’s selection is from Where You Live, originally appearing in readwritepoem.org:

On Being Asked ‘What Is Poetry?’

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.

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