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Published: Mon Jan 18 2016
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
What, Then, Is a Poem?

An idea, a song, an investigation, a story, even an essay: any of these may be a poem.

What, then, is a poem?

A chameleon, a carnival, a climate change. A salamander. A book with various pages.

But perhaps these musings are confusing; perhaps more clarity is called for. So:

Let’s say that the poem is something outside or inside all these apparent forms, that the something outside or inside is a sort of bird that by turns becomes a cardinal, a blue jay, a goldfinch, a magpie, a mockingbird. Many birds with one persistent, or insistent, soul.

This is not so hard to understand. It may be compared with Plato’s realm of eternal things—the truth on high, the truths in our world that seek to copy, but cannot originate, the truth on high—but then again, we may ignore Plato and speak simply of a common soul, as we do of a common humanity.

The question becomes, What is the soul of poetry?

I’d like to be able to answer this in a word. Love, say. Or loss.

One word won’t do it. Why? Because there are three factors in the equation: the poem, the poet, the reader.

The reader wants to be entertained, enlarged, deepened, moved, enlightened, surprised, charmed. Or all of those things.

The poet wants to entertain, enlarge, deepen, move, enlighten, surprise, and charm the reader.

And the poem? What the poem wants to do is explore. It wants to travel to other planets. It wants to dive into the deep sea. It wants to tunnel down dark caves and re-emerge with fossils or diamonds. (I guess a diamond is a fossil.)

The reader’s soul is innocent but acquires learning.

The poet’s soul is curious and begins in wonder, as does philosophy.

But the poem’s soul is courageous, bold, without guile, ready to risk anything, even its own death. It has the heart of a soldier, the warmth of a small child, the brain of a genius. Follow the poem. It will lead you.

Kelly Cherry is the author of numerous books of fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and criticism. Her most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (Stephen F. Austin State University Press); A Kind of Dream: Stories (University of Wisconsin Press); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). She has received, among other honors, three PEN/Syndicated Fiction Awards, the Hanes Prize, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for Short Fiction. (updated 2017)

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