I quickly wrote: "WHAT IS POETRY?" in my notebook. I really did want to know, a college freshman with a big journal filled with essays about suicide. I wasn't depressed. Suicide was just a big theme of the late 90s and early oughts because of Girl, Interrupted and The Virgin Suicides. All the lonely girls were painting their nails black, tattooing their forearms with ink pens, and writing about "the inner hurt." I was good at coming up with razor blade metaphors.
"Think about it, and we'll discuss in 20 minutes. I want to know the definition of poetry. Split into groups and talk about it."
Ellen had walked into class on the first day wearing a bandana on her head and overalls, one of those outfits that raises a lot of questions. Was she throwing a pot in her art studio, painting her garage, or milking her goats when she was suddenly called away to teach college students about writing? None of us could know, and that was how Ellen liked it. She not only taught creative writing. She WAS creative writing.
"You might be wondering why I'm qualified to teach you creative writing," Ellen said on that first day. "Well...ten years ago, I wrote a book. It was published. There's a copy of it in the university library."
"What's your book about?" Chad in the front row asked.
"Well..." Ellen replied, brushing a lock of gray hair out of her eyes. "There's a young woman. She has problems with her father. One day, she learns how to masturbate. Then, she meets a priest and finds herself attracted to him. Shamefully, she masturbates. Some time goes by, and she meets another man and falls in love. She masturbates. It's a novel about love, shame, and masturbation."
Chad nodded thoughtfully. He was definitely going to the library after class to get that book.
We spent the rest of the first class doing free writing. I wrote about how the thin blade of my writing made me bleed my emotions. The sophomore girl who sat next to me (I later discovered her name was Zoe) wrote 10 pages of porn, and the 40-something woman in front of me, Karen, wrote a heartfelt tribute to Princess Diana. (For her, the pain was still very raw.) Toward the end of class, we went around the room and read our work.
"Everything I do is for my baby son," Chad in the front row said, standing up to read his work, as he came to do every time so that it would resonate better with his audience. "I just want to make him proud." Then, he read a poem called "Cheating Bitch."
At that point, I stopped to consider what I had gotten myself into by trying out a creative writing class. In my imagination, my fellow writers were always like-minded, talented people.
"I guess I need to show them how writing is done," I thought, jotting down some ideas for a short story about a college student who lives in a dorm room and writes about death a lot.
I read that short story to Karen and Zoe at our next class, beaming with pride that my life experience would speak to them.
"Is something supposed to happen?" Karen asked. "She was just watching old reruns of Mork and Mindy and microwaving a Hot Pocket."
Zoe just looked at me blankly and then went back to coloring in the pubes on the spread-eagled vulva she had drawn in her notebook.
"UGH. Nobody understands me!" I thought. "I guess I'll show them with my poetry."
And this brings us back to the question Ellen asked three weeks into class after showing up dressed as a train conductor: What is poetry?
Karen, Zoe, and I teamed up to get to the bottom of it. We had all forged one of those classroom friendships by then. I came to love Zoe's porn, the way it made people squirm when she read it aloud, unashamed, in class. And I even learned to appreciate Princess Diana in ways I never had before.
"So....poetry is words," I said. "Like...words that sound good together. And sometimes they rhyme, I guess. Right?"
"Sure," Zoe said, not looking up from her porn notebook.
"Add something about how it has to be beautiful," Karen added. "Beautiful and shining…and taken from us too soon."
I scribbled down their thoughts and added my own. Slowly, we came up with a definition for poetry that we thought Ellen would accept.
"Bethany, Karen, and Zoe. Your definition of poetry please," Ellen called, waving her hands for silence from the rest of the class.
"Ahem," I said. "We decided that it's the art of fitting words together. Sometimes they rhyme. Sometimes they don't."
"And they are beautiful," said Karen, wiping away a tear.
Had Zoe spoken, she probably would have said something comparing poetry to the clitoris.
"Okay," said Ellen, shrugging, "I guess that's an acceptable answer. Let's hear from some other people."
Chad stood up then to read his answer. He leaned against the wall, one hand in his jeans pocket. Casual, like all that Kerouac he had read.
"So, like, poetry isn't just words," Chad said. "It's, like, life. You see a mother holding her child. That's poetry. A sunset. That's, like, poetry, too. It doesn't have anything to do with words."
And then he glared at our group, like we were assholes for even bringing up words.
I thought about that definition of poetry for the next several weeks. I thought about it while I worked on my own poetry. I thought about it in my American lit course, when I should have been paying attention to Moby Dick. I thought about it while I warmed up Hot Pockets and watched Mork and Mindy.
Finally, I realized something really important.
It was the stupidest fucking thing I'd ever heard.
I'd like to tell you a heroic tale of how I went back to creative writing class, fully actualized at last, and blew my fellow classmates away with a few well-placed rhyming (or not rhyming) sets of words. Or surprised them with a short story that wasn't about a college girl's elaborate plan to the top of something and jump off because nobody understood her.
But I didn't. I kept being a bad writer for many, many years, but I kept working at it, and that's the important part of the story. But mostly, I just really wanted to tell you about Chad being a dumbshit.
I guess if you want to share your definition of poetry in comments, I'm for that. There are no wrong answers here.