POEM: Poetic License

One day I went to get my poetic license
I drove them crazy with their test
at the DMV
Perhaps next time I’ll try NASA

This poem reminds me of the scene in the movie, “Dead Poets Society,” where the teacher at an exclusive boy’s prep school, on the first day of class begins:

The teacher, Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) sits at his desk at the front of the classroom and opens up one of his books.

KEATING
Gentlemen, open your text to page
twenty-one of the introduction. Mr.
Perry, will you read the opening
paragraph of the preface, entitled
“Understanding Poetry”?

NEIL
Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans
Pritchard, Ph.D. To fully understand
poetry, we must first be fluent with
its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech.
Then ask two questions: One, how artfully
has the objective of the poem been
rendered, and two, how important is that
objective. Question one rates the poem’s
perfection, question two rates its
importance. And once these questions have
been answered, determining a poem’s
greatest becomes a relatively simple
matter.

Keating gets up from his desk and prepares to draw on the chalk board.

NEIL
If the poem’s score for perfection is
plotted along the horizontal of a graph,
and its importance is plotted on the
vertical, then calculating the total
area of the poem yields the measure of
its greatness.

Keating draws a corresponding graph on the board and the students
dutifully copy it down.

NEIL
A sonnet by Byron may score high on the
vertical, but only average on the
horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on
the other hand, would score high both
horizontally and vertically, yielding a
massive total area, thereby revealing the
poem to be truly great. As you proceed
through the poetry in this book, practice
this rating method. As your ability to
evaluate poems in this matter grows, so
will – so will your enjoyment and
understanding of poetry.

Neil sets the book down and takes off his glasses. The student sitting
across from him is discretely trying to eat. Keating turns away from
the chalkboard with a smile.

KEATING
Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J.
Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe,
we’re talking about poetry.

Mr. Keating then proceeds to instruct the students to tear the whole introductory chapter out of the book.  This peaks the interest of some of the students (and a little horror in others).

Of course, the heart of my poem pivots on the dual meaning and paradox of getting a “poetic license.”  A license is typically some form of certification or accreditation indicating that the applicant (they don’t just pass out licenses!) has successfully demonstrated adherence to prescribed rules based on the conventional wisdom of the era.  In contrast, “poetic license” refers to the freedom a poet takes in order create an artistic expression.

I view poetry as first art, and second science.  Now, to be fair, a fluency in linguistics can greatly aid one’s expression.  Nonetheless, if you put random words on a piece of paper and meditated upon them, strangely poetic relationships, phrases and themes would likely emerge (in the mind of someone).  In fact, this is one method to my madness.  Usually a poem is first born of a phrase or two that strikes me out of the ether of my life.  Then with a general theme, I associate related words, phrases and concepts.  Mining the infinite juxtapositions of puns, alliterations, metaphors and irony, characterizes my basic style of writing.  In my longer poems, I typically develop parallel narratives that are in tension, sometimes paradoxical.  Often there are several different ways to read a set of words or phrases, depending on punctuation and where one begins and/or ends the phrase/sentence.  This is why I often avoid punctuation and put short phrases or single words on a separate line.  This allows the reader to more freely experience the dance of associations and multiple meanings.  While my own basic point of view usually emerges with some clarity, sometimes by simply ending on a particular note, I definitely see truth as living in the neighborhood of paradox, and the struggle for and the balance of these tensions is at the heart of most of my poetry.  Poetry is less “laying pipe,” than flooding the reader with images and ideas, thoughts and feelings, that expand our consciousness and enrich our experience.  Of course, you are free to live by your own rules… 

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