Life Distilled

Q.  Why do we read poetry?

A.  “Poetry is life distilled.” – Gwendolyn Brooks

I wish I’d known this twenty years ago, when my English teacher introduced me to the poetry of John Donne.  My teacher said, “If you can understand a poem written by John Donne, you can understand any poem.”  She was right.  I’m not sure I ever grasped Donne, but I certainly caught the poetry bug.

Why do I read poetry?  A poem can be almost anything.  A poem can be a spark, an idea, a motive, an emotion, a picture, a memory, a wake-up call, a gripe, a reminder, or a reason to scratch your head.  A poem can hold a mirror to life, and you can study the reflection – like those movie characters we love because they are complex, real and honest.  A poem can capture a mood.  A poem can capture attention – anyone’s attention – if it speaks their language.  A poem can even change a mood.

One evening, I was feeling particularly tired and impatient with my kids.  I needed to quiet them at the dinner table.  I grabbed one of my new favorites, A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children, by Caroline Kennedy, and flipped through the pages.  I landed on a poem called “Good Hotdogs” by Sandra Cisneros.  As soon as I read the title, I captured my kids’ attention – and not just because they were eating hotdogs for dinner.  They simply got a kick out of the idea that someone wrote a poem about hotdogs:

Good Hotdogs

by Sandra Cisneros

Fifty cents apiece
To eat our lunch
We’d run
Straight from school
Instead of home
Two blocks
Then the store
That smelled like steam
You ordered
Because you had the money
Two hotdogs and two pops for here
Everything on the hotdogs
Except pickle lily
Dash those hotdogs
Into buns and splash on
All that good stuff
Yellow mustard and onions
And french fries piled on top all
Rolled up in a piece of wax
Paper for us to hold hot
In our hands
Quarters on the counter
Sit down
Good hotdogs
We’d eat
Fast till there was nothing left
But salt and poppy seeds even
The little burnt tips
Of french fries
We’d eat
you humming
And me swinging my legs

That poem is just pure fun.  Reading it is like popping a gumball in your mouth and rolling it around on your tongue.  It’s delightful and sweet.  Thankfully, so were my kids after I finished reading it to them.  So for all you cynics who are thinking, “A poem can BE lots of things, but what can a poem DO?”  For starters, a poem can change the mood of two kids and their tired mother, at five o’clock, on a Tuesday evening.  That’s nothing to sneeze at, is it?




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