In my Poet’s Dictionary (by William Packard), poetry is defined simply as, “The rhythmic creation of beauty in words.” Naturally, there is more to say, so the entry goes on for a full two pages, and includes some definitions that poets, like Wordsworth and Dickinson among others, have offered throughout history.
I find poetry easier to experience than to define.
This past week, I had the opportunity to travel to the mountains. Whenever I can do so, I like to take detours … the more lonesome the detour, the better. One of my favorites on this particular trip takes me off an annoyingly busy mountain highway and onto a two-lane, sometimes one-lane, sometimes partially unpaved road. It is full of hairpin curves and mostly empty of other travelers. I like the curves not only because they force me to slow way down, but also because it seems to me that everywhere I go lately, curves in the road are being made straight (pick your own metaphorical application).
I like slowing way down because it is then that I can really see where I am. When I am in the mountains and I slow way down, it is as if I am waiting for the earth to speak to me. Literally. I listen for words.
On this recent drive, I noticed that the trees, even though mostly bare, were like sentries, lending an air of secrecy and of vigilance, like they were protecting something unseen, but felt; something which both prompted a yearning and set off an alarm in me. I experience these feelings frequently when I go to the higher elevations, though they are not always prompted by the same sights. This day, I wanted to park my car and walk the undulations of “hill and holler” so badly that even now, I am surprised I resisted.
And what if the mountainous earth – which seemed to know I was there, which seemed to stare back at me, which seemed to both flirt with me and hide from me all at once – what if it had spoken? I understand my own fear. Perhaps other people have similar fears about prayer, or even their own silence.
My paternal grandparents grew up in the mountains, and so they knew them. I simply know of them. When I compare my life’s experiences to theirs, what I know seems meager indeed. I attended Appalachian State University, so I went to school in the mountains, but they learned life in the mountains. Still, I feel a kinship, an awareness, a connection with their life stories, beyond what my own experiences would seem to support rationally.
When I read Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden recently, I cried because I could hear his characters; I could hear exactly how they intoned as they spoke to one another. I could hear their silences. I knew them … and yet, I didn’t know them. I don’t know them any more than I really know those mountains that fill me with longing and foreboding.
As I made that drive this past week, I wished for a way to experience it over and over all at once, like replaying your favorite track on a CD. I wanted to find an explanation for my yearning and my dread, but now I see that finding an answer would be like breaking open a kaleidoscope.
Is what I am attempting to describe here mystery or poetry?
I say, “Yes.”