What is the difference between poetry and verse?

Musings on poetry read and attempted, and teachers long gone.



My favorite teacher at Coffeyville Community College was J. Henry Hedley. In a literature class he asked us, in the Socratic method, “What’s the difference between poetry and verse?”

We looked at him with blank faces. We were too cool to frown in ignorance.

“Anyone can write verse,” he explained. “Only a poet can write poetry.”

We nodded knowingly. At that age and in that time we were very wise and oh-so-cultured. We were especially fond of the poet Rod McKuen. A boyfriend gave me a book of poetry by Carl
Sandburg, “Honey and Salt.” We gave one another poetry books back then. It was a long time ago.

Now, I read my horoscope more fervently than I read poetry. In honor of National Poetry Month I am revisiting my love of poetry.

I’ll pull out copies of Billy Collins books with poems such as “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.” I’ll reread the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese” that reminds us,

 

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert
repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal
of your body
love what it loves.”

 

I’ll read haiku and Emily Dickinson. Because they’re short and suitable for my 8-second attention span, similar to that of a goldfish.

My favorite book of poetry these days is the funny children’s book “I’m Just No Good at Rhyming.”

I thought about dabbling with the didactic cinquain form of poetry, five lines playfully using adjectives, gerunds and nouns:

 

“Snow
Silent, white
Dancing, falling, drifting,
Covering everything it touches
Blanket.”

 

But I got distracted and remembered the funny free verse of e.e. cummings:

 

“The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.”

 

Wasn’t it Robert Frost who said writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down?

That reminded me of the fierce free verse of Sherman Alexie, especially in his new memoir about his mother’s death in “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and I wandered off to look for that book in my library.

There I found Dorothy Parker’s sharp-as-a-blade doggerel,

 

“Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen
She lays eggs for gentle men
You cannot persuade her with gun and lariat
She will not come across for the proletariat.”

 

Stuck in one of the books as a bookmark was a thank-you note I got from Lily, the 16-year-old who lives across the street. She thanked me for a Christmas gift, but more importantly, she wrote this:

“Also, thank you for encouraging me to finish ‘Jane Eyre.’ I ended up loving the book! The ending was wonderful! Probably my favorite school book I’ve read.”

What a triumph! (Lily encourages me to use exclamation marks.) Does this elevate me to the status of teacher? Oh, wait. I remember when I taught journalism writing at the University of Tulsa and went to class one day to find this note on my podium: “Dear Ms. Cronley. The reason I didn’t come to class today was because I’m depressed already.”

I’ll look forward to the first full week of May, which is Teacher Appreciation Week, but for now I’ll celebrate National Poetry Month in honor of Mr. Hedley with this composition of my own. It’s a verse, not a poem.    

 

“I loved you for what you were.
Or what I thought you were.
Or what you thought you were.
Boy, were we wrong.

“Now when I dream of you
I know it’s a sign
That I’m coming down with something —
A virus or a migraine.” 

 

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