A change of pace:

Last week, my four-year-old son asked us at dinner what poetry is. My wife got going on a good four-year-old-level answer, and then Pete volunteered,

“A poem is when you read something, and you see things that are different.”

And we said, bwa? I have no idea where this came from, and I don’t mean that in a “Wow, this kid is an inexplicable genius” kind of way. I mean that we can’t remember saying or reading anything remotely like this to Pete, and it isn’t the kind of thing we think he’d run into at daycare. And although we’ve read tons of poems to him, they tend, of course, to be rhyming, story-driven kids’ poems, so it’s hard to imagine him deriving such a definition from that. He has never said anything I found so mysterious.

In the moment, of course, I didn’t tell him any of this. I did what any parent would do: I scolded him for wordiness, made him revise out the two needless “to be” verbs, and showed him how he could express the same sentiment directly as “poetry transforms vision.” Then I explained how even better formulations might reflect the transformative power of poetry in their language, and sent him to bed with a copy of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and my lecture notes.

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