What’s Poetry?

April 6, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROBERT PINSKY, Poet Laureate: A question I often hear is: What’s poetry? The poet, Heather McHugh gives a pretty good answer in this poem. Here, for Poetry Month, is Heather McHugh’s poem, “What He Thought,” for Fabbio Doplicher:

We were supposed to do a job in Italy 
and, full of our feeling for 
ourselves (our sense of being 
Poets from America) we went 
from Rome to Fano, met 
the Mayor, mulled
a couple matters over (what’s
cheap date, they asked us; what’s flat
drink?). Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts: 
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous, 
the brazen and the glib — and there was one

administrator (The Conservative), in suit 
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide 
with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated 
sights and histories the hired van hauled us past. 
Of all he was most politic and least poetic,
so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome 
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown) 
I found a book of poems this 
unprepossessing one had written: it was there 
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended) 
where it must have been abandoned by 
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn’t read Italian either, so I put the book 
back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then 
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there 
we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, 
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be Poetic, make 
our mark, one of us asked

     ”What’s poetry?

Is it the fruits and vegetables and 

marketplace of Campo dei Fiori or 
the statue there?” Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer 
instantly, I didn’t have to think– “The truth 
is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that 
was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed
taught me something about difficulty,

for our underestimated host spoke out 
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents Giordano Bruno, 
brought to be burned in the public square 
because of his offence against
authority, which is to say 
the Church. His crime was his belief 
the universe does not revolve around 
the human being: God is no 
fixed point or central government, but rather is 
poured in waves, through all things: All things 
move. “If God is not the soul itself, He is 
the soul of the soul of the world.” Such was 
his heresy. The day they brought him 
forth to die they feared he might incite
the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence). And so his captors 
placed upon his face 
an iron mask, in which
he could not speak. That’s

how they burned him. That is how 
he died, without a word, in front 
of everyone.

     And poetry-

(we’d all put down our forks by now, to listen to the man in gray; he went on


poetry is what

he thought, but did not say.