‘So, Professor Buchanan, what in the world is poetry?’

Never mind how I’ve ended up at the State Capitol testifying to the Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media about the nature of poetry. Let’s just say I was feeling public-spirited, or that I can’t resist when those who control the budget come calling in search of arts educators.

I’ve just been given a certificate with my own bio on it. Is it a preemptive souvenir? A reminder of who I am when I’m not impersonating a high-powered lobbyist? Again, never mind. We’re getting started, even though we’re apparently one member short of a quorum. I slouch to the microphone and sit hunched in my seat like an Enron exec.

The committee chair, a very nice lady named Betty Karnette, asks me her long-threatened question. I launch into a definition of poetry as “language heightened to its fullest immediacy” but soon find myself floundering. Poetry is what I should be offering you right now instead of half-baked academic opinions, I think. Poetry grabs you by the balls, if you have them, or by your padded shoulders if you don’t. If you don’t know what poetry is by now, I find myself on the cusp of saying, I can’t really help you. Besides, aren’t you in the middle of a fiscal crisis that needs your attention?

Just then, a smartly dressed assemblywoman walks in. Instant quorum. They call roll, and immediately an assemblyman gets up to leave.

“Got another committee.”

Another committee? I’m paying a dollar an hour to park, and this guy has something better to do than listen to me?

“I’m so sorry, Dr. Buchanan,” the chair says. “Could you start that answer again?”

“Yes,” I say. “I’d be glad to.”

I try to make the most of my second chance.

I vault over the sturdy railing of the witness chair and strike a commanding pose near the dormant TV cameras. I hammer them with a recitation of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”—prime anti-war propaganda, in case they’re on the Committee to Impeach Bush. After three minutes of roughed-up iambic pentameter, they’re putty in my hands.

I tell them about Poetry Out Loud, the national high-school poetry recitation contest, and make a vague reference to rap music’s propensity for internal rhyme. The rep from Los Angeles corrects me suavely, preferring the term “hip-hop,” but by this time I’m tripping out on a Harold Bloom-sized case of the anxiety of influence. What if they dump a million bucks in the lap of my favorite local arts organization? What if I end up with a corner office in some poetry-promotion firm? What if poetry is co-opted by the fat cats? What if?

And then, finally and all too soon, it’s over and I’m back in my car, still wondering how—and why—it happened in the first place.