At the beginning of every semester, as cottonwoods wave their yellow prayer flags or wait with buds encased in snow, I tell my aspiring poets that the thing I most want them to get out of my class isn't how to create a powerful poetic voice, or how to use metaphors and rhyme, or how to get published and become famous. I tell them that the most important thing I hope they'll take away from my class is how to pay attention to their lives.
I tell them that the nineteenth-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said poetry's purpose is "to remove the scales of familiarity from our eyes." Shelley saw how we become habituated to people, landscapes, and things. He observed how we walk around lost in our thinking minds, on automatic pilot, and no longer experience what's around us—the shadows of ash-tree leaves on my desk, a crow cawing in the distance, the voices of children rising from the street. Emerson knew this, too. He said, "To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again." I want my students to see that poems are all around them, that we find our originality in the uniqueness of the present moment.