A poem is a reluctant lover. You, the poet, are crazy about it, but it couldn’t care less about you. Pursue the poem aggressively and it’ll run away or, like a figure out of Greek myth, fall dead at your feet when you touch it. Reverse psychology will only get you so far: If you ignore a poem, it might whisper a line in your ear the way the answer to a crossword clue pops into your head when you’re not looking at the puzzle, but it won’t whisper two lines, much less a whole stanza.
It’s hard enough to explain this to myself, so how do I explain it to others? Fortunately, explaining art in general and poetry in particular has kept writers busy for thousands of years, so it is easy to assemble a small library of axioms, adages, exhortations, hypotheses, rhetorical questions, seemingly offhand remarks and actual snippets from poems themselves to explain how poetry works. Unfortunately, none of them does the job.
When strangers ask what I do and I tell them I’m a poet, a typical reaction is, “Gee, I just don’t get poetry.” But do you “get” Rossini’s String Quartet in C Major, I reply? Or if you’re at a dance recital, do you stand up in the middle of row H and shout, “Stop! I don’t get it!” Just give poetry a chance, I say. Many poems don’t work for me either, but most are short, so I just keep reading until I find one that, as Emily Dickinson put it, takes the top off your head when you read it, or gives you a chill no fire can warm.
That’s the way a good poem works, if it works. I’m appalled at how much bad poetry is out there: trivial, picayune, self-indulgent stuff that’s either incomprehensible or says, “I looked out the window and saw such-and-such, and here’s my obvious thought about it.” I go to a lot of poetry readings, and my heart always sinks if I hear the guest poet say, “I wish I didn’t have to do this” or “I don’t like to give readings.” Because when they get up to read, you find out why: They’re bad poets. Now, they’re not dumb (most of them went to elite schools) and they’re not amateurs (they’re well published, after all), but they’re going to read poems the audience just doesn’t like. The audience will murmur “Umm…” at the end of the poem about Aunt Tilda’s death or the sunrise over Lake Boomshakalaka, and they’ll clap politely when the reading’s over. But they won’t cheer, because the whole thing has been tepid, has been mere language intelligently organized—has been no fun, in other words. The poet knew it, too, but couldn’t say what the audience now knows; the poems were going to be bad, and they were. No wonder so many poets are depressed.
And no wonder so many people don’t get poetry, or think they don’t. In his essay on “The Poet”, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind on a fort at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!
But notice what Emerson is talking about here. He’s talking about images, not words. Words create images that resonate emotionally, but they’re not images per se. After all, language tends to be serial and analytical by nature, whereas an emotion is an irreducible, all-at-once phenomenon. Then again, it’s always hard to explain how any artform sparks the emotional reaction it does. The film scholar Carol J. Clover says that
the processes by which a certain image (but not another) filmed in a certain way (but not another) causes one person’s (but not another’s) pulse to race finally remains a mystery—not only to critics and theorists but even, to judge from interviews and the trial-and-error (and baldly imitative) quality of the films themselves, to the people who make the product.
On the other hand, when art works, it really works. Many movies, like many poems, are lousy. But then there’s always Casablanca and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
But how exactly does poetry make the blood tingle? How does it conjure the all-at-once image that jerks our consciousness out of its normal rhythm? Again, that’s something not easily explained. As Emerson says in “The Poet”, quoting the Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus: “Things more excellent than every image are expressed through images.” So words create images, and images express…things?
That might be about as close as one can come to a formal statement on how poetry works—or an informal one, because if it works, a poem is more likely to be half understood rather than fully comprehended. After all, unless Freud and Jung and Joseph Campbell are all wrong, a poem tends to have one foot in the unconscious and the other in the sunshine. Everyone who has ever written a successful poem knows what I am talking about: In the time necessary to get from the start of a poem to its conclusion, the poet is operating like a pilot in the early days of aviation, relying less on external controls, even in the case of highly formal poetry, and more on his own experience and intuition to gauge the plane’s position and performance as he tries to find his way and then bring the craft in for a nice soft landing. If a poet is too much in control, in other words, he’s lost. And if the reader or listener knows where a poet is going before he actually gets there, he’s just found a lost poet. Too bad for them both.
So failing to understand is a crucial part of the experience of reading poetry, but outside of journalism, what kinds of writing are completely comprehensible anyway? Even the action movies that entertain us the most are the ones we can’t quite figure out; our understanding lags just behind that of the character played by Harrison Ford or Matt Damon, at least until the “Aha!” moment when all becomes clear. Physicist Victor Weisskopf says, “What’s beautiful in science is that same thing that’s beautiful in Beethoven. There’s a fog of events, and suddenly you see a connection.” As with science and Beethoven, so with movies and poems. So, too, with our lives: Emerson (in “Nature” this time) says that “every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put”, and therefore “he acts it as life before he apprehends it as truth.”
Deliberate and Accidental
If art parallels life—if it recreates on another level the mixture of light and shadow that is human existence—then what makes poetry unique as an art form? Let’s compare poetry to its closest relative, fiction. This is a simplification, but in fiction, the writer is usually trying to get George to Sarah’s house by eight o’clock with a bunch of roses, say, whereas in a poem, there’s usually neither a George nor a Sarah but an “I” who is trying to understand something that will probably never be fully understood. In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1991, the poet Mark Strand puts it this way:
The context of a poem is likely to be only the poet’s voice—a voice speaking to no one in particular and unsupported by a situation or situations brought about by the words or actions of others, as in a work of fiction. A sense of itself is what the poem sponsors, and not a sense of the world. It invents itself; its own necessity or urgency, its tone, its mixture of meaning and sound, are in the poet’s voice. It is in such isolation that it engenders its authority.
Aha! The poem invents itself—gives birth to itself, you may say. Or it is midwifed; Roland Barthes may have proclaimed “The Death of the Author” in his 1968 essay, but tell that to some ink-stained wretch trying to pull a sonnet out of his head. A less bloody metaphor is provided by English poet and critic James Fenton, who says that “the writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.” In other words, you have to hear the sound before you can decide what to do with it.
That’s not to say that poetry is purely personal and private. It may start that way, but if it stays that way, who’s going to read it? All poetry begins as self-expression, but it either becomes communication or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.
But how do I write for anybody if the poem I’m working on at the moment is so headstrong, so…uncooperative? I tell my students that a poem is a case of the deliberate transformed by the accidental: The deliberate part is your intention, and the accidental consists of all those little unplanned things that give the poem its unique character and, if you’re lucky, jolt it into life. Deliberation is especially important during the process of revision, in which the element of time is paramount. Most art begins trivially: In Casablanca, a woman walks into a bar; in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, a guy notices some pottery. Add time to those small beginnings, though, and you get a masterpiece. A formula for writing a poem might be B + T = P, or Beginning plus Time equals Poem. Logically, the next step up would be B + T² = P², or Beginning Plus Lots of Time equals Great Poem.
Or put it this way: Prose is to a slice of waking life what poetry is to a dream. Prose, like life, cannot slip the discipline of its syntax; poetry, like a dream, thrives by doing just that. Intersubjectivity needs referents to establish context, which is how language communicates. Prose uses referents in abundance; poetry uses them sparingly, forcing the imagination to fill in, so that the thrill of comprehension is supplied by a hunch well rewarded far more than an understanding too easily gained.
Indeed, part of a great poem will be its enduring mystery. Keats interrogates his urn mercilessly: Who are these figures depicted on you? Are they human or divine? Where are they going? What are they doing? He gets an answer—”‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’” Yet it’s only a partial answer, for, as the urn says, “‘that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” In other words, shut up: I, the urn, will tell you earthlings what you know already, and the rest you’ll find out later, if at all.
There’s a stack of recent poetry books by my desk. Almost at random, they declare their doubt. In some cases, the titles themselves give away the author’s air of uncertainty: There’s Incomplete Knowledge by Jeffrey Harrison, as well as John Gallaher’s The Little Book of Guesses. “Yesterday for you / I wrote a poem so full / of lies it woke me”, writes Matthew Zapruder in The Pajamist, and the first line of Paisley Rekdal’s “The Invention of the Kaleidoscope” says simply, “I am going to fail.”
Yet certainty and doubt are two sides of the same coin, and each of these collections seems to begin in shadow just so it can work its way into the light. If there’s a single quality common to all good poems, it’s that each takes the reader on the full roller coaster ride of idea and emotion, up the peaks and down the valleys. It then drops the reader off at the starting point again, the same person still, though changed.
If poetry is hard to write, it’s even harder to write about—especially these days in America. I write twenty to thirty book reviews a year covering all genres, and fiction is comparatively simple in that, by and large, it follows the dictates of Newtonian physics: You follow George across town as he goes to the ATM and then the florist’s and so on until he reaches Sarah’s house, bouquet in hand, by eight o’clock or thereabouts. Whereas my usual first reaction when I open a book of poems is, “What the hell?” and then (my wife Barbara has heard this a thousand times) “What the hell am I going to write about this?” I always come up with something, but it takes me a while because of the time it takes to enter into the poet’s dream.
It is a dream I’m likely not to fully enter, by the way, but that’s okay. Partial understanding is fine by me: If you understand completely, either you’re in a total Zen state of transcendent blissed-out samadhi or else you’re dealing with something so trivial that it’s not worth thinking about. Both the writing and reading of poetry require what Keats called “negative capability”, that is, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It’s a quality “Shakespeare possessed so enormously”, though Keats’ contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, often missed the point “from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”
Admittedly, a proffer of half-knowledge is a hard sell. Especially at this time and in our country, either we insist on grasping everything that congressional hearings and investigative journalists and the pundits of Fox News can tell us—just the facts, ma’am—or we sink mindfully into a blissful Know Nothingism. Since poetry falls somewhere between these extremes, “it is not a mass-market product”, as Adrienne Rich said recently in what she called a “free market critique of poetry” during her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s 2006 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
It doesn’t get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles. The actual consumption figures for poetry can’t be quantified at the checkout counter. It’s too difficult for the average mind. It’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby’s.
Yet doesn’t poetry represent another kind of wealth, that of the intellect and the spirit? People who question the value of poetry need to consider this: Why have there always been poets? As far as that goes, why is there a poet laureate but not a novelist laureate or playwright laureate, not to mention a composer/painter/sculptor/filmmaker laureate? There’s not a single physicist or psychologist or economist laureate in the world. Why do people read and write poetry if it isn’t hugely rewarding to them? The answer is that, just as there are lots of different intelligences—verbal and quantitative, sure, but also spatial, musical and so on—there are lots of different kinds of wealth, of which money is just one.
Trends and Shocks
So writing about poetry is a little like taking a photo of Bigfoot: There’s a grainy image, but the main thing you notice are the tracks leading into the trees. Let me now ground these attempts at capturing poetry’s elusive realities in a sketch of actual poetic practice. I could begin anywhere, but for practical purposes I’ll limit myself to American poetry since World War II and come up to the present moment to dramatize the almost limitless possibilities available to a poet writing today. As I’ll show, poetry isn’t just one thing. When people say to me, “I don’t like poetry”, I tell them that, to me, poetry is like weather—and you wouldn’t say “I don’t like weather”, would you?”
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, one might say that the poetry climate was fairly temperate. The dominant poetic trend was toward a combination of formal structures and a sophisticated yet conversational style. Significantly, the leading proponent of this trend was not a native-born American but emigré W.H. Auden, who came to the United States from England in 1939 and was naturalized in 1946. Whereas Auden’s early poetry was politically engaged and often didactic, not to mention bitingly satirical, the poetry from his American period was increasingly prayerful and Christian in tone and subject, a move many have attributed to the death in 1941 of his devoutly religious mother.
Auden returned to Oxford University in the late 1950s and spent much of his time in Austria, where he died. But his influence on his American contemporaries as well as the younger poets of his day was incalculable. Many of the so-called Academic Poets adopted the urbane and erudite yet fresh and easygoing style that can be seen in the work of poets as different as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Hayden. In retrospect, this comfortable manner of writing appears now as a sort of island of repose on which American poets were able to live and write while the country got back on its feet after the disruptions of World War II.
And then occurred the first of three seismic shocks that changed the poetic landscape radically. This was the “War of the Anthologies”, which took the form of two influential poetry compilations totally at odds with each other. The first, edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, and called The New Poets of England and America (1957), solidified and furthered the Audenesque mode, while Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 (1960) showcased experimental and avant-garde poets. What is most significant about these radically different texts is that while each pretends to speak for an entire generation, as their titles suggest, the two do not share a single poem or poet in common. Yet from the two books come the dominant schools of the rest of the 20th century.
The Hall et al. anthology embodies the best of the Academic Poets, so called partly because the majority of them held teaching posts at colleges and universities, but mainly because of the buttoned-down formalism of their verse. This group includes Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke and Richard Wilbur, all believers in the traditional well-made poem in which consummate craftsmanship organized the materials of poetry according to the standards of such poet-critics as T.S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom (founder of the Kenyon Review), whose The New Criticism (1941) argued that a poem is an object worthy of close scrutiny for itself alone and not as a product of the poet’s life or times.
A sub-group of this school loosened the collar of academic attire somewhat and wrote poems that, while still chastely disciplined on the page, often spoke of the poets’ struggles with mental illness, divorce and other intimate problems; this Confessional School includes John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
Meanwhile, other groups sanctioned by the Allen Anthology were developing their particular idioms. These groups include the Black Mountain School, which challenged the Academic Poets by starting their own anti-academe in western North Carolina. Founded as an experimental school in 1933, Black Mountain College drew various avant-garde poets to its campus over the years, including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley. After the dissolution of Black Mountain College in 1957, Olson and Creeley both ended up at the State University of New York at Buffalo, whose faculty and students have continued to be at the forefront of poetic experimentation.
Creeley was also the link, through Allen Ginsberg, between the Black Mountain poets and the Beats, who claimed their school’s name was a diminutive of the word “beatific”, though clearly “beat” evokes the sense of “exhausted” and “oppressed” as well the idea of musical time, especially that of the jazz that sometimes accompanied public performances of Beat poetry. The October 7, 1955 reading in San Francisco’s Six Gallery, which announced the formation of the Beat School and which featured Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia, became the standard for coffeehouse readings today. It was there that Ginsberg first read “Howl” and a drunk Jack Kerouac urged the performers on as he shouted “Yeah! Go! Go!”
Much Beat poetry consists of social statements that grew out of the political turmoil of the time, a mode that becomes even more direct in the work of the Protest School, which included civil rights poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Imamu Amiri Baraka; feminists such as Carolyn Kizer and Adrienne Rich; and the antiwar poets, who numbered established writers such as Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov and Robert Bly among their ranks. Bly has had an enormous impact through his Deep Image Poetry, an outgrowth of both the Surrealism and Imagism movements of the early 20th century. Eventually the Deep Imagists included James Dickey, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Louis Simpson and James Wright. With its emphasis on evocative metaphors, the Deep Image poem appeals to the anti-formalist by appearing to make what the poem says more important than how it says it.
The often somber portentousness of Deep Imagery was more than matched by the high spirits of the New York School. Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery produced poems that charmed and startled with their kaleidoscopic views of urban life and their sheer velocity. Many of these poets were art critics as well, and the same vividness they admired in such “action painters” as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning is mirrored in their writing.
To sum up, then: Beginning in Audenesque calm, the postwar period encountered the noisy gusts of the Beat and Protest poets and the mile-high thunderheads of the Deep Imagists. As the winds howled and the drops fell, the poetic weathervane began to spin wildly in every possible direction, sort of like the country itself.
Not all observers enjoyed the tumult. The second seismic shock that jarred the poetry world was the assault on poetry itself that began in 1983 with the publication of Donald Hall’s essay, “Poetry and Ambition.” That assault continued to rumble for more than a decade with the appearance of such essays and books as Joseph Epstein’s “Who Killed Poetry?” (1988), Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” (1991), Jonathan Holden’s The Fate of American Poetry (1991) and Vernon Shetley’s After the Death of Poetry (1993). The most negative of these assessments not only addressed the marginalization of poetry but attributed its decline largely to poets’ self-indulgence.
As if to prove the nay-sayers right, the Language Poets, who are frankly hostile to the first-person epiphanies of mainstream poetry, sought to subvert what they call “official verse culture” by taking modernist free-association techniques to new extremes; Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino and others juxtaposed ideas and images in a manner seemingly intended to baffle the uninitiated.
On the other hand, New Formalists like Dana Gioia, Marilyn Hacker and Wyatt Prunty gave new life to the accentual-syllabic tradition of previous centuries. Meanwhile, Prose Poets such as Stuart Dybek and Russell Edson built on a century-old French tradition to produce playful, often surreal poems in paragraph form. For sheer showmanship, though, no group outdid the Performance Poets, whose work is mainly intended for live audiences. But even as these and other poets built new poetic structures (often on old foundations), the industry as a whole was still in decline. The number of poetry books published in the United States dropped from a high of nearly 1,400 titles in 1979 to fewer than 900 in 1990.
Yet by 1996 the downward trend had been reversed. More than a thousand poetry titles were published in that year thanks to the third of the seismic shocks that changed the poetic landscape in the last half of the 20th century. This new strength is due partly to the heavy investment made in poetry by filmmakers and producers of other electronic media. The romance began in 1989 with Dead Poets Society, a film in which Robin Williams, as a charismatic English teacher at a prim New England prep school, persuades his impressionable students that poetry will fill their lives with passion and romance. Then W.H. Auden’s work enjoyed a vigorous posthumous revival after an elegy of his was read in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).
Yet neither of these films had the impact of the 1995 release Il Postino (“The Postman”), the story of a fictional friendship between Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, and the unpretentious postman who delivers his mail. Il Postino was one of the most successful foreign language films of that year, and to coincide with the release of the film, Miramax Films joined forces with Hyperion to re-release the novel on which the film is based, Antonio Skarmeta’s The Postman (originally published as Burning Patience in the United States but retitled to capitalize on the film’s popularity) as well as a collection called Love: Ten Poems by Pablo Neruda. The two books quickly sold out their first 25,000-copy print run. At the same time, Copper Canyon Press, publisher of seven collections of Neruda’s work, reported a 35 percent increase in sales of Neruda titles following the film’s release.
Other media recently bringing poetry to the attention of those otherwise unlikely to encounter it include MTV, which aired performance poets reciting their own work, and Poetry in Motion, the program sponsored by the Poetry Society of America that puts short poems on buses and other forms of public transportation. And even as host Bill Moyers introduced such venerated poets as Donald Hall and Sharon Olds on his 1995 “Language of Life” series on public television, celebrity wannabes pushed their own work in coffeehouse “slams”, often-noisy competitions that are cousins to rap and hip-hop and that have all the subtlety of a wrestling match. On a quieter level, more staid readings are organized by students and faculty of the countless writing workshops that dot the nation; in my mid-sized city of Tallahassee, for example, there are three regular weekly poetry series as well as countless one-of-a-kind events.
With all of this renewed interest in an ancient craft, it is hardly surprising that 1996 was the year President Bill Clinton declared April as National Poetry Month. (Clinton had already nudged poetry back into the spotlight by having Maya Angelou recite at his 1993 inauguration, and Miller Williams read in 1997. It also came out that Clinton had given Monica Lewinsky a copy of Leaves of Grass, but that’s another story.) The Academy of American Poets, with whom the idea for National Poetry Month originated, sent more than 4,000 booksellers, librarians and the press a media kit with suggestions for readings and other activities designed to promote poetry. Among the more unusual approaches was a contest sponsored by Lancôme to promote its new perfume, Poème, whose web site promises that Poème will “say it all without saying a word”; one of the judges was the actress Juliette Binoche, the new fragrance’s spokesperson.
If no single poet represents the consciousness of the nation as, say, Walt Whitman once did, more Americans seem to be reading and writing poems of every kind these days. As Debra Gilder, poetry buyer for the Borders book chain, has said, National Poetry Month “is a natural event for us. We have a lot of staffers who are poets themselves.” Indeed, one poet has made a tremendous difference in raising poetry’s profile recently, and that is Billy Collins. Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 and one of the few living poets whose books have sold more than 100,000 copies. Because his work is accessible, he is often criticized, especially by younger poets. But as David Brooks wrote in the November 16, 2006 New York Times, “Young people haven’t accomplished much yet, so they can only elevate themselves by endlessly celebrating their own superior sensibilities.”
According to Collins, too much modern poetry lacks humor. He says,
It’s the fault of the Romantics, who eliminated humor from poetry. Shakespeare’s hilarious, Chaucer’s hilarious. [Then] the Romantics killed off humor, and they also eliminated sex, things which were replaced by landscape. I thought that was a pretty bad trade-off, so I’m trying to write about humor and landscape, and occasionally sex.
Poetry and humor are natural bedfellows: A poem such as a sonnet can have the logic of a syllogism, but just as many poems have the logic of a joke. The poet Howard Nemerov argues that a poem and a joke are pretty much the same thing. You either get the joke or you don’t, says Nemerov. You get the poem or you don’t.
With a background so rich yet so recent and accessible, a poet writing today has a large warehouse from which to draw tools and materials. And while there are as many different ways to handle all that gear as there are poets to handle it, the next time you’re in Borders and you see someone hunched over a laptop as he taps out lines that don’t go all the way over to the right margin, chances are that person is writing one of three kinds of poems.
First, there’s the poem that approves of and transmits the received wisdom of our culture. This can be formalist poetry that mimics the rhymes and rhythms poets have used for centuries. It can also be a free-verse poem that passes on traditional homilies (nature is good, war is bad, and so on). Or it can be a combination of traditional form and traditional sentiment.
Second is the poem that declares war on the dominant culture. It will be an example of postmodernist and possibly Language poetry, as described earlier, work whose adherents sometimes call theirs the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school, fracturing the word and dramatizing the unconventional use to which it’s put. There’s often a Marxist tinge here, real or hidden, deliberate or accidental, because subversion is the main idea, not support, as in the first option.
The third type of poem and the one most interesting to me is what is sometimes called the Stand Up poem, one that both subverts and supports. It critiques the faults of the dominant culture even as it cheerily endorses its virtues. Charles Harper Webb has edited two Stand Up anthologies which include work by Kim Addonizio, Stephen Dunn, Russell Edson, Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland, Maura Stanton and Natasha Trethewey. Webb uses the phrase “Stand Up” in the double sense of both “Stand Up comic” and “Stand Up guy”, and then lists the qualities of the Stand Up poem: humor, performability, clarity, natural language, flights of fancy, a strong individual voice, emotional punch, a close relationship to fiction, use of urban and popular culture and wide-open subject matter.
Even with an accessible poem, though, it’s important to remember that it is we who go after poetry, not the other way around. Poetry doesn’t flirt with you the way ad copy does. Mark Halliday’s essay “The Arrogance of Poetry” begins:
You and I, we read poems almost every day. We keep doing this even though most poems disappoint us. . . . Sometimes fatigue or a journal stuffed with bad poems throws us into poetry-dismay, even poetry-disgust, but poetry soon wins us back. A good poem comes along that is damned appealing; it has charisma, it has a peculiar panache, it cuts a new path through experience, it expresses—or it is—a new truth, or new edge of truth. Life is suddenly undreary.
Yet “this poem is so strangely sure of itself!” says Halliday. “Where did it get such nerve? It has a quality I will call arrogance”, a quality that is
titanically oppressive in the silence immediately after a poem’s last line. That silence stares at you. It says, ‘Do you or do you not get it?’ It says, ‘Do you love me? You should. If you don’t, you’ve missed something. The problem is yours—some blindness, some crudeness, some insensitivity to nuance.’ Fortunately, persons don’t often have the gall to say, ‘If you don’t love me, the problem is yours.’ Poems say this every time.
You may upbraid the poem or give it the finger or simply let it slide to the floor. The poem doesn’t care: While you’re huffing or leaving the room, as Halliday points out, “poems keep stroking their own hair.”
But as Adrienne Rich said in her National Book Award speech, “When poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved.” And we can be affected this way at any time and by any poem. “No matter how many shallow, silly, derivative, simplistic, sentimental, pretentious poems we read”, says Halliday, “we keep watching for the ones whose rightness makes the arrogance of the whole enterprise a good thing.” When a poem pisses us off, we swear we’ll read prose instead or go see a play or learn to play the guitar. But we always come back to poetry, because no other art form does a better job of capturing the emotions that matter most to us, the ones we don’t fully understand yet pierce our hearts like spears.
The week after the World Trade Center towers fell, the New Yorker departed from its usual format and, instead of the cartoons and satires that usually appeared on its back page, published Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” The poem ends:
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Here are words that make the blood tingle, as Emerson said. Here are images that express things more excellent than themselves.
Over the millennia, the fundamental emotions haven’t changed, nor will they. Cave people felt and our successors will feel the love of beauty, hatred of wrongdoing, fear of death. Cultures differ and culture itself changes: Maybe what Tip O’Neill said about all politics being local applies to some extent to poetry as well—if, by local, one takes account of one’s time as well as one’s place. In any event, there are millions of poems out there, and most are short. They go by quickly. But when you need one, nothing else will do.
Most of the first news is mistaken,
and what comes after, is misunderstood.
So when these events are apparently concluded,
we have layers of contrary errors, odd jokes
of natural confusion, hearsay, false presciences,
and contradictions of what we had accepted as true
as a cold day we think is true to us,
as is a good meal,
as is fatigue.
The next news is more upsetting
because it is more likely to be true,
although by now we doubt anything can be true
because what we had accepted over some time,
perhaps many months, probably many years, is now not at all true.
Then we are without anything decisive to take its place,
not even something to take its place with any assurance
that it might endure months or years
like the memory of the flavors in white tea.
After that, the news accumulates like canned food in a cupboard,
unsharpened pencils in a box on a desk, videotapes of family parties
in which at least one parent no longer attends, or ever speaks again in anger.
If there is any news beyond this, we try to fashion it
into a piteous song or a dry poem or, if we are truly ambitious,
we make it into a story about the story of our new disappointments,
our private losses, our reluctance to replace what has passed,
the agony of replacing it because we know that more news will come
to overturn even what we have not yet accepted.
There is only so much we can allow ourselves to delay
as the world travels around us with war and peace,
and war again and peace again, and again those afternoons and mornings,
the spring’s sun, some nights of so much pleasure,
glass cups exhaling white tea.