Look Before You Leap

I was in a conversation recently about “leaping” in poetry, a term generally associated with Robert Bly, who wrote about this idea of how poems can work — asking the readerly mind to leap between images, to read, as it were, between the gaps. He traced a tradition from ancient Asian poetry to modern Spanish surrealist poets, but argued that Western tradition had abandoned the leap and is lesser for it. He wrote, “A poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance.” Contemporary poetry seems to consider this “leap” as gospel. But ask almost any otherwise intelligent, literate reader what they think of poetry, and they say, “Well, I don’t really like poetry. I don’t get it.” I think we’ve leaped our way right out of readership.

People don’t read mysteries to solve the mystery but rather to enjoy its unfolding secrets. People don’t read memoir to figure out what the author should do next in his or her life, but rather to experience what happened when the author made the decision. People who want to puzzle things out do Sudoku. I say stop all this obligatory leaping about. People read poetry to have the world revealed to them in a new way. Poets need to reclaim the power of a good metaphor rather than constantly positioning random things next to each other and considering it craft. I’m not talking about dumbing-down or trotting out singsongy narratives (much as I love a good Robert Service) or greeting card verse. I’m talking about taking some responsibility for the effect of a poem on the reader.

A good metaphor does not ask the mind to fling itself around. Rather, a good metaphor is like the twist of the end of a kaleidoscope — briefly the world is fragmented and chaotic, then things fall into place in a new and utterly different way. This is what a good poem does. I believe a far wider readership is available to us if we keep that in mind. And if we aren’t trying to communicate, then what the hell are we doing?

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4 thoughts on “Look Before You Leap

  1. LOVE the kaleidoscope simile that explains how a good metaphor works. I agree that I feel many poets (and academics) have leapt themselves right past too many of us. I know good literature makes you work, but sometimes it’s just so inscrutable. It would help if you gave some examples to really get down to brass tacks.

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    • Well, I know there are poems that are inscrutable (love that word) to me but adored by others, so the minute I start citing examples, I’ll get into the murky world of “but…but…” Because clarity is a moving target, and people’s appetites for “work” vary considerably. And there’s an argument to be made for offering a little challenge to the average reader. But still, whose poems do people turn to in times of trouble, grief, joy? Don’t we want our work to be among them?

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  2. My sense is that the leaping poetry we all talked about was happening in the seventies and eighties. The effects and the names linger on, but the styles have reverted, I’m sure, in the dominant strains of contemporary poetry, back to more communicative subgenres and stylistic developments: traditional meditations, interesting narratives, and the like. I tend to think that most of the current innovations are happening, from what I see, in blurred-genre work (the occasional novel-in-verse, for instance, or the slowly accruing rise of prose poetry, and video poetry) and language poetry. Do you agree?

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    • Leaping is a notion that I’m applying to contemporary poems that force inexplicable things to live next to each other in a poem, forcing the reader to puzzle over the connection. I disagree that contemporary poetry is more communicative. In any given New Yorker poem, the average reader is left shrugging and turning the page. And it’s the average reader I was concerned about in that post. Innovation is another issue entirely, to my mind.

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