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?