Oh, No, You Didn’t; or, In Which I Venture Forth a Definition of Poetry

In his incredible book Homo Deus, a sweeping view of the entire history and future of the human species, Yuval Noah Harari, asserts that over time we have greatly reduced the incidence of the three major threats of much of our history: famine, plague, and war; and will in the not too distant future also get under control economic and ecological equilibrium, the two things he identifies as the key modern issues. What will we do then, he asks, and jocularly offers a suggestion: “What will the scientists, investors, bankers and presidents do all day? Write poetry?”

Oh, ha ha. What a joke. Who would do a crazy thing like that…?

But it made me thing of the two strong reactions I had recently in one week as I was encountering poetry:

– “Wow, people are writing some really interesting poetry,” and

– “Oh, dear.”

I ran into some really good work this week, as I was poking around in what people are up to from various fine presses — powerful, inventive. Wow. It is humbling. And inspiring!

And I also ran into work on the other side of the spectrum in some closer encounters. Somehow too many people have gotten the impression that if you put heartfelt thoughts on paper in short lines, and rhyme the endings, you have a poem.

It’s okay to write your heartfelt thoughts on paper in full sentences. You don’t need to make rhymes. The process itself is the point. The record will make for an interesting encounter with yourself years hence. If you have to call it something, call it a diary or memoir or thoughts on life.

Poetry is…well, as soon as I write a definition, I’ll begin to argue with myself, and doubtless you will too. But I’m going to give it a shot.

Poetry is experience/memory/sensation/idea/imagination distilled and thoughtfully crafted with:

– an ear to sound, an ear to silence

– an eye to how it sits on the page (IF it sits on the page), an eye to density, to white space, to line breaks, stanza size and number

– a deliberate creation of rhythm and arhythm

– use of imagery, metaphor, simile developed through imagination

– some awareness of what has come before in poetry tradition

– a sense of something at stake in what is being addressed and how it is being addressed

So come on, all you scientists, investors, bankers, presidents, average schmos. The species could do worse than to concern itself with the task of writing good poetry. AND work on solving all those other problems. In rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter.

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Hope Against Hope; Art in the Face of All This

In Why Poetry, Zapruder quotes Jorge Carrera Andrade from his 1940 essay “Origin and Future of the Microgram”: “It might seem almost impossible to enclose the great movement of the universe in such a narrow space. But through a kind of magic, the poet manages to make the infinite enter into that small cell. There, every surprise may fit.”

I’ve been talking recently with fellow writers about how to manage our world and its nonstop televised violence into the intimate rooms of poetry, while maintaining both our sanity and our authenticity as citizens of the world and artists too. We see everything just like everyone else, have the same responses: “What the…,” “How the hell…,” “This is horrible.” But a lot of art expressing “this is horrible” is not going to make an impact in the saturated world.

I think of Picasso’s “Guernica,” of Wilfred Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” of Maya Lin’s devastating Vietnam Memorial. How did they do it, how did they absorb for us the pain of the time and make of it something that remains chillingly relevant for a future they had no way of seeing?

Pain never ends. Horror never stops. We suck as a species. But we, or I, anyway, persist in thinking that art has some role to play that transcends the everyday outrage, that jolts us from our daily “Are you f’ing kidding me?” into a space of, if not hope, at least of a sense of connection. And in connection lies the possibility of…what? Hope, I guess. Yeah, hope. I guess.

 

You and Me, Outside; or Only Connect

Mornings now, finally, are chilly and damp with whatever it is that happens in autumn nights that makes everything sweat so, and so gloriously, shining in the morning’s sun. I’ve cut down the garden but for the inane zinnias still blooming like nothing is about to happen. Even the small mum I planted in early September has given up. And what of it? Death comes to us all. It’s the peculiar task of the living to ignore that. (Matthew Zapruder again from Why Poetry: “More than any other use of language, poetry speaks, while also pointing to and reminding us of nothingness…In a poem we feel what’s there, but also what is not.”)

One primary task, surely, is to try to figure out how to make the best of living among each other. Each Other. Will we ever evolve enough to stop seeking to define — and therefore hate — the Other? Will we ever stop being overly alarmed by not-same-ness? One of these things is not like the others. Yes. Hallelujah.

Surely our life task is to find ways to connect with all the other things, the Other things, that are awake and breathing this day.

Even the loud family across the street? Yes. Even the people next door who let their dog bark frantically on and on? Even the centipede scurrying disgustingly down the wall? Ew. I guess no one said it would be easy. Some tasks are lifelong. Wait, even the terrible invasive vine that’s constantly trying to strangle the apple tree and forsythia? I’m sorry, I have my limits. I’m only human, you know.

Working Title; or, Poetry Titles, Oy

I’m not saying it was necessarily because of the title changes, but I had the experience once of radically changing titles of two poems that had been rejected several times from lit mags and suddenly and immediately got an acceptance for them. Coinkydink? Possibly. But it certainly made me sit up and take notice of what titles can do.

– A title can situate a poem in place or time, so you don’t have to use up vital poem real estate with that information. Yeats sets us right on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” so we’re already in place when he begins. But you may run the risk with that of overemphasizing time or place when the point of the poem is to transcend time or place. You have to ask whether the time/place title helps or distracts or gives too much attention to itself.

– A title can emphasize a certain je ne sais quoi that the poem is getting at. But you run the risk of beating the reader over the head. A title that basically says “Be Prepared to Feel Sad Ahead,” or “This Poem Is About Grief” just aren’t that interesting. But you can suggest it slantwise with an image, perhaps, or an echo of sound or word/words from the poem. I mean, sometimes it’s the only good solution to name a poem about daffodils “The Daffodils.” But maybe it’s a lost opportunity.

– A title can carry some of the weight of the poem, in that you can ask it to act as another line, the first line, in fact. You can ask the title to address the same things that the poem addresses, or hint at them, or choose a title that creates a resonance. A long and searing poem of several parts tracing a personal and family history Ocean Vuong titled “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” There is nothing about earth nor beauty particularly in the poem, but the title captures a tenderness toward the fallible humans considered in it. It prepares our heart somewhat for what lies ahead, and when the poem is done helps settle a kind of grace on the experience.

Or you can choose something completely innocuous, I suppose, and not ask much from a title at all. Modern visual artists do that all the time — “Painting #7 of a Series of 10,” for example. But visual artists don’t have to work in the medium of words; poets do. (What if visual artists “entitled” their work with splashes of paint or visual gestures instead of words? I think that would be helpful sometimes.)

But we poets work in a world of words and white space, and the title has a particular status at the top of the page. It sits lordly over the poem text, wearing its white robes. It offers an opportunity to capture something about what lies ahead or provide a way to loop from the end back into the beginning again. It can provide crucial information for the reader to find her way into the poem, or set a tone, or cast a lifeline for the reader to hold as he walks through the poem, then out and back in again, or out and out and out into the world.

I Wonder as I Wander; or Writing Poetry of Deep Consideration

I am reading Matthew Zapruder’s excellent Why Poetry, and particularly, his very useful meditation on learning to read Ashbery (a skill I have not yet acquired…). In this meditation he speaks about imagination and its power. He quotes Wallace Stevens’s 1941 lecture “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”: “What is [the poet’s] function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves, Nor is it…to comfort them. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs…[be] the light in the minds of others…to help people to live their lives.” As Zapruder puts it, “..[N]ot an escape from the world around us, but a different sort of engagement.”

This made me think of my recent lurking discomfort. Although completely understandable in the face of the grimness of life in the world right now, the current poetry I’m writing and what I’m reading/hearing/seeing seems to suffer from an excess of earnestness. I am also hearing a voice in today’s poems that cries over and over “I am Other,” “I am Other.” The personal seems to be only or primarily political, rather than essentially human, as complex, contradictory, and infuriating that state is. I read (and write ) and I listen but find myself in the end hungry. What do I want for sustenance if not this? Is it humor? Whimsy? Distraction?

A different sort of engagement. Yes.

There is cleverness in abundance in the poems I’m encountering, certainly, and wordcraft and wordplay. But am I seeking the imaginative? Something that takes me away from the headlines? I’m not necessarily seeking to be comforted — there is nothing comfortable about the rough beast slouching toward Bethelehem or the boy falling from the sky as the executioner’s horse scratches its behind on a tree. And those are poems that do feed me. Headlines change. But what does not change, it seems, are the essential dilemmas of being a human being in the world, bumping up against each other and the earth and the cosmos. I think about Dickinson’s slanted telling. I want more of that.

Marcel Proust, in commenting on the early 20th century poetry of Anna de Noailles, talked about work that came from “the profound self that individualizes works and makes them last.” I’m not sure that these works written so quickly in response to the day’s atrocities are given even half enough time and consideration to reflect that “profound self,” the individual experience so deeply considered that it becomes universal.

Zapruder again: “When Stevens writes that the role of the poet is to help people live their lives, it sounds very grandiose. But really what he means is that the role of the poet as he perceives it is to deepen experience, to write poems that we can use to protect ourselves in some small way against the constant encroachment of ‘the pressure of the real,’ …The original Surrealists of the 1930s in France had a similar, utopian, impossible desire for poetry, that it would reconnect our daily existence with the world of imagination and dreams that modern life has split from us, leaving us in constant deadening pain.”

I don’t know that I entirely agree, but I think he’s getting at something I’m missing right now in my work and so much of what I’m seeing just now. Big big vision. Deep consideration. Grand imagining. And, yes, maybe a little whimsy.

 

 

In Favor of Waiting, Poetry’s Best Revision Tool

I play any number of editing games with my work (including that game of believing it’s absolutely perfect right out of my head onto the page): chopping things up, turning things upside down, tossing things away, changing articles and personal nouns and verb forms. But there is no more exacting revision tool than time. A “perfect” poem put away for a while will, once brought back to the light, reveal its skin tags and moles, its sagging belly, its misshapen feet. Yes, it can be gruesome. Don’t get me wrong, some poems do come out of the head fully formed and pretty solid. But the thing is, you can’t really know that until some time has elapsed.

What is a poem? A made thing — poured onto the page, nudged onto the page, spat onto the page…and then worked: carved, smoothed, questioned, made exact. I’m not sure anything that does not undergo that process should be called a poem, but rather some other word: a thing, a whatsit, a lump of something that might be something.

When someone shambles up to the microphone at an open mic night with phone clutched in hand to read a “poem” they “just wrote this morning” — that noun and that phrase should not appear in the same sentence — they do a disservice to themselves as a maker and to the made thing, not to mention the long-suffering audience.

How much time does it take? I wish I knew. I often get tired of waiting, often think “oh, it’s fine, just get it out there.” Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m wrong. Only time will…well…you know.