I am heartily sick of the political disaster this country has become. So I am intentionally focusing today on poetry, my 2nd refuge when the world is too much with me. Tea being the first.
In fact, an afternoon pot is steeping even as I write, and ‘biscuits’ – that lovely English name for cookies that are not the sickly sweet American type, but instead almost a slightly sweet cracker – await, in a ruby glass saucer, next to the bee cup & saucer my niece & nephew gave me. Plus I just added to a long email thread, sent to a dear friend who is working on her MFA, in which we’re discussing (among other weighty matters) why it’s always ‘the poets.’ And why folks think poetry is just not ‘using all your words’…???
Sigh. It’s always interesting to me when folks (especially writing folks…who should know better!!) define poetry as merely ‘fewer words.’ Even that famous ‘compression of language’ definition is — to me, at least — reductive and simplistic. Poetry is about images, and the sound(s) of language. It can also be (as fiction and/or non-fiction often are) about narrative. About story, even about character(s). The dramatic monologue that made Robert Browning so famous.It’s about music, really — even so-called narrative poetry has to have certain beauties & elegances of sound. Poetry has to move, which is why many songwriters also do poetry: music is fine training for a poet.
To see poetry as just a ‘shorter’ version of prose is sooo … well, if I were arguing this in person, w/ an academic colleague, I’d say it’s both reductive & dismissive. And uninformed, as well. (Tell them what you really think…!) Only a non-poet would say that, someone who doesn’t understand either the project(s) of poetry, or poets.
You simply CAN’T do Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ in prose, for instance. Imagine this with ‘all your words’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound’s poetic project is not simply compression — although yes, of course he’s compressing. It’s also about the fleetingness of the experience, the way the faces flee past. You could do that w/ prose, but you would lose sooo much! The short, haiku-like simplicity of the form captures the briefness of the faces. And the image that perfect image that has stunned poets since Pound wrote it would be sooo clunky if you simply wrote: The fleetingness of faces seen from a railway car are like white petals on a black tree branch. It’s the cadence: wet. black. bough. And the assonance: crowd & bough. It’s the MUSIC, folks!
Another big sigh. Time to chill out w/ a hot cuppa, and a biscuit. What do you think poetry ‘is’? How do you know poetry, other than by its shorter length and line breaks? Why would someone choose to write a poem instead of a story, or an essay? And who — besides me & my friend, obviously! — cares??
This is a repost from a blog post I did for my favourite literary journal ~ Nimrod. Nimrod is updating its web. presence, and I could think of no better topic than poetry, and its continued importance in our lives. So here you are, Why Poetry Matters:
Years ago—more than 25, actually—the poet Dana Gioia asked if poetry can matter. Here at Nimrod, which for more than 40 years has published amazing poetry, from poets who continue to stun us with beauty, we know it does. And it should.
Poetry—all art, really—connects us. Offers us the experiences of someone outside us to consider, other experiences sifted through the sieves of imagery and compression. Both reading and writing poetry help us to see better: to observe the details in the world around us and to be more aware of how those details shift when seen through the eyes of another. When we read poetry, we’re invited into another landscape, a kind of liminal space between us and the writer. And when we write poetry? We’re actually creating that landscape ourselves. Each effort—while very different—requires imagination and empathy, so necessary for lives well-lived.
If I go too long without poetry, it’s not like I die. It’s not as critical as water. It’s somewhere up there with . . . vitamins. Sunlight. Sitting outside. Not truly life-or-death, but pretty damn important. Because what I learn is always useful—not simply pretty, or even literary. But useful like food, sunlight, vitamins. Take Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles .” There’s a line (lifted from Ezra Pound) that changed me—“When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off.” Let me explain:
Lately I’ve been feeling stiff. Arthritic, for sure, but stiff in other ways, as well. Like my intellectual, emotional, and physical “muscles” are rusted tight. I can’t think like I used to be able to. And for someone with Alzheimer’s rampant in her family, that’s a bit . . . unnerving, to say the least.
The recumbent bike is twice as hard as it ought to be. I’m cranky. And I often feel . . . well, unnecessary. In the way that American culture is so very good at making the aging feel. But Snyder reminds me that even a discarded axe handle is useful. Is necessary: When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off. Snyder elaborates, bringing in Pound, who wrote the line, translated from the Chinese of another poet, Shih-hsiang Chen.
I’m at least partially in love with this poem because it includes my beloved Pound, whom I studied so closely, imprinting on him like a poetic duckling, and his Chinese translations. Once, at a Nimrod reading the Pulitzer-winning poet W.S. Merwin gave in Tulsa, he mentioned sitting with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. I did much of my doctoral work on Pound, and suddenly I was physically connected to my flawed idol, whose work is still so influential to poets, through the man in front of me. I was the latest tiny dot in a line curling back to China. Sitting in the faculty study, I was connected to these writers by lines of poetry. That matters.
The poet Denise Levertov once said that In certain ways writing is a form of prayer. Because poetry is about calling something—a feeling, a thought, an action—into being. Invoking it, really. Poets are the ultimate magicians. Lines on a page become a kind of prayer or spell, as axe handles become safe passage through aging’s dark journey.
Recently, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn’t write with too much structure. That writing is—for me—a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ideas.
Later, as I lay in bed half-asleep, I thought about poetry. And realized that what I said was only true of prose (at least for me). I write poetry most easily (and possibly best) when I have the structure of a form. Sonnet, haiku, tanka, lune—each draws forth the content to fill the form’s structure. They act like scaffolding for the creative process.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized: structure is a kind of mindfulness. It’s almost meditative. Certainly it’s contemplative. If I have to fit inchoate feelings/images/thoughts within a skeletal framework, it’s a kind of magic—following the breath to calm. Letting the poem help me find its voice.
I am more than a discarded axe handle. I am capable of being a pattern, a model. Of still being useful. Of teaching. Of being taught, being what the next axe handle comes from. Of being held within the breath pauses that define the poem’s structure, and becoming part of the poem’s music.
In other words? Poetry still matters. When its raison d’être is to connect, to bring ideas into being. How could it NOT?