Prose is unpretentious, that’s its attraction. Avoids bombast of line breaks but forgoes what perfect rest. Anyway today, a November day in February, no chance getting rest with the poor clay I’m made from.
With my mother this weekend, her dementia proceeding according to what plan. Saturday the kind of day I never have. Actually read three stories by Updike. One extraordinary Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth which I chose from his Complete through 1975 for the reference to Macbeth and in it he so humanely, sympathetically explains through the high school English teacher’s thoughts Shakespeare’s mid-life bitterness or disappointment realizing few men achieve their potential in the face of history, society and their personal flaws. Making for tragedy. Hard to be humorous about that although Updike finds in Shakespeare’s late plays, especially The Tempest, a resolution amounting to wisdom that there can be contentment with imperfection and partial achievement. Updike took some of the starch out of my contention that all Shakespeare’s plays are comedies, impossible to take Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth and Othello seriously. Certainly not Romeo and Juliet. It is a consolation that Updike’s and even Shakespeare’s achievements are imperfect although it would be wringing blood from a rock for me to achieve as much. The other two stories by Updike assured me that prose story-telling is as hit or miss as poetry. Bulgarian Poetess and How to Love America and Leave It At the Same Time made me think how fortunate I had been to find Tomorrow on the first try.
Not so much luck. I was attracted like a bee to a blossom to Shakespeare’s lines in my personal anthology. No anthology and the poetry dependency it has created and I might have passed over the story. But now there is this conversation between me and all other writers. The anthology helps me know what I like but now I am tempted to try to articulate why I like what I like. Like the calendar, time and all else man lays his mind to it is a matter of bringing order from chaos by naming things according to our observations.
First, I like to understand what’s going on in the poem. Not paraphrase it but describe the action. In Yeats’ Lapis Lazuli, in the first paragraph, strophe or stanza, he talks about a community, a city or country, in which people, the women especially, high-toned maybe?, are upset about a political or wartime situation and are too hysterical for art or grace. Then he talks about actors playing Hamlet and Lear holding it together even though their characters die at the end of the play. No shouting, no crying. Then a paragraph or stanza about how whole civilizations are transitory too. Finally, in a reference to one of our oldest civilizations, two old Chinamen and their retainer are in the mountains. From their perspective, calm acceptance and longevity, perhaps some sadness, they look on all of history and non-history with something like gladness.
From there we can appreciate the artistry in Yeats’ case the interesting rhymes and variable line lengths recognizing, however, that the artistry is not so much a demonstration of skill or a performance as the particular vehicle or discipline by which this artist discovered the content of his mind. It little matters whether verse is free, rhymed, blank, or formed as long as it is understandable and meaningful. Understandable to anyone, meaningful to someone.
The oldest formulation I have is Pound’s the great themes of literature can be written on the back of a postage stamp. Until recently, I thought you could do it but you’d have to write very small. Now I know you can do it in your normal handwriting. I think they are Love (how we come into the world), Death (how we leave the world) and Governance (how we live in the world together). It may be possible to group Love and Death together, coming into and going out of life being similarly unknowable mysteries. The ways of talking about this one same mystery are apparently endless and endlessly fascinating. We cannot leave it alone. Almost all the greatest poems are about this mystery. Life is but a dream.
Then there is Governance how we live in the world together about which there are far fewer great poems. And usually they are about how our failure to live together leads back into the unknowable mystery through premature and sometimes mass death. Siamanto’s The Dance comes to mind. I think the best poems of this type are written by so-called oppressed people.
Many poems treat both themes. But on the question of content, Pound is where I begin. My anthology Whole Wide World has a section which I’ll call Double & Triple Features: Poems to Read Together, which pairs and groups poems according to my feeling that they share something theme, voice, structure in common. Subject matter is, I think, the commonest sharing. If I tried to name each pairing or grouping I might then have a hundred or more themes. Naming them adequately would be difficult to impossible. But why? And why not try? It would be a necessary start to talking about the poems: I read these poems together because….
Prose doesn’t have to be beautiful, sometimes it’s best when it’s flat as Hemingway conclusively proved and one of its attractions is you can run on and on as long as the mind goes on following a thought without a stop sign for a whole page of books like Proust or Faulkner or Joyce.
Auden’s is the second useful formulation that comes to mind (besides his chummy reverence for Shakespeare in naming him Top Bard). He classifies poems five ways:
1. A good poem that’s meaningful to him;
2. A good poem that’s not meaningful to him;
3. A good poem that may someday become meaningful to him;
4. A bad poem that’s meaningful to him;
5. A bad poem that’s not meaningful to him.
I find I do about the same. But I discard all poems, good and bad, that are not meaningful to me. I have little taste for artistry for art’s sake. The poem must speak to me or awaken me. Dickinson’s formulation takes the top of your head off is the same as We can’t define pornography but we know it when we see it.
A short aside: it feels inappropriate to answer the question What do you do? by saying I’m a poet. It would be like saying I’m a leader or I’m a prophet. You cannot anoint yourself a poet, a leader or a prophet others must do it for you. I wonder if I would be more comfortable if I had a larger audience (following) like Billy Collins for example. I think not. It would be like being a rock star, not a composer.
It’s much more acceptable to say I’m a writer. Then when you answer the question Oh, what do you write? with Poetry, you are not self-aggrandizing, merely irrelevant, effete. Being a poet is viewed as being a flasher or nudist, exposing parts of yourself others would rather not see, at least not up close and personal, providing more information than others need or want to have. Maybe that’s a good definition of a bad poet. Self-revelation dressed in verbal prowess is acceptable but naked, abject confession is unpardonable, tedious.
Although content is requisite for a poem to be meaningful, a poem is not really a communication like fiction or essay. It is more like an object, like a painting or sculpture, and perhaps like a musical score, sheet music. Yet I would still instruct students of poetry to first read each poem by the sentence, not the line, to derive its meaning, understand its argument, visualize its action. Then one might ask how and why is it sculpted, structured, with line breaks and strophes. Ultimately, the form of the poem is nothing more or less than the method by which the poet discovered his meaning. Although it is arbitrary it could have been said another way it is the only way it could be said by this person in this time and place. I have always liked the idea of a sculptor carving away stone or wood to reveal the form inside the block.
The poem lives on as an object, recognized by many or few or none. Like art or furniture, most are briefly useful then are moved to the attic or shed where they gather dust and mouse turds then break, dry and decay and find their way to the dump, the dust heap of history, only not even human history, just your personal history.
The anthology has made me an antiquarian one who cares as much for objects made by others as if I had made them myself.
So how can one talk about poems? The argument that any attempt to discuss or describe a poem is better served by simply reading the poem, perhaps memorizing it, has merit. Except in one respect the process can take you to undiscovered and half-discovered country within yourself. Always, first, you must understand the action otherwise we are just re-reading ourselves in our own tried and untrue ways. We must not mistake an old dog dying for a puppy being born. Misunderstanding the words is like constructing a science experiment with a flawed methodology and then using the results to shape or live in the world. It can be dangerous. Therefore reading poetry is a mental discipline worthy as the scientific method itself. It takes you out of yourself.
The fun of criticism comes in examining why and how the poem made you feel or think as you did. You can read closely for the chosen words, rhythms, lines and stanzas. You may admire the skill or wit of the poet. And you can refer to your own experience to understand your reaction. You can even disagree with the poet’s thought or perception, or reject the sentiment. You can say that’s him, not me.
Then there are Bloom’s formulations of which I am wary, he being a critic not a poet. Yet here they are. Three sources of healthy complexity or difficulty in poems: 1) Sustained allusiveness - cultural references that require the reader to be educated beyond the poem’s content, for which he cites Milton as an example and could have Dante; 2) Cognitive originality leaps of perception and depths of understanding that startle, enlighten and take off the top of your head, for which he cites Shakespeare and Dickinson as examples and to which I would add much of what is memorable in modern poetry; and 3) Personal mythmaking whereby the poet constructs over time a system of images and personal (more than cultural) references that with familiarity become understandable and meaningful, citing Yeats and Blake as examples. How to make this formulation useful.
A second formulation by Bloom discusses poetic figures or the indirect means by which poetry uncovers truth, dancing with and romancing language rather than wrestling and pinning it down like philosophy tries. There are four: 1) Irony or saying one thing and meaning another, usually the opposite; 2) Symbol (synecdoche) or making one thing stand for another; 3) Contiguity (metonymy) or using an aspect or quality of something to represent the whole; and 4) Metaphor or transferring the qualities or associations of one thing to another.
Meanwhile, here’s my arse poetica:
1) Poetry is an acquired taste, like golf or wine, with no obligation to appreciate it.
2) Poetry is divination; prose explains what we think we know but poetry discovers what we didn’t know we thought.
3) Poetry is one of many man-made systems, like baseball or the scientific method, for producing knowledge, meaning and pleasure. Or are they all natural as sex?
4) Of all the other arts, poetry is most like sculpture; the word “poem” comes from the Indo- European root meaning “to make, to build.”
5) It is impossible to write exactly what you mean or be accurately understood; poetry uses this to its advantage.
6) Line length enjambment is the single most important feature of poetry.
7) Poems are made from ideas; poetry is philosophy but where philosophy wrestles language down, poetry romances language.
8) Meaning is the most important product of poetry but it’s completely personal; poems almost always say one thing and mean another but the poet often doesn’t know what he meant.
9) It is almost impossible not to rhyme or write rhythmically in English or any other language.
10) The forms poets use are how the poet gets to his truth and are basically arbitrary choices.
11) Poems may be difficult and complex and irrational but they must be comprehensible.
12) Just describing the action of the poem will take you where you need to go.
Copyright 2012 by Robert Ronnow.