My students are busy this weekend writing a paper about an American poet’s ars poetica. The term comes from a poem by Horace describing the place and purpose of poetry and many poets have written ars poetica after Horace. However, not all the poems I gave my class even mention poetry, so I wanted them to think of a poet’s ars poetica in more general terms. Going with the idea that every poem is in some way about poetry, I asked them to think about what a specific poem says about what poetry should be and/or do.
The assignment is challenging. To start with, the task of getting at the truth the poem implies isn’t easy. And then the bigger question looms—how, on the basis of this one poem, can a reader guess at this poet’s approach and beliefs about poetry?
I wonder if I could write this paper.
My students might howl at my saying so, but my defense is that the thought counts. I want them to grapple with one poem. I want them to examine what’s distinctive and idiosyncratic about one poet’s approach. I’m not expecting a polished, perfect, and professional product, only a worthy attempt to hear the poet’s voice.
Maybe all we can hope for is one poet’s definition of poetry. “What makes a poem a poem?” is the hackneyed first question of many poetry courses, and teachers usually follow the initial inquiry with a reductio ad absurdum pursuit of what poetry is not. Rhyme doesn’t make poetry because not all poems rhyme, nor does meter or other aspects of form because some poems are (or at least seem) quite informal. Figurative language and imagery don’t help because some acknowledged poets run from poetic language altogether. Billboards can be poetry as can many other found sources. So this activity usually ends with the resounding assertion, “Isn’t poetry great? It must be, we can’t even define what it is!”
Okay, but you won’t help anyone read or write poetry by saying so. After two years of graduate studies examining Poetry, I was more confused than ever and paralyzed when I sat down to write. How was I supposed to write a poem without knowing when I’d written one?
I’ve never been altogether comfortable with calling myself a poet, but, since graduate school, I have learned to go with my gut and write again, whatever it is I write. I’ve lost patience with what poetry might be.
Since I’m asking my students to say what a poet thinks poetry is, however, I’ll venture an answer. To me, the one big umbrella that covers all poems is that they are oracular.
Oracular, an adjective form of “oracle,” means—strictly and unhelpfully—“of or relating to an oracle or prophet,” but also—more generally and helpfully—“solemnly prophetic,” and “mysterious or ambiguous.”
My mind presents objections immediately because some poetry is quite funny, and I don’t really believe poetry has to be difficult either. “Mysterious or ambiguous” sounds a little hoity-toity.
Still, I’ll stick by my answer, and here’s why. Most of the funny poems I know carry at their heart some piquant (and hidden) vision of human nature that brings the laughter to an end with an “Oh. Why am I laughing?” Consider “Resume” by Dorothy Parker:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp;
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
This poem isn’t difficult—the humor is apparent—yet, it’s mysterious in the way poetry often is, in presenting the pointiest tip of an iceberg fathoms deep. What gave rise to this proclamation? Is this a funny poem about being sad or a sad poem about being funny? It happens to rhyme and, in its rhyme, pleases readers where it might appall them. Rhyme often rubs against sentiment in that way, making a sore subject jaunty and deflecting a more obvious assertion.
Poetry is, I’d argue, always deflecting things a little, like a quizzical and strange oracle who won’t tell you the straight truth—maybe because this version of it is the best he or she can do. As Emily Dickinson put it, poets “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” With line breaks and images over ideas, metaphors over definitions, poetry can be more link than chain, more silence than notes.
My students sometimes resist the finery and, from their perspective, snobbery of poetry, but to me its virtuosity also serves an oracular end. When a poet writes a perfect sonnet or villanelle, I wonder how such slippery and sublime thoughts could be trained into such regularity… without coming to a reductive conclusion.
One of my favorite poems about poetry is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Man-moth,” a tour de force of imagery and enigma. In the poem, the speaker describes the creature (the title is from a misprint of Mammoth) climbing buildings to escape through the hole of the moon. He fears the climb but, Bishop says, “what the Man-Moth fears most he must do,” seeking truth even in misperception, even when the search is painful or arduous. What the Man-moth returns with is equally troublesome. He can’t look at the third rail of a subway because it is a “draught of poison” and “a disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to.”
I gape at Bishop’s inventiveness and can never understand how, over and over, she comes up with another apt quality to ascribe to the Man-moth, but the last stanza particularly gets me.
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
The tear, I’m hardly the first to notice, is like a poem, something that might so easily and perhaps properly be swallowed again. It is, after all, his only possession and as costly as a bee sting to a bee. That he hands it over expresses his desire that it will speak to you, if only distantly, of its source and creation. He is an oracle granting what he knows, knowing it may not be enough to make himself understood. The dream, as Bishop expresses it, is that it will be “pure enough to drink,” nourishing though you can’t say entirely why.
I suppose being oracular is in the eye of the beholder at last, but thinking about my students struggling—maybe making some of their own tears—I hope they’ll reach some odd truth in the words they study. I hope they will at least sense the truth is being spoken or attempted. I hope they’ll see truth is itself a mystery. Though truth ultimately eludes formulation, it insists on voice, sometimes the poet’s voice, an oracular voice, to express it.