My daughter is taking a poetry class in the fall, and I noticed a book about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on its reading list. She is an occasional poet, the teacher is one of the most talented at our school, and my daughter will get a great deal from the book and the class. Perhaps she’ll write the poems she’ll later call “her first real poems.”
I don’t recollect my first poem exactly, but my feelings about writing poems haven’t changed much. Poems are elevated expression—part venting, part vision, part visit with the unknown. After hour upon hour thinking about poetry, however, I’ve never touched defining the thing itself, the fundamentally mysterious and defiant thing. If a young poet asked me about poetry, I might shirk. My answers double back. You reconsider. You regret.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been stealing from myself by revisiting posts on my old blog Joe Felso, and one post responded to a challenge from another blogger to say what poetry is and does. The four items I found in my list now seem partially true but also partially overblown, partially strident, and partially self-justification. They need revision—undoubtedly, they will need revision again in a couple of years—and I’m willing to try. What I said is in bold, what I now think follows.
1. A poem isn’t an argument or a message.
One of my favorite articles about poetry to share with students is Mark Strand’s “Slow Down for Poetry,” which appeared in the NY Times Book Review in 1991 and used his personal story of becoming a poet to meditate on the distinct pleasures of reading and writing poetry. Along the way, he differentiates between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Strand says fiction and nonfiction are mired in reality, the former seeking to add to our experience in the real world and the latter explaining it. A novel is successful when you look up and discover you’ve read thirty pages, all of it happening in your head. However, of poetry he says, “a sense of itself is what the poem sponsors and not a sense of the world. It invents itself.” He also says poetry, “is language at it most beguiling and seductive while it is, at the same time, elusive, seeming to mock one’s desire for reduction, for plain and available order.”
Strand’s comments are cogent and wise, but, reread something often enough, and you begin to see holes. This assumption that poetry defies order and our normal sense of the world can be seductive. Suggesting poems have implications rather than meaning invites wandering as well as exploration. And now I wonder, does a poet need something to say? I’m not talking about poems-with-a-point, poems as arguments, or diatribes, but some necessity to speak, even if that necessity is tough to pin down. Does a poet need a sort of clarity even if it’s strange clarity? Poems demand emotional logic even when they’re arational. They come from somewhere and something. Students like to think poems “Mean what you think they mean,” but are poems really Rorschachs? How does someone write a Rorschach?
My current verdict: I do think poets should avoid undue neatness, the sort of diminishing, clarifying activity appropriate to explaining (as in prose) but the poet needs some compulsion to speak even when he or she can’t clearly define it.
2. No fuzzying up
I ran into an Onion news item once about a poet who takes extra time to remove verbs and punctuation “in order to give the piece a level of vagueness more suitable for publication.” What makes this article hilarious is its image of what poets sometimes find themselves doing. However, when you have something subtle to define and express you don’t need another layer of obscurity. The challenge of helping a reader feel is complicated enough. The modernists made complexity one of the highest aesthetic values, and we’ve absorbed their perspective by deliberately seeking ambiguity and general murkiness. However, they really sought intrinsic complexity, not after-the-fact, revised complexity. If a poem is complex—and it doesn’t have to be—it should be because what it represents is complex.
My current verdict: Don’t overwork the dough.
3. Think as a child
None of us truly remember when language was new. When my daughter was very young—maybe three—she used to call out from her car seat as we approached the garage, “Touch the moose! Touch the moose!” I was worried about her. Then, one day I looked at the garage opener clipped to one of the sun shields. Each shield was a paddle that narrowed to its attachment point in the middle…like two antlers, on either side of the rear view mirror that hung down…like a head. In that moment, I finally saw what she saw, a moose. If we could return to that state of invention—looking for whatever words might cover our feelings or observations—we all might be better poets.
My current verdict: Everyone says “Avoid clichés,” which is good advice. I prefer its positive formulation though. Be fresh. My daughter wasn’t trying to be creative, to fuzzy up the world or dazzle me…though she did. She was just looking for a way to express what she saw, and, being new to this planet, had to rely on something new.
4. No individual poem matters
When I originally addressed this topic, I said that four of the poems I’d written were okay and the rest stunk. That statement is just a tad disingenuous. More accurately, many of the poems written to be great poems were overreaching and stilted. The ones written to understand something not finally understandable have been passable. However, if you regard all poems as pure practice, preparing for the day when, having trained the mind to think poetically, you might achieve what thus far you haven’t, you might be waiting a long time. I love improvisation and play—you need to be receptive—but you also need ambition, at least the hope your current search may yield something good. Otherwise, you will be rehearsing forever.
My current verdict: Maybe individual poems don’t matter, but you need to behave as if they do… because they may.
“What poetry is” undergoes constant revision in my mind. In the end, I know little and enjoy that perspective. Poetry exists where challenge and desire meet, where the inexpressible meets the compulsion to speak.