Poetry Considered Again


Dylan commented with respect to another post on poetry here:

I should have said in my notes on the epic, that whether the work is traditional (narrative, Prelude-like) or a sequence of smaller moments (Berryman's Dream Songs; Lowell's Notebook), or radically fragmented like the Waste Land -- the ultimate test is that highly subjective, almost romantic : Does the writer entice us, does he or she involve us, seduce the reader & bring the reader into the poet's particular vision? I'm more tolerant of experiment than most, I'd say, but it has to be experiment that brings me in somehow.

There's a quotation of Dickinson's, don't know from whence : If it takes the top of my head off, and knocks me over, I know it's poetry. Seems as good a test as any. Also : Do we return to it, year after year (Hamlet!), do we see new things in it with each reading?

There is much here to ponder. I think the first paragraph actually encompasses my definition of poetry. Poetry is a very, very deep, very still lake. You can admire the surface, see the water, the trees reflected in it, the clouds and the mountains passing by--you can take your boat out in it and get a gander at the shore from the middle of the lake. You can choose to put on your snorkel and plumb the depths to see what treasures may lie there. Perhaps you will discover the next Loch-Ness monster. What bothers me about much of the PoMo and even many of the modernist schools is that rather than a lake, they have made poetry a Sargasso. The water is glassy still and deep, and if you decide to jump into it to explore for treasure you will be mired and ultimately drowned by Sargassum a tangled mass of thick seaweed. More, you are likely to be stranded there forever in the doldrums, no longer reading poetry because poetry promises only depths you cannot plumb and a surface that is all too familiar.

I am relatively intolerant of experiment in poetry. Thanks to the things Dylan posts and writes I am becoming somewhat more accustomed to these things and rather than regarding them as similar to the execrations (or excretions) of modern "artists" who cannot draw a straight line with a ruler, I am coming to see them more as the expressionism and abstract renderings of a Picasso who is very deliberately breaking long-established rules to achieve a certain effect. This is successful experimentation. Even when such fails, it provides an interesting study. What is problematic to me isn't disjunctions, jumblings, and typographical anomalies, it is raw pretension. I am most disturbed by the casual toxic dumping of references to things the ordinary reader is unlikely to encounter or understand. Now, to give Eliot some credit, he did provide footnotes to The Wasteland that help with this. However, I studied poetry with an exceedingly fine teacher (not, in my estimation a great poet) who based much of his poetry on a character in an obscure novel by Djuna Barnes, and so all of the references centered around an intimate knowledge of Nightwood. Whatever you may think of the book, poetry that requires this degree of knowledge simply to begin to approach it is, for the most part, utterly useless.

Now, one shouldn't dumb-down one's poetry. Billy Collins is the prime example of a poet who writes one step above Rod McKuen and intends everyone to have access. I do not think there are any mermaids singing in his work. The middle ground between these two, to my mind, is where poetry belongs. There should be something that engages and drags the reader in--either rhythm, rhyme, or imagery (preferably all three) and once there, the poem should present enough fresh and interesting material to invite the reader to stay and "look around." For example, Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" has wonderful language, rhythm and imagery, and a compelling subsurface look at those languorous, perhaps even melancholy moments when one cannot be dragged from the prison of self.

I rail against poets who feel they must show the reader how much more erudite, how much more knowledgeable, how much more profound their thought than that of anyone else. A poet thinks much as everyone else does, deeply or shallowly. The difference, I think, lies in how the poet sees and hears the world. And it is the exposition of this difference that enables others to see and hear differently. If we fail in that (as poets) then we have done a disservice to our art and our audience.

As to the second paragraph. Right on. Nothing more need be said. It is one of the reasons that I love Finnegan's Wake the sense of joy and of sheer play are overwhelming. Yes, it is difficult stuff to read--but the delight in reading it well compensates for any of the difficulty. Not true for many great "poets." As Dylan has noted, and I concur, plodding through the tedium of The Triumph of Life (about purgatory and a purgatory in itself) provides no new insights into what language can do, it provides precious little insight into the life of the poet, and its phrases drum dully and yet painfully--rain on a tin-roof for those who know what that sounds like, into the drain, suggesting that any attempt to read poetry is a futile, time-wasting endeavor. In fact, poetry lies at the base of language--its tropes, its rhythms, its means of expression enrich even our daily speech, sometimes without our awareness. Metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, all the tools of the trade that have readily entered the language because up until recently nearly everyone had a certain poetic consciousness. Now, I suppose we have a poetic unconsciousness or perhaps a bouquet of black roses--a deadness and an unseemly softness about the body that makes one queasy.

And perhaps the greatest tragedy of this, is that by alienating so many from the richness of the language, we have lost some of the power to speak of the magnificence of God. Our metaphors, our similes, our expressions need from age to age a freshening. The moribund nature of poetry has given us our NABs and other atrocious, tone-deaf, word-deaf translations of the Bible. They are the product of an age that has no ear because that ear has been drummed out of them with the arcane, the deliberately obscure, the ploddingly, deadly dull.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 4, 2002 8:31 AM.

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