Thinking About Poetry

“…And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
— TS Eliot, Four Quartets
There’s a new book out by Salon columnist and contrarian feminist Camille Paglia that contains 43 “of the world’s best poems” (from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell) and Ms. Paglia’s guide to their understanding. When I first saw it I shuddered: I remembered school days when we got passing or failing grades in English for our answers to questions like “What did the poet mean when s/he wrote…” My taste in poetry, as in all the arts, is amateur, eclectic and probably unexplainable. I have a weakness for dark imagery, for irony, for clever juxtapositions of words that probably create unnecessary ambiguity. I began to take it all less seriously after I took a literature interpretation question from my teacher to the author of the passage in question, and he ridiculed the absurdity of the question publicly in a humour column in the local newspaper the next day.I still have this fear that dissecting a poem will kill it.

But I did enjoy reading the original manuscripts of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (sample page above), with the aggressive editing of Ezra Pound and the gentler suggestions of Eliot’s wife shown on each page. I enjoyed reading them not because they enhanced my understanding of the meaning of this remarkable work, but because they gave insight into the collaborative process of writing it. I am sure there are nuances of meaning I am missing, that I could pick up if I studied it more carefully, but that doesn’t matter to me: It’s the way it sounds that I love, the way in which its words elegantly articulate what I realize I think, and tease out and amplify what I discover I feel, in a way that I do not care (or perhaps do not dare) to analyze. The rest, as Eliot said “is not our business”.

Does it matter if the reader misinterprets the writer’s true intellectual and emotional meaning? Is it even possible for the written (or spoken) word to convey intellectual meaning with any high degree of precision, or emotional meaning with any precision whatsoever?

Look in the right sidebar and you’ll find the songwriters (usually mostly female) whose work I have listened to most in the past week. I know the words by heart, and these songs have tremendous emotional meaning to me, but I doubt, given the incredible ambiguity of the lyrics, and even given the power of the music and voice inflection to convey emotion, that this was the precise meaning the songwriter intended. I recently heard that kids 13-17 search for music more often than porn on the Internet (the only age group with that distinction) — now that’s meaningful. But my guess is that the mix of chemicals that flow through the body and brain of each listener, triggered by a particular song, and hence the emotions that are felt or understood by each listener, are utterly different.

The sense of shared emotional experience at a music concert (or poetry reading) is likewise, while powerful, surely illusionary. I have looked at my “neighbours” (the people whose taste in music, according to the software, most closely resembles mine) and noted how many of them are my age, my gender, and my nationality — put us all in a room without our beloved music and, I’d guess, the silence would soon be deafening. We’re listening to the same stuff, but ‘hearing’ it completely differently. And so with poetry.

Perhaps then, poets should spend less time trying to be emotionally precise, and, while remaining authentic, focus more on the cleverness (in the positive sense of imaginativeness and thoughtful craftsmanship) and the emotional power of words by themselves and in particular juxtapositions and well-paced phrasings. To use a cooking metaphor, perhaps they should focus more on the quality of the ingredients and less on how they (seemingly) work together.

Here are three poems by the wonderful (in my opinion) contemporary poet Jack Gilbert (probably a violation of copyright, so I hope Mr. Gilbert excuses my use of them as examples):

The Abnormal Is Not Courage (by Jack Gilbert)

The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
Tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers,
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it’s not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn’t that. Not at its best.
It was impossible, and with form. They rode in sunlight,
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore’s heart: the bounty of impulse,
And the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart (by Jack Gilbert)

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

Rain (by Jack Gilbert)

Suddenly this defeat.
This rain.
The blues gone gray
And the browns gone gray
And yellow
A terrible amber.
In the cold streets
Your warm body.
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
Your absence
The people who are always
Not you.

I have been easy with trees
Too long.
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.
This rain.

It is perhaps helpful but not essential to know that ‘Michiko’ is Gilbert’s deceased wife. Or that Gilbert is now 81, once celebrated but now largely ignored. Or that he’s been accused of misogyny. Or that his home town was Pittsburgh but he spent much of his writing life living modestly, in Europe. You can find lots of criticism and interpretation of his work online, but most of it is pretentious and dreadful — no wonder he fled and has chosen to write little in his later years. My only comment on his work is that it is well-crafted and evocative. I picked his work here because I think, for that reason alone, it lives up to e.e. cummings’ enormous charge to poets:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy, but it isn’t.
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being
can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make
you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed. And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.
Or so I feel.

What is the purpose of all this toil, this “raid on the inarticulate”, this “fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again”?

My sense is that it is the same reason that solitary* crows sing to themselves, sometimes in their own voice, sometimes mimicking the sounds of others, even mimicking the sound of running water and wind: To keep company with themselves, to send messages to the rest of Earth, to anyone who is listening, to create something new, to find their own voice, to think out loud, to express themselves fearlessly and shamelessly. It is natural, insuppressible, our way of saying “Hello world, this is who I am!”

And now we no longer need to fear the decline of this noble work in the inexhaustible frenzy to be busy and to be commercial: The Internet, and blogs in particular, have given us, poets everyone, back our voice.

* Most crows, except each murder’s self-selected breeding pair, remain bachelors all their lives, and often overnight alone, farfrom their flock.

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5 Responses to Thinking About Poetry

  1. Exactly. Wonderfully said, Dave. I give up, lapse into despair, when someone says, “But what does it MEAN?” I hear that more about films than poems, but only because we discuss films much more often than poems. The argument’s the same, though. When I see a great film or hear/read a great poem, I’m usually silenced. Either that, or I want to tell everyone on the same wavelength to see the film or read the poem. Your penultimate paragraph is poetry.

  2. Karen M says:

    I second that, and would add that the footnote is more poetry. Also, I would always prefer to discuss the way that a poem or story is put together, rather than what it means. (I didn’t know about bachelor crows.)

  3. Patry says:

    Always happy to find another Gilbert fan. “Rain” is one of my favorite poems.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    You are all so kind! Glad to see the “Rain” brought out the poets in the blogosphere.

  5. Murdock says:

    Great to see Gilbert finally getting some mainstream recognition (if any part of poetry can be considered mainstream), although he’s still very much a word-of-mouth discovery for most. I find his interviews to be as hilarious as his poems are poignant.

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