By Lisa Russ Spaar
My father, a smart man, believes that poetry is out to trick him, a fact apparent in the deer-in-the-headlights discomfort he exhibits whenever I present him with one of my books or a poem by one of the grandchildren.
Coleridge’s assertion that poetry is “the best words in the best order” would be a laughable notion to him, a man who prefers to get the news from The Washington Post and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. And it’s not just lay readers who find poetry difficult. Some of my brightest English majors feel this way. The chair of a local high-school English Department shared with me that her colleagues are so afraid of poetry that they find ways to avoid teaching it altogether. When faced with the task of coming up with a “definition” of poetry for a state curricular rubric, her group was unable to begin to frame a response, let alone reach a consensus. They finally came up with something like “unusual language that sometimes rhymes and sometimes doesn’t.”
I’m quite sure I can’t come up with a single definition of poetry either. But I suspect that the most resistant or wary readers of verse, even if they can’t say what poetry is, have written or received a poem—in a love letter, a diary, a condolence card, a Valentine, a school assignment—a bit of language written under especial duress or frustration or longing or sadness, language forged under pressure, perhaps at a Dickinsonian “White Heat,” words that came out not as prose but as something else, something more … intense, musical, playful, figurative, compressed. Something urgently expressed, with something at stake in the telling.
The famous New Jersey poet and physician William Carlos Williams is well known for saying that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Back when I was directing the master of fine arts in creative writing program at the University of Virginia, I used to get at least one telephone call every two or three weeks from citizens seeking a poem recommendation, something appropriate for a funeral, a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday. The calls were especially heavy, as one might imagine, on September 11, 2001, and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For emotional, psychic, intellectual sustenance—for inspiration, solace, and a reminder of what it means to be fully human—nothing quite affects us like poetry.
Yet, like my high-school English teacher friend and her faculty, readers of poetry come to the art with a wide, diverse array of expectations, tastes, predilections, desires. This subjectivity was brought home to me afresh recently in a graduate poetry seminar. We were reading Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, a text by an author famous for her hermetic poetic experiments, syntactical innovations, and associative linguistic theatrics. A few students had the predictable reaction of wanting, at least initially, to throw the book across the room. Another young woman, who was suffering from a head cold, admitted that she’d begun to appreciate Stein only after she’d consumed some sinus medication and began to rap the poems aloud; this confession inspired an impromptu performance of “Mutton,” with a particularly adept classmate providing the bass back-beat soundtrack. Other students in the class, however, a surprising number, found themselves “moved” by the beauty of poems—as language, as music, as testaments of intimacy, eroticism, and love, as in these lines from “A Long Dress”: “What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a / long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. // What is the wind, what is it. // Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.”
Readers, then, with our various “negative capabilities,” our range of temperamental inclinations and diverse tolerances for order, for chaos, are drawn, if we’re attracted to poetry at all, to different poets and poetic styles. Some of us prefer poems in plain speech, what Heather McHugh has called, in her introduction to Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, a “very windexed window,” in which “language intends to dissolve in the service of its meaning.” Other readers like to get caught in the net of language, Paul Celan’s hindurchgehen, that going back again through the word-mesh, where the world is not only reflected but created. “That,” McHugh writes, “is why poetry is not exposition. It is the place that suffers inscription. It bears the mark or scar of what was seen and what was grasped. … It takes upon itself, into itself, what it sees; the song is of insight . … It requires you to face the difficulty, the unfathomability, of your life.”
In her essay “Invitation and Exclusion,” which explores why some poets inspire us as readers and writers while others seem to leave us outside, to shut us down, Louise Glück writes, “The poems from which I feel excluded are not poems from which I can learn. Neither are they poems I can ignore.” Some among us will never make reading poetry a practice or habit, despite that closet poem I suspect even my father has squirreled away somewhere. What Glück, McHugh, Stein, and others remind me to do, though, especially at the start of a new year, is to make a more active practice of reading (and even writing) poems outside my comfort zone. My own propensity is for the compressed, brocaded, gnomic, and interior lyric. All the more reason, then, for me to delve again into the beauties and gifts of more-transparent poems or longer, more-narrative pieces. Still, I can’t resist recommending a New Year’s favorite, “One Year ago – jots what?” by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)—a poet often considered arcane and difficult, which may explain why I always return to her for sustenance—and offering, too, a second by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), a haiku, translated by Robert Hass, a poem deceptively simple but rich with food for at least 12 months’ worth of thought:
New Year’s Day –
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
Lisa Russ Spaar, poetry editor for Arts & Academe, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.