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So Much Depends …

A recent post in The Stone, a New York Times blog, has been sitting on my browser for a couple of weeks now, bugging me. I refer to “Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination” by Ernie Lepore and Matthew Stone, which uses a poeticized version of a Craigslist personal ad to advocate for what the authors dub “the poetic imagination”—an imagination they locate in the minds of readers, not poets. Lepore and Stone describe a number of features they find especially salient in the “lineated” version of the ad—though they miss a few, in my view—to argue that “a poem—and artistic language more generally—is open to whatever we find in it.”

Sigh.

Let us set aside, for the moment, the possibility that the authors are so steeped in William Carlos Williams that they fail to recognize the way in which the found poem on which they focus is indebted to one particular type of Modernist poetry exemplified by Williams’s own experiments:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably      
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

drunk irish guy
to the girl in the red tights
on the subway to queens

i really hope
I did not creep you out…
I was so drunk
and you were so hot…

I wish I could have met you
at a different moment
and a different place.

Forget, that is, that the lineation which marks both these poems (and yes, I believe they are poems) is the chief engine transforming what Lepore and Stone call “artless” language into what they call a “poetic rendition”—though I’ll return to this question of lineation in a minute. More to the point, they add garbage to the already stacked heap of advice about reading and writing poetry by carving a bright line between “artistic” and “ordinary” language; by establishing the poem as a riddle to be solved; and then by encouraging readers to solve said riddle any way they please and thus achieve poetic imagination.

First, the poet is doing something here, and he’s doing it with language—not ordinary or artistic language, but language, which in its essence is rife with history, allusion, metaphor, accent, rhythm, and effects on the human body thinking or speaking it. It is both constitutive of our humanity and our greatest tool, and as we all know, some wield tools more precisely, with greater fluency, and to larger effect than others.

Second, a poem is not a riddle carefully devised to test your poetic imagination. My beginning creative-writing students, having been taught this nonsense in high school, will cascade quasi-sentences about bright lights, tunnels, glass, and feather-light bones onto the page and then explain that the poem is really about their grandmother who lives alone, collects bowls, is losing her sight, and … oh, who knows. Maybe the tunnel is death. That no one “got it” is supposed to commend the effort.

Third, these same students, misled by such shibboleths, will argue that Elizabeth Bishop’s magnificent “One Art” “is about “how you lose stuff if you move around a lot,” and when challenged by the insistent building of that poem toward love and devastating heartbreak, will shrug and say, “That’s another opinion.”

Look. Great poets are articulating something that is very difficult to articulate. It may well be so difficult because its meaning is multivocal and to render it on the page therefore requires Forster’s ironically stated magical formula: “Only connect.” In other words, poets are being as clear as possible about an elusive truth, not as coy as possible about an idea that can be whatever truth you please.

Indeed, the reader plays a part. And we read instructions on setting up the train set our kid got for Christmas differently from the way we read Dylan Thomas. We also hear the A minor chord of the elevator door opening differently from the way we hear it in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 or in “Stairway to Heaven.” But to claim, as the Stone authors do, that “poetry evokes a special kind of thinking” is to set it off as both unnecessarily precious and unindividuated. “One Art” manifests Bishop’s particular, hard-won thought process in words—that’s its challenge and its glory—and we can enter into it with our senses fully alive, which may produce a special experience but is not thinking of a “special” (secret handshake?) kind.

To have fun with Lepore’s and Stone’s notions of lineation and found poetry, meanwhile, you can go to Live Ink, a Web site that offers a “cascading layout” of ordinary text to provide “greater comprehension, faster absorption of content and less eye strain.” You get to input any prose material you like, and they will make a poem of it. “Measurable gains in productivity”!  Greater “customer loyalty”! What could be more poetic? Here’s what they did to my final-exam instruction:

Choose

one

of the following topics.

Citations from books

are allowed but are not

necessary.

If you do cite,

please use

MLA style references.

Sorry, folks. I doubt students reading the instructions in this format will have “improved comprehension.” I’m certain that no amount of special thinking will deepen their understanding of what was being conveyed. As for poetry, I’ll take the pathetic, puckish lament of the drunk Irish guy, uncascaded and unlineated, any day.

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