This is the fourth in a monthly series by Dave Lucas, the Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. You can read the September Installment, (No. 1), here; the October Installment, (No. 2), here; and the November Installment (No. 3), here.
What makes poetry poetry
Ask a dozen people and you’ll get as many different answers, maybe more. Some won’t be much help: “Poetry is the sort of thing poets write,” Robert Frost is said to have said.
I’m sorry I asked.
If we struggle with poetry, this struggle to define it is partly to blame. If only poetry could obey certain rules—if we could trust it to rhyme, or appear in lines, or make sense.
Easier, maybe, but certainly less exciting: set a limit for what “counts” as poetry, and poetry will necessarily defy that limit. Critics who fume “that’s not poetry” today will tomorrow be laughed out of the room.
Maybe we should be less concerned with defining what poetry is than in understanding what it does
Poetry awakens us to the aesthetic qualities of language. Words do necessary work for us, but they are also a stage for the play between sound and sense, speech and writing, the literal and (as we’ll see in another column) the metaphorical.
Poetry may work in tension “between the written word and the spoken word,” as the poet Charles Wright notes, either maximizing or minimizing the difference between them.
Take Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”: “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” These lines blur the line between speech and song, sense and nonsense, until we forget the details of the story for the pleasure of its sounds.
Or consider William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem that hews so closely to plain speech that an indignant student—a younger me, maybe—might object But I could have done that!
(I couldn’t have.)
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Here the distance between the written and spoken word almost collapses. All the poem’s ordinary specifics add up to an extraordinary, unknowable “so much.”
Each poem tiptoes its own tightrope: “Jabberwocky” between sense and nonsense, “The Red Wheelbarrow” between the humdrum and profound. The former finds the familiarity in language’s strangeness, the latter the strangeness of its familiarity.
Of course, when the language of poems so resembles speech, it becomes difficult to know, in the words of literary theorist Stanley Fish, “how to recognize a poem when you see one.”
In his essay of that title, Fish argues that what differentiates poems from other artifacts of language is not what poems do, but what we readers do with them. “It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention,” he writes, “but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities.”
In other words, just about anything can be a poem if we treat it as a poem.
I realize this is about as satisfying as Frost’s non-answer. By this logic you could, say, cut out a section of the newspaper and call it a poem.
You could, but Kenneth Goldsmith already did. Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” takes whole swaths of text from their original sources and treats them as found art, as poems. Simply reading them as such pushes our question about poetry to a logical extreme.
In The Weather
, Goldsmith makes poems of radio weather reports. From the opening of the “Winter” section:
A couple of breaks of sunshine over the next couple of hours, what little sunshine there is left. [. . .] Not a bad shopping day tomorrow, sunshine to start, then increasing clouds, still breezy, with a high near fifty.
Mostly I find this more compelling in theory than in practice, less interesting to read than to read about. But sometimes Goldsmith’s poems awaken me to the aesthetics of a word or phrase—“what little sunshine”—I would otherwise have taken for granted.
Indeed, as Fish argues, when we change the quality of the attention we pay to our language, we can see—and hear—poetry everywhere.
Sometimes we hear it before we can see it. I don’t know how many times I “read” Harryette Mullen’s “Kirstenography” in frustrated silence before I finally read it aloud, and felt the poem open up:
K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of remember. She was the fecund chill burn in her famish. She came into the word with a putty smoother, a handsewn farther, and a yodeler cistern.
This looks like gibberish, but it sounds like something else. To read the “real” story—“K was born at the end of the year”—we must read the poem aloud. But we must first misread the words on the page. We instead hear what is not said.
Mullen’s “Kirstenography” reminds us just how precarious words can be, that—in Mark Twain’s famous phrase—the “difference between the almost right
word and the right
word [is] the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
But what are ever the “right” words? Those we read or those we hear? Those we say, or those we mean? The words we already have, or those we cannot find?
Poems offer no easy answers to these questions. But to ask them in ways that perplex and delight us, to use words to try to transcend words—these are just the sorts of things poetry can do.