We will wrap up National Poetry Month with some reflections on the art of poetry. Not my favorite subject actually. I also am not fond of novels in which the hero is a struggling—and misunderstood—novelist. Too much inside baseball and naval gazing. Write what you know we were all taught, but hopefully any artist should know more than just self-absorption. Of course there were exceptions. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel literally changed my teenaged life. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in which Jake is more concerned with his dysfunctional sexual plumbing than his writer’s block.
It’s the same with poetry. A writer can get so wrapped up in his or her craft and personal experience that sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much to write about except than damn blank page or to explain/justify wasting your life writing what plainly no one wants to read.
The result of giving into that urge is, inevitably, a lot of shitty poetry. But then there is a lot of shitty poetry about any topic you can think of. Many pitch. Few a called up The Show.
However many fine bards and wordsmiths going back to classical antiquity have engaged in the practice of poetry about poetry. There is even a Latin name for the genre—ars poetica which translates loosely to “on the nature of poetry.”
So today we will take a stroll amid some modern masters and stop by one hopeless schmuck to see what they have to say on the subject.
Undoubtedly Archibald MacLeish had the best known take on the subject if only because it became the keystone for many a college lit poetry survey course. He even used that fancy pants Latin.
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
Marianne Moore, the Godmother of modern American poetry took a typically down to earth crack at it.
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and
school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
That excellent obstetrician from Patterson, New Jersey, Dr. William Carlos Williams had, I believe, his tongue ensconced firmly in his cheek when he produced this effusion.
The Uses of Poetry
I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,
Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat's long sway.
For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string
And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesys transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.
—William Carlos Williams
And finally we turn to the most deservedly obscure of early 21st Century mid-continent American poets for this insight into process.
How a Poem Came to Be
An inauspicious lump of gravel
tossed in the tumbler,
until gleaming smooth,
handsome moss agate
admired and mounted
on a new bolo tie slide.
A thing of pride and beauty.
But how much more did it yearn
to be a geode
struck once just so,
split to reveal