The Bewildering Business of Words

“To rescue the banal is every lyric poet’s ambition.”
Charles Simic, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks


In 1996, The Academy of American Poets baptized April as National Poetry Month. All over the country, anyone even remotely involved with the world of books now pays homage to poets and their exploits. Booksellers, publishers, teachers and librarians gather to disperse the word about both classical and contemporary poetry (or they should, anyway). The well-known and well-obscured poet and poem are quoted and admired or despised, as the case may be. The worst is no reaction at all. “Meh” is the enemy of any writer….

At least as far back as the 18th century, with its gumbo of movements known as Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and the earliest green buds of the Industrial Age, accusations and defenses have run amok regarding the necessity of poetry. In his essay, “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley mashes up the “two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination” in arguing humanity’s innate creativity, what said creativity brings forth to a society and why it’s important. Here, reason acts “as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another” while imagination is “mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light,” arguing that together they recognize and create beauty, or art, which begets civility. Or something like that…

As fascinating as the actual science of it is, I have a lot of opinions regarding the philosophical “divisions of the mind,” the values placed upon them and certain dominant definitions of “civility.” But Shelley has heart and I appreciate his argument for the recognition of poetry as a pragmatic affair. We cut funding for arts, pooling our time and resources into what we consider to be more “necessary.” The long-lived and lingering are rare characteristics in our day-to-day experiences. In a climate ripe with disposability, crowded with oversimplified, often flashy and noisy narratives that hand meaning to us and streamlined, anemic soundbites of information that promise not to take up too much of our time, perhaps we need to summon our own lyrical complexities, if only to give ourselves “staying power” as a culture. Poetry, both writing it and reading it, takes time.

But you could get a cramp in the left side of your brain trying to succinctly argue the importance of poetry and why we must not let it slip into obscurity. I refuse to exhaust myself in arguing why any art is important. If you don’t already know, I can’t do nuthin’ for ya’, man. In his possibly overly kind New York Times article, “Oprah Magazine’s Adventures in Poetry”, critic and author of Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry David Orr asks us instead to ponder the “actual experience of reading a poem […] what reading one of them is like to one person.” What does it mean to crawl inside a poem’s structure and tone, teeming with metaphor, its imagery and all other sorts of gooey good stuff?

Reading poetry is the willingness to enter into, and accept, chaos. Many writers and critics have called for an acceptance of the impenetrable in poetry. Time takes on a whole new pace and texture when inhabiting a poem and, as David Orr points out, poems seem, or are, inscrutable. To many of us, it is the elusiveness, the puzzles within, the challenge of interpretation and the potential for transcendence that is exciting but, to many, it’s just down right taxing. In trying to convince people to give poetry a chance, tossing about terms like “chaos” and “inscrutable” may deter converts. But I tell ya’, when I chance upon a poem that not only piques my curiosity with its word play but leaves me breathless with it’s meaning, a meaning which I might not necessarily grasp in any linear fashion, I am reminded of why I come back for more. So, it is important that we situate ourselves differently when thinking about chaos, that tenacious snarl that has so much to teach us. Besides, nothing compares to that private rapport between you and the page, that delightful exhaustion that comes after tackling the formidable mystery of a good poem.

Then again, I love (and collect) words. The more enigmatic and cryptic the poem, the better…Just don’t get too clever. It’s hostile and a lil’ pretentious. I love watching how the thoughtful stitch up a good verse or conjure an astonishing image. I love language. So much so that I am grateful even for poets whose work I find too “on the nose” or boring as all get out (you know who you are) and firmly believe in space for all attempts at creativity. Yes, there is an inordinate amount of really bad poetry out there. Yes, some of the criticisms regarding poetry and poets are valid. Even I, the adamant little proponent that I am, still sneer at most poetry. I am absurdly selective, nee persnickety, about whom I read. It took me years to admit that I even wrote it, much less read it. And don’t even get me started on the typical “poetry voice,” that funny little cadence invoked by poets reading their work. However, my past shames are not the issue here.

Reclamation is in order. Amazing poetry did not disappear with the “dead white guys.” With a keen eye and a little digging, you will find a choir of expressions that will remedy any ill. There are the old standbys: Rilke, whose profundity blocks out all noise and drives me into my own private mental cloister; Neruda, whom I am powerless against, as he always teases out the closeted romantic in me; and, of course, Emily Dickinson, who spun, sewed and secured, with alarming magnificence, not a few decent poems. I have been swayed by the exuberant genius of Ed Skoog, the comforting insanity of E.E. Cummings, the teeming reflective center of Li-Young Lee, and the awe-inspiring consciousness of Denise Levertov. I often have to ask Paul Celan, whom I only discovered recently, where he’s been all this time and tell him I forgive him for repeatedly breaking my heart with “Fugue of Death”. Derek Walcott’s poem, “A City’s Death by Fire” stands as the only poem I’d want etched on my tombstone (even though I fully intend to have a Viking funeral).

Then there are the behemoths on my shelves, the ones responsible for my lawless and senseless commitment to a life of words. Gwendolyn Brooks, who preaches the mundane with shine, sings history’s sadness and speaks to me as a complete person, leaving me better for it. C.D. Wright, the woman who dons a vernacular like no one’s business, reinventing her voice with each collection of poems and who first romanced me with her Southern Gothic saga, Deepstep Come Shining. Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song, which hums in a way both alluvial and divine and with such succinct intelligence. I am a little in love with Nikky Finney. I was left homesick for the Gulf Coast after reading, Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon’s “Lost” from her supremely imaginative collection, Open Interval. And I was lucky enough to hear, in person, the calm music of Nathaniel Mackey’s epic, decade spanning, creations. He did not use the “poetry voice”….

Perhaps I go too far, but some say God, or Nature, or the Universe (pick your poison) is unknowable or unpredictable, hard to tack down in any simple manner, and that that is the beauty of belief. Could this be what the process of creating and the experiencing of, not only poetry, but all art is about? Wouldn’t it be, among other things, a vapid existence without such mystery and contingency? –Shannon


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