NOº 5661

Desert Island Five: Poetry

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If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d need these five poetry collections to keep me company:

  • Human Wishes by Robert Hass
  • Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
  • Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath
  • Elegy by Larry Levis
  • Corinna A-maying the Apocalypse by Darcie Dennigan

I believe there are pretty much two kinds of poems: Poems That Make Sense and Poems That Don’t Make Sense. That seems like a value judgment, but it’s not. Not really. The former kind of poem is the linear, logical kind most of us learned about in school. Often it’s narrative. Often it has a clear “point” to make: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. It tends to be regular in all (or most) of the ways a poem can be regular.

The latter kind of poem—a Poem That Doesn’t Make Sense—is a different animal altogether. It is interested mainly in intuitive leaps, in tone, atmosphere, “vibe.” It is necessarily irregular. Syncopated.

I like both kinds of poems. I tend to write the latter.

For what it’s worth, my sense of contemporary American poetry—and the poets who write it—is that it also leans toward the latter. Poems That Don’t Make Sense. Practically speaking, that keeps poetry out of the mainstream. And because most people out in the great wide world don’t read poetry, the vast majority of our poets—those fortunate enough to find a publisher for their books—schlep a box full of their latest volume around and read to an audience of 15 or 20 here, another one of 40-50 there. Maybe they sell a couple of books at a given reading. Maybe none at all.

Now you could look at that system and say, “See…

1) …poetry is insignificant!” and/or
2) …the masses are ignorant slobs!”

If poetry is, in fact, too small for its own good that’s probably because A) many of us poets write for and read to other poets and B) even then, a fair percentage of us writes poems that the rest of us aren’t really supposed to understand in the first place.

Full disclosure: I must put myself front-row-center when it comes to writing this sort of impenetrable poem. It’s not that I don’t like a lot of the poems I’ve written. I do. They mean something to me, and that meaning evolves and becomes more nuanced and interesting (to me) over time. That said, I’m starting to realize that you might actually have to be me (or someone very much like me) to say, “Cool, man, dug those poems. Especially the part about Francis Bellamy and also that one part with Martha Washington. And I can’t get enough of that syllabics stuff!”

So yes: I think insularity and solipsism are problematic for poetry at large, and a lot of my poems don’t do much to address that problem.

But there’s another, equally valid way to look at it.

As regards Count #1 above, concerning insignificance: some of the most essential things are relatively small. Germs, for instance. Also kidneys. Our addiction to big portions stems from an excess of positivistic rationalism (or is that rationalistic positivism?)—more is better because if there’s more of it, we can probably see it, and if we can see it, we can count it, and if we can count it, we can be sure it means something. But poetry’s lack of size makes it stealthy, hardy too, and replete with coping strategies. And what is life without stealth and coping strategies? Says here, that kind of life is boring and/or insufferable.

As regards Count #2, concerning ignorance: poetry combats ignorance in the only way it can be beaten: that is, hand-to-hand. A poem is almost by definition a small moment made larger for its smallness, a brief time to step out of the world, our world: its ignorance, its significance, its sheer mass.

These five slim volumes of poetry occupy various points on the [Makes Sense ↔ Doesn’t Make Sense] continuum, though none is perched atop either pole. Some inspire a personal nostalgia in me—the Hass book, for instance, is the first book of poetry I ever purchased for myself—but all of them suggest that poems aren’t really arguments or essays or even stories. The best ones, the ones I like most, are more like prayers, small pockets of language that hold within them the promise of transcendence, now and in the far-off future.


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