Monday, December 15, 2014

Beyond observation: Poetry has to confront the unsayable and tell it, not just fluff our sensory pillows

Definitions of the nature and function of poetry sometimes seem to weigh as heavy as the poems themselves. No one needs another, but perhaps I can be excused for bringing back an old one that's germane to the present moment.

E.A. Robinson told Joyce Kilmer (of all people!) what poetry is.
Something Edwin Arlington Robinson once said prophetically addresses the overabundance of contemporary poems that regard bare statement, viewpoint, and observation as sufficient. We hear this kind of verse in Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac," and such poems are the first choice for speakers in nonliturgical religious services and other self-consciously solemn occasions. If the poem draws attention to our duty to perceive more sensitively, and is winsome about it, it goes to the head of the class. It is shared on Facebook, and goes over well at poetry readings and in some anthologies.

These days, poetry that relies only on imagery, and otherwise tells us just what we want to hear, is practically inert. It's mere charity to detect fresh energy in words that decline to struggle with the difficulty of apprehending what lies beyond words. Where in all this verse is that which really stirs the senses and the mind? Where do you find poems that act as acutely as they claim to see, rather than poems that mean only what they say and no more?

Here's how the most significant modern New England poet before Robert Frost was quoted in a New York Times interview 98 years ago. "Poetry is a language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said," Robinson told his young poet-interviewer. "All real poetry, great or small, does this."

Paradoxical, isn't it? We necessarily use words for what we have to say, so how can poetry, which relies on words (what else?), tell us the unsayable?  Robinson went on, according to the interview excerpt Mark Van Doren uses in his 1927 book on the poet: "And it seems to me that poetry has two characteristics. One is that it is, after all, undefinable. The other is that it is eventually unmistakable."

Did Robinson muddy the waters, or is muddy water what inevitably confronts the genuine poet as he sets to work? Our commonplace poets today, even if they throw up a puzzle or two in their imagery, seem to be obsessed with what they want to say and comfortable in their powers of observation. By isolating what "cannot be said" as a touchstone for poetry, Robinson was declaring that you can't groom your thoughts and observations into carefully chosen words arranged down the page with a ragged right-hand margin, then conclude you've committed poetry of value.

This is true whether you practice free verse or the more or less formal kind. Robinson's formula for poetry was lost on his interviewer, for instance, a versifier by the name of Joyce Kilmer, author of the once popular "Trees." Kilmer hardly bothered approaching the boundary of what cannot be said.  He was so intent on communicating a humble, worshipful attitude toward trees that he ended his most famous poem like this: "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree." Except for its verse-marking rhyme and meter, this doesn't get close to poetry as Robinson defined it. It's a sentiment that could have been uttered in prose by a fatuous Arbor Day speaker after setting down his shovel or watering-can.

Williams' poetry has ideas as well as things.
I'm moved to figuratively grab poets by the scruff of the neck and guide their meditation toward Robinson's wise words by a segment on last weekend's "The Art of  the Matter" (WFYI-FM) about local poets' involvement in "The Healing Project" at Eskenazi Health, Indianapolis' visionary new hospital. One of the two poets in conversation with Travis Di Nicola read a long poem inspired by William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow,"  a classic of American modernism.

The young poet (I'm only certain of his first name: Adam) takes a narrow view of  "The Red Wheelbarrow" as an indication of Dr. Williams' steady, penetrating perspective on the material world around him. True, Williams is responsible for the formula "no ideas but in things" (which our Eskenazi poet quotes) and was the unwitting progenitor of boatloads of inert, flat, thing-stuffed poetry. But Williams, a thoughtful poet, did not  advise us: "No ideas are necessary; just focus on things."

And "The Red Wheelbarrow" does indeed confront the unsayable. The things it presents are bathed in an emotional reaction and a complete range of thought. The poem meets Robinson's exacting criteria.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Adam the poet so badly needs to present this scene as merely observed and lacking any inherent autonomy that he ignores the crucial "so much depends" and interprets the wheelbarrow's red color as connoting rust and thus a condition of decayed usefulness. Rainwater on a rusty, decrepit wheelbarrow is unlikely to have a glazed look, and indeed it's clear that the wheelbarrow is only temporarily idle. At any rate, why should so much depend on it in a chicken yard? Why would Williams open this very short poem with such an emphasis?

Do I have to spell this s--- out for you? Very well.

Here's a relevant paragraph I just pulled off the internet: "Chicken manure introduces more nutrients into the soil than other types, such as steer manure. While this fertilizer might not beat chemical fertilizers in the nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium rating, it gives your soil something those fertilizers don't: structure. It serves as a soil amendment as well as plant food, improving drainage in dense soils and water-retention abilities in loamy soils."

A wheelbarrow might be of considerable utility in moving chicken manure to where it's needed, don't you think? So much depends on it, you might say, such as a thriving garden, such as our stewardship of nature and its bounty.

Williams' delicate arrangement of this scene is more than something he saw, whether in reality or in his mind's eye. The poem is a whole view of life — and its interdependence — in miniature. Williams was no proto-Instagram poet, taking verbal snapshots and displaying them in poetic form so people could admire the thrifty clarity of his vision. He was mounting an assault on what could not be said — at least, what could otherwise not be said so compactly and memorably and economically. The poem is active, and engages us because there is thought and emotion behind it. It performs — it doesn't just take in a scene and report it in short, jagged lines.

A couple of other Williams poems could be adduced in support of this. "This Is Just to Say" is a love poem revolving around appetite and a shared life, though its "sayable" content is an apology for eating plums the poet's wife was "probably saving for breakfast." And, speaking of plums, "To a Poor Old Woman" is about more than the sight of an impoverished stranger enjoying some fruit, cast in words because the poet is pleased with himself as an observer. Let's look at its most daring stanza:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

If we focus only on what Williams is observing, the threefold repetition makes little sense. But if we look at the shifting stress in the sentence lent by the line breaks, we know we are encountering poetry according to Robinson's standard. We pick up the unmistakable tone of empathy from a well-fed person toward someone much less certain of dependable sustenance. The poet is not just looking at the poor woman; he's also identifying with her. That the link is a shared love of plums is not trivial.

A more recent poet supports Robinson, though his use of "say" may create a little confusion. A.R. Ammons obviously means "don't have a damn thing to say" in the colloquial sense of lacking something of significance to impart verbally. I believe Ammons, a far different kind of poet from Robinson, is here also proclaiming poetry's responsibility to "tell what cannot be said."

"I'm sick and tired of reading poets who have beautiful images that don't have a damn thing to say," Ammons told the Michigan Quarterly Review in 1989. "I want somebody who can think and tell me something."

Indeed, why go to poetry for things we already know, or for sentiments and images that represent little more than a slight heightening of our best moments of attention? We should want poetry that is like the buck bursting out of the lake in Robert Frost's "The Most of It." As the poem opens, Frost's solitary lakeside walker is frustrated that the natural world gives back to him only the echo of his own voice: "He would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech / But counter-love, original response."

The poem doesn't know what to make of "the embodiment that crashed / In the cliff's talus on the other  side." At the end of several magnificent lines of startled description, the last four words are "and that was all." An embodiment is not a revelation, after all — certainly not one that can be elucidated in tones of prosy reassurance. But it's the kind of communication we should expect from genuine poetry.

Mark Strand, who died recently at 80, approached the unsayable.
The communication needs to be only remotely concrete. In evidence, I want to end with a poem by the late Mark Strand. "Keeping Things Whole" is no masterpiece, but it's an honest piece of work on behalf of good poetry's pursuit of the unsayable.  The everyday saturates the poem, but the poem is not cluttered with everyday stuff. As poetry, it is undefinable — and unmistakable. Poems apprehending "counter-love, original response" are what we need. This is one of them.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

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