There’s an accomplished poet who agrees with that headline. In her poem, “Poetry,” Marianne Moore writes: “I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Another poet, W.H. Auden wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
And it isn’t just the idea that there seem to be more important things in life to consider than a poem; a lot of poetry makes no sense, except to the poet. If you have ever taken a trip deep into the woods with a poet describing an emotion but achieving only obscurity, you know what I’m talking about.
But let’s allow Ms. Moore to finish her thought: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in/ it after all, a place for the genuine.” And when you come upon the genuine article, you’re in the presence of the supreme expression of the language.
Mr. Auden wanted you to keep reading as well, when he said poetry “survives … A way of happening, a mouth.”
Encountering truth hinged on rhythm, encountering the world and people and yourself in the brevity of a phrase, brings a new sense of being alive, and a deeper reflection on what all this fiddle is really about. That’s worth giving it a shot. You can get closer to these encounters by checking out the Art/Rich Poetry Roundtable on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. at the Library. Call (631) 749-0042 to find out how you can connect with this essential Island resource.
Good poets begin with clarity, or as Czeslaw Milosz writes, “First, plain speech in the mother tongue./ Hearing it, you should be able to see/ Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road,/ As if in a flash of summer lightning.”
There are self-appointed keepers of the flame when it comes to poetic forms who will object to anything outside the bounds. But what’s important to remember is, if it doesn’t sing, it’s not poetry.
An example of hewing too closely to a poetic structure: I have a friend, a lover of haiku, the Japanese form that has cast-iron rules about lines and syllables per line. He went to a reading one evening with his wife, and when the poet announced he was going to read some haiku that didn’t fit precisely into the ancient form, my friend said, loudly enough for several people to hear, “That’s like walking your dog and asking someone, ‘What do you think of my cat?’” His wife got him out of there before any sensibilities were violated.
Syllables, line breaks, stanzas are important, but rhythm is essential. Poetry comes in many forms, rhymed and not — Robert Frost said poetry that doesn’t rhyme is playing tennis with no net, but he was wrong — from Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter (not as head-breaking as the term sounds) to free verse and on and on.
The product of an oral tradition, poetry was entertaining and enlightening the human race long before writing appeared, and almost all of it was sung. This sense of song, of following words dancing on a page and hearing the music in your head, is another joy, and worth wading through tone-deaf poems until you find one that has kicked off its shoes and cut loose, swinging you out of yourself.
The music that’s inseparable from good poetry is more important in some cases than meaning or, as Archibald MacLeish said, “a poem shouldn’t mean, but be.” (Slyly, of course, saying something truly meaningful).
Billy Collins takes to task those who seek analysis in poetry, when that’s a fool’s errand obscuring how it moves us on elemental levels: “I want them to waterski/ across the surface of a poem/ waving at the author’s name on the shore./ But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.”
Don’t pass poetry by. Let it come to you. It will help on a practical level with your own writing, even making everyday communication such as emails stand out to make your points more vividly. But stick around for the nonpractical uses of the art, that connect us to a mind and a sensibility through words set precisely to a musical theme.
Poetry? Don’t bother me. Wait — did that just rhyme?
This might be a good place to close the show by asking Mr. Auden back, for lines from his elegy to another poet, W.B. Yeats.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice; With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.