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.
-Excerpt from Ars Poetica, , 1926, by Archibald MacLeish
There is a fascinating body of poetry that looks inward into its own craft and asks the unanswerable question, what is poetry? These poems, perhaps self-conscious, often purposefully pretentious, and certainly noticeable in their peculiar form and voice, have much to teach us about what makes a poem a poem. What are the distinctions? What are the qualities in a poem that leave us breathless, caught up in the transport of an image away from our accustomed vantage and reference points, that lead us into new, unfamiliar territory?
Many great poets have written poems on poems. I’ve taken a look around and chosen some examples that I think will interest you. As well, I offer one of my own to chew on. Hopefully, this will inspire you to think about your craft, not only in writing poems, but prose as well.
Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” In looking at what poets have said about poetry in their poems, a striking number have dealt with the effect of words on an individual’s feelings and the resultant impact on all of the senses. It is true, I think, that poetry accentuates the moment in its form, by nature given to brevity (when compared to prose). Perhaps it is this punctuation of the moment that arms the poem to eventually fire rockets into our emotional being.
A poem can shoot off a receptor in the brain with two well-placed words; and, at least with me- I rarely see it coming. This unanticipated dart to the soul is what I love about poetry. Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), a wonderful poet out of the New York School, put it this way:
My Heart, by Frank O'Hara
I'm not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don't prefer one "strain" to another.
I'd have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says "That's
not like Frank!", all to the good! I
don't wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart--
you can't plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.
Robert Frost said, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat." Often, this kind of response can come from the majesty and sound of words linked artfully together by a master poet. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote a superb poem on the effect of the spoken word in poetry on the senses, entitled, Sound and Sense, which begins:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense...
The sense of sound in poetry is paramount. When all else fails, it is often the pure sound of a great poem that grabs us and prompts our emotions. This lyrical quality is something poetry can claim as a distinctive. Not all poems, obviously. But I’ve often sat in front of a poem trying to figure out what it was that I liked so much about it, and then finally realized it was simply the beauty of the words put together in a magical way.
What about the obtuseness found in some poetry? How many of us have thrown up our hands (versus our lunch) and remarked, what in the world is this poem talking about? Have you read any Wallace Stevens lately? Or what about T.S. Elliott? If so, then try some excerpts from the following two compelling poems on for size and tell me if you feel any better.
Introduction to Poetry (excerpt), by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive...
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
My Poems, by Robert Currie.
are slim bombs
Their fuses lie
dark on the page
awaiting your arrival with a light.
Appears in a text book, Literary Experiences, Vol. I by Oster, Iveson and McClay (in the section entitled "To the Student")
So what is poetry? I imagine there are as many answers to that question as there are readers. However, in examining poems written by well-known poets on what comprises the essence of their craft, I’ve been happily surprised by what I’ve encountered. A striking poem on this topic comes from Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who saw and felt his way through poetry, in the delineation of the imagery of ideas and the effects of those ideas on the senses. Stevens said of modern poetry, “…[it is] the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” His sardonically honest poem, “Poetry is a Destructive Force,” brilliantly captures one quality of poetry that is incontrovertible: its potential influence and power over the reader.
Poetry is a Destructive Force
-by Wallace Stevens
That's what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.
It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.
Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.
He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast
Its muscles are his own...
The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.
Marianne Moore (1887-1972), was a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet who was influential in the early writing careers of many young poets who went on to become great American poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and James Merrill.. The following poem is astounding in its clarity and understanding of the nature and distinctive qualities in poetry that make it interesting and appealing. I highly recommend reading it a number of times.
Poetry, by Marianne Moore
I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers
that there is in 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 they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
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 wolf under 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
schoolbooks"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not pretty,nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of the imagination"--above 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 one hand,
the raw material of poetry in all its rawness
and that which is on the other hand genuine,
then you are interested in poetry.
Here's one by a lesser known poet:
How to Write a Poem, by Edward Nudelman
First, arise very early in the morning. Brush your teeth
and floss (if you forgot last night). No wait. First drink
a cup of dark black coffee on a couch, alone, while you
gaze out the window and watch the school kids march
solemnly to St. Catherine’s. Strike that. Better to first
open the window, then you may catch that beautiful
mockingbird song (or, if not there, imagine that you hear
a mockingbird). If today is a warm August morning,
(which it is not, for me) you may be able to pick up the
pungent orange blossom which can coat your tongue with
enough perfume to literally exclude the need to brush
your teeth (this is a lie). If no birds are singing, try to find
the sound of rustling wind. And don’t forget, if the school
kids are walking by, you may be able to see them slowly
proceeding in single file (if your sidewalk is very narrow).
When you see them, quickly close your eyes and remember,
these are the moments of your life. Now, it’s probably past
your cutoff point, so quickly go upstairs and brush your
teeth (if no orange blossom). Steel yourself for the day.
Remember that Susan has been going through hell with the
loss of your dog (as have you, but that pertains to other
poems); see if you can think of something nice to say to her
that might comfort her, give her solace, or prepare her for
what looks like a pretty difficult day. (Note that these
notions are platitudes, but milk them for all they’re worth).
Hold Susan, and say, “I’ll come home for lunch today, if I
possibly can,” knowing that you certainly cannot. Strike that.
Simply say, “I love you dear.” Then kiss her on the very
top of her nose. Drive to work, trying to find a song that
you can cling to. Work. Look for that meager scrap of
paper in the pile in front of you that will free you from the
dread of all the other pieces of paper in front of you. Eat
lunch in your meeting. On the way home, take the car to
the dealers for the umpteenth time in the last month. Yell
nicely at the clueless manager. Hold that thought. Just
threaten him with a lawsuit. That always works. Drive
home in the rental car. Give Susan the flowers you forgot
to buy. Greet the dog you no longer have. Sit back on
your couch, where earlier you couldn’t hear the mockingbird,
and remember, as best you can, what that sound did for you
last summer, when everything else was just wind and scent
and moments piling on top of themselves. Like school
children in a straight line. Now write the bloody poem.