I’ve dabbled in writing poetry since university days, never seriously until the past year when I’ve produced several—some of which I’ve shared in prior blog posts. When I was invited to a poetry reading Sunday afternoon, what I heard there reminded me of the power of this overlooked art to affect the way we see ourselves and our world through the simple arrangement of words.
It’s not the rhyming, of course. Except for rap, nobody rhymes anymore, do they? It’s all about the memorable imagery, the revealing metaphor, the kinetic cadence—the qualities that elevate prose to the higher rank of poetry.
Or how about the thrill of witnessing the collision of two diametrically opposed realities that yields an unforgettable insight, like legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s dictum to “see the music and hear the dancers.”
Or creating a comparison whose truth endures, like T. S. Eliot’s description of an evening “spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.”
When words come together with such perfection, William Butler Yeats explained, "a poem comes right with a click like a closing box . . ."
I once asked an accomplished painter how to tell when a painting is art.
“When a critic says it is,” was her answer.
Another gifted painter I once sat next to at a dinner party offered, “I would never call myself an artist. That is for someone else to say about me.”
Just as did the Nobel Prize committee in awarding the literature laurel to Bob Dylan a week ago. Dylan was unexpectedly but immediately ennobled, from a singer-songwriter to a poet who, a committee member said, is “worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries . . .”
Novelist Joseph O’Neill begged to differ. In last week’s edition of The New Yorker, he wrote a brilliant short story in which the protagonist says:
. . . An ultra-celebrated multimillionaire who deals in concerts and extra-paginal iconicity is not playing the same game as a writer who sits down in a small college town and, with no prospect of meaningful financial reward, tries to come up with a handful of words that will, unless something untoward should happen, be read by a maximum of a hundred and forty people and be properly appreciated by maybe fifty-two of these, of whom maybe six will be influenced. Make that two.
O’Neill goes on to call a poem “first and last a Ding an sich.”
Ding an sich? In the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, it means “the thing-in-itself” as opposed to the thing as it appears to us. The “thing-in-itself” is, therefore, unknowable.
Follow the logic, and poetry is poetry because we say so. I came away from the poetry reading convinced of that.
If writers bare themselves before a group of strangers and utter a cluster of carefully chosen words—words that cause people to heed, to weigh, to recognize, to be buoyed or annoyed or just plain baffled—that’s poetry.
It might be good poetry or poor poetry, epic or doggerel. But it’s poetry just the same, and attention must be paid.
(Image: The American Poet's Corner at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, New York City.)