I long ago I gave up trying to explain to those who don’t appreciate or understand poetry why it is so wonderful, what makes it work or what it’s all about. In that regard, I’m reminded of something John Sebastian once wrote in a song: “I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul/But it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll.”
Art, whether it is poetry or painting or music or something else, has a certain indefinable quality that seems transcendent, and I’ve come to understand that some people are just not wired to be receptive. Art either speaks to you or it doesn’t, and because we are all different, some forms of art resonate with us while other forms do not.
Ultimately, poetry resists our attempts to define it precisely and analyze its nature. That may have something to do with what Sigmund Freud once noted: “[P]oets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science.” So, for me, poetry is magical. Not because it springs from some supernatural source but because it comes out of the human spirit, something as equally indefinable as we find poetry.
The first poem to cast its spell on me in a big way I read when I was in the third or fourth grade. It was e.e. cummings’ “in Just-“:
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
when the world is puddle-wonderful
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
This poem’s simplicity and innovative structure bowled me over. Even at that young age, it made me feel nostalgic. More so now, of course, reading it as an adult, for the poem never fails to take me back to a time of innocence, a time of splashing in mud-puddles and running with childish abandon.
In just a few lines, some of them repeated, cummings captures the wonder and joy of spring. Since then, I’ve always preferred shorter poems to longer ones (and developed a fondness for non-capitalized poesy). Anyone can use a lot of words to communicate, but to distill thoughts using fewer words lends a directness and immediacy to a poem that seems lost in longer works, even if, in being spare, the poet keeps his precise meaning vague, abstruse, or completely hidden.
A great example of this can be found with a famous poem by William Carlos Williams:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
That’s the entire poem. You’ll notice that each line is shaped like a wheelbarrow. It’s said that Williams wrote this poem in just five minutes while gazing out his window. So much depends on the red wheelbarrow – like what? To do chores, or perhaps for some unknown, out of the ordinary reason? This, I think, is a part of Williams’ artistry: each reader can conjure for his or herself a back-story. I always thought it would be interesting to base an entire novel or a collection of short stories on this poem. Short poetry like this has a lot in common with Japanese haiku, where less is not only more, it’s a must.
One of my favorite short poems is by Aram Saroyan (son of Armenian American dramatist and author, William Saroyan) who once wrote a poem consisting of just one word – crickets – repeated down the page. Immediately upon glancing at the poem, you can almost hear the crickets chirping:
Some people would say that’s not poetry, but I feel it’s poetry in its purest form. Anything can be a poem. The word “poetry” comes from a Greek verb that is transliterated as poieo, meaning “I make or create.” But that was then and this is now, and I don’t believe that a poem has to be “created.” There are poets who will tell you they don’t write poems, that the poems already exist and the poet is merely the vehicle for the words to reveal themselves. Sometimes, poetry just is. It’s like the line in the Springsteen song, “the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be.”
Henry David Thoreau called poetry “a natural fruit.” He said, “As naturally as the oak bears an acorn, and the vine a gourd, man bears a poem, either spoken or done. It is the chief and most memorable success, for history is but a prose narrative of poetic deeds.”
To appreciate poetry I think it helps to be a romantic and an idealist. Romantics can understand on an intellectual level that there is no supernatural, yet they can also believe in magic. And poetry is a lot like meditation. You have to let go of stuff and clear your mind to really appreciate it, especially much of the poetry that’s been produced since Whitman. You don’t necessarily have to understand a poem, and it certainly does not have to make sense – just appreciate the arrangement of the words and be open to the encounter with a poem. Be in the moment of the poem.
I have a little paperback book that I bought in a drug store in Omaha, Nebraska some 42 years ago. It’s called The Poetry of Rock, by a well-known (at the time) rock critic, Richard Goldstein. It’s a collection of lyrics from various rock songs. Although he is largely forgotten today, John Sebastian (quoted above) of the Lovin’ Spoonful has three of his songs included. Here’s one that no doubt you have heard many, many times, but have you ever seen it?
Summer in the city.
Back o’ my neck getting’ dirty and gritty.
Isn’t it a pity;
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city.
People lookin’ half-dead,
Walkin’ on the sidewalk hotter than a matchhead.
Even without the music as support, the words have an impact. They are hard and terse and they hit you like hot air itself. Reading them, you feel summer, in the same way you feel e.e. cummings’ spring. Living in LA with the relentless sun, the words easily paint a scene where is it so hot and the sun beats down with such intensity that there doesn’t seem to be a shadow anywhere.
I think it does more than merely convey a feeling, and that poetry is more than just a snapshot in words of the world, a mirror of reality. If you love poetry, you understand. If you don’t, I’m not sure I can explain it to you.
One thing I feel strong about is that poetry is special, if for no other reason than that it brings beauty into our lives, and beauty is truth. It may be only an aesthetic kind of truth that appeals to our emotions, our senses, cultural values and the range of our experiences, and in the long run we may come to realize that nothing is beautiful, which, as Nietzsche said, is the first truth of aesthetics. Nevertheless, it is the kind of beautiful truth that appeals directly and forcibly to my romantic, idealistic nature.
I suppose the best way to end this post is with a poem about poetry. This is a selection from “La Poesia (Poetry)” by Pablo Neruda:
And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.