An Apology for Poetry
This week, in the midst of grading papers for my own classes, I’ve been invited to guest teach a lesson on poetry in a colleague’s Intro to Lit course. My colleague was very forthright: “I just don’t speak poetry.” So far, she admitted, her main line-of-attack in teaching the unit has been to offer a crash course in brutalizing, paranoid reading tactics. The poem, in other words, as a cruel cipher. The poem as a scrambled scholarly crossword. To air things out a bit, she decided to approach one of the MFA poetry students on campus, to add another voice to the conversation. Under-qualified as I am, the opportunity has at least been good cause for reflection. After all, how do you take a 50-minute class and teach the basics of reading and appreciating a poem? How do you begin to teach people to speak poetry?
As a culture, I don’t think we’re taught how to read poetry. It’s my firm belief that a poem requires fundamentally different reading paradigms than prose, and often these paradigms can’t be reduced down to a single programmed or programmable chain of response. A poem is not porous. It is not transparent in its intentions to convey the reader from point A to point B, like a great deal of prose. As a localized, often self-sufficient structure, each poem carries with it a unique set of instructions for readerly “comprehension.”
We do not apply ourselves to the poem; rather, the poem applies itself to us.
As William Carlos Williams famously noted, “a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words”— an idea that carries with it many potential understandings. Often, readers take this observation as a reference to the poem’s machine-like or built reality, where the text is systemically co- or inter-dependent on parts (like wordplay, meter, image) that contribute to its functionality. Interestingly, when you think about it, the sum parts of a machine work together to accomplish something more than wholeness. This reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite movies, Primer: “He took from his surroundings what was needed and made of it something more.” What lies at stake when we consider a poem in machinic terms like these is a revelation of a poem’s inherent functionality. If a poem is a machine or an assemblage of components, and these components work towards a goal other than or more than assemblage, a question emerges: what then is that goal? What is the goal of the poem? Why write one in the first place? Is a poem a mimetic exercise? Is it educational? Is it experiential? Cathartic somehow? Might a poem escape Williams’ machinic comparison altogether, in that, as a piece of art, it cuts against late-capitalist enforcements of “productive” time or time-spent?
None of these quite hit the mark for me. Rather, I believe that the poem does a kind of work and performs a deeply human function. This function is that it experiments on meaning and meaning-making. Meaning is what makes us human, and language is our greatest semiotic inheritance. Even if a poem (or most poetry) is not semantically concerned with meaning or semiotics or linguistics, even if it’s about pastures or lovers, it attains the status of poetry when it becomes self-aware of its condition as language, where language operates as a self-knowing vehicle for meaning. The poem contains accelerated language, using its formal system to double, layer, fold, distribute and fortify meanings. Utterance becomes poetry when it becomes an event. This is accomplished through form, which is a four-letter word that essentially refers to an organizing principle that acts in cognizance of its own linguistic status in order to make an idea more meaningful.
This is the apologia I’ve made for poetry to myself. Whether it holds up, and in other terms, for a gen-ed class surveying thousands of years of literature and five different genres over the course of a semester will remain to be seen. Regardless, this theme of moreness—more meaningful, more than a sum of its parts, etc.—seems to be at the heart of the poetry, even in a poem’s smallness, its strictness, its stodgy sensibilities, and will be at the heart of my guest lesson. In a world where writing is either journalistic or engineered for a Google-bot to read, it seems devastatingly scary when a text not only constitutes more, but demands more from its readers, too.