Things that Quicken the Heart, or The Generous Critic
Disagreement is one of the greatest things about being a person who interests themselves in poetry. I love the nit-picky, technical, sometimes telling, and often illuminating conversations that sometimes emerge in workshop. These conversations force everyone to reveal exactly what is important to them, and what kind of poet they want to become. I begin to doubt that poetry is alive and active if the conversation devolves into patting one another on the back, all in agreement.
I cannot believe that poetry, as it exists within the academy or outside of it, is some kind of utopia where, for a few years, young minds shelter themselves from the stupid world that just “doesn’t get it.” Late literary critic and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote, “Stupidity isn’t a lack but an aggressively positive, entitled presence, and to chafe my own mind and psyche against it would be cruel medicine.”
So to make sure I am not chafing my own mind against aggressive positivity, or the idea that the fact poetry exists at all should be cause for joy, I should perhaps be asking of myself these questions and more: Why should poems try to please you? What pleases you as a reader of poetry? Why should it matter what you think? What, in your own work, exists simply for beauty? For sound? For the sake of it being a poem that exists in the world? For others? For the sake of itself? Who is it eluding and when will they meet?
Conversely, we must also ask ourselves if we are we being critical enough. Generosity is a rare and valuable skill, yet I think it is a much more rare thing to find a reader that is as critical as they are generous. A reader must perform the complex task of demanding things from the poem and working to understand the poem. To be critical is, then, to be generous. Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty that “a life of complexity is a life I want to lead.” I can’t help but agree. Life and poetry aren’t supposed to be easy. In fact, the nuances are what make poetry an art that attracts and repels, in turns.
What should poems be? How do we go about disliking them as passionately as we love them? There is so much at stake if we do either. It is tempting to dwell in our utopias of MFA programs, small presses, bookstores and readings, but aren’t we owed something as the creators of these utopias, as this small but present community?
Sometimes when thinking about poems, it is helpful to look elsewhere. In his stunning film Sans Soleil, filmmaker Chris Marker wrote of 11th-century Japanese diarist Sei Shōnagon in a letter to the woman who narrates the film:
Shōnagon had a passion for lists: the list of ‘elegant things,’ ‘distressing things,’ or even of ‘things not worth doing.’ One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of ‘things that quicken the heart.’ Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.
Nor do I think this is a bad criterion for poems, both in the making and reading of them. But if the poem does not immediately quicken the heart, maybe our hearts need time to receive it. We may be too distracted by the economic miracle that we completely pass over the neighborhood celebrations. How wonderful that neighborhood celebrations are perennial. So too with poetry.
American schoolchildren often encounter Emily Dickinson first in our introduction to American letters. Her New England primer-inspired prosody wears a deceptive cloak of safety, its brevity seemingly palatable for young minds. This is before we know that poetry’s brevity sometimes belies its depth, and Dickinson’s prosody is far from safe. I recently revisited the oft-taught and student-loathed poem “I’m Nobody!”:
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
I don’t recall being sixteen and feeling the chill of existential dread, nor did I consider the mystery of her capitalized nouns, like Adam naming the world to make it sacred, nor the fear of one’s own name echoed back to them. I did not question the ethics of my own presence in the world. No, even though I loved poetry at a young age, I joined my peers in writing this poem off for its rhyme, for how it resembled the storybooks and prayers that coddled us as children. We did not realize that inside rhyme was hidden something we would all one day encounter, telling our names to the livelong June.
The beautiful and sinister thing about a poem is that it grows with you. Once read, it can always be rediscovered. I later re-read this poem and many more, and Dickinson continues to puzzle and intrigue me. It was generosity, and an abandonment of the histrionics of being a teenager, that led me back to her work. Perhaps we should all allow ourselves to be led back. Things quicken the heart because they surprise us. Let us allow ourselves, above all, to be surprised.