My Poetic Experience
Don’t know much about
poetry. But in second
Grade, we wrote haikus.
Like many Americans, my immediate reaction to unfamiliar forms of artistic expression is hostility based in suspicion and fear. In other words, I’m a philistine. This seems like an odd thing to say for a New York novelist who enjoys theater, shows of contemporary art, and opera. In fact, I probably qualify as a member of what former Vice-President Dan Quayle used to refer to derisively as “the intellectual elite.”
Despite my elite credentials, I have a definite prejudice against anything that smacks of being “artsy.” The other weekend, I was coerced into attending a concert of “ambient”music, consisting of two gentlemen banging on electronic keyboards for half an hour; the resulting noise hurt my ears so badly I had to vacate the immediate area. I can appreciate Faulkner, but only in his Light in August mode, as well as Joyce, but only for Dubliners. After a screening of Kenneth Anger films, I remarked loudly, for the benefit of my fellow theatergoers, “Not bad, but I Runaway Bride was more fun.”
If I am a philistine, however, let it be said in my defense that I am a reluctant one. I do not want to feel anger when I confront a work of art that strikes me as deliberately obscure or self-conscious. In other words, I want to like poetry. Not to appreciate poetry, not to read poetry, not to understand poetry. I want to derive pleasure from it.
I want to go to a poetry reading and listen enraptured to litanies of unrelated phrases streaming forth in earnest tones by a person who occasionally peers up from a piece of paper with an expectant pause like a schoolteacher reeling off vocab quiz words for students to spell. I want to take a book of poetry with me to the beach or on a plane instead of the latest Harry Potter. When I open my New Yorker (like any member of the intellectual elite, I have a subscription), I want to read at least one of the poems instead of skipping ahead to the film reviews.
Years ago, when I began pursuing an MFA in fiction, I was hoping to take poetry classes and discuss all things poetical with actual poets, maybe even try to write a few odes to Grecian urns myself. Unfortunately for me, most of the classes on poetry were restricted to poets. The few times I tried to talk to a poet about poetry, the yawning chasm between what each of us knew prevented any kind of serious dialogue on the subject. Fiction writers and poets would smile and nod at each other politely as we passed in the halls. We’d applaud each other’s work at readings. But by the end of my program, I felt at a distinct disadvantage, because though I didn’t understand the work the poets were doing, I knew they clearly understood what I was doing.
I didn’t really start to learn about poetry until I had to teach the writing of it as part of a creative writing class in which I was expected to teach fiction, drama, and poetry. The trouble was what I knew about poetry barely took up fifteen minutes. “Okay, word choice,”I thought. “I know more than my students do about word choice.”
But then, as usual, my students outsmarted me. They wanted to know the difference between a sonnet and a villanelle. They wanted to know if they should write in iambic pentameter. They wanted to know about dactyls and synecdoche. And then one of them asked, “Why doesn’t poetry rhyme any more?”
“Good question,”I said. “Let’s save it for next class, when we’ll really have some time to talk about it.î
That night I looked up a poet friend of mine from grad school, and described my predicament while trying not to appear as ignorant as I was. I asked him, “If you were teaching a creative writing class, and a student asked you why poetry doesn’t rhyme any more, how would you answer that student?î
My friend explained that on the contrary, rhyme is alive and well in poetry, perhaps bigger than ever, though rhymes do not always occur at line breaks. (Note to poets: while this concept may seem elementary to you, to the general population, this is Big News.) He showed me a few poems in which sounds repeated inside lines, in the middle of a line, and at the end of the next. He pointed out that rhymes can be consonant as well as assonant.
In spite of myself, I became a decent four-week teacher of poetry. I tackled word choice, of course, presenting two translations of the Yehuda Amichai poem “Tourists,”and asking students which word choices they preferred and why. I presented two poems, one free verse by Rita Dove, the other terza rima by Wayne Koestenbaum, took out the line breaks, and asked the students to try to put them back in. We read Wallace Stevens and Denise Levertov. We discussed metaphors. And by the end of our poetry unit, my students and I heaved a sigh of relief. We’d survived.
Though I may not be as clueless about poetry as I once was, I still find it counter-intuitive to sit with a sheaf of poems (and one mp3 recording), as I did recently for Drunken Boat, and have fun. Maybe that’s because as a fiction writer and occasional essayist (as well as composition teacher), I’m focused on the demands of story (in the case of fiction) or argument (in the case of essay). Give me a character, I keep pleading as I read poetry. Or give me an idea. Maybe that’s why some of my favorite poems tend to be in the mold of Amichai and Levertov, whose works feel less like a gauzy constructions than anguished laments of a former true believer, or rueful (and cogent) meditations on fear, modernity, the weirdness of friendship with a lost lover.
The poem I enjoyed the most out of the bunch (not that joy necessarily counts for much) was “Mortal Combat,” whose wry tone reminded me of the deceptively simple prose shorts by Lydia Davis. The collection of suggestive aphorisms in “Theory of Escape from the Old Country” also gave me pleasure, because of their wit as well as the intriguing idea that dwelling places have a relationship to their dwellers hinted at in phrases like, “Many buildings come to resemble their tenants./Even the wood of the house can hear us breathe.”
Perhaps more surprisingly, I developed great affection for the poem “Angel of Bethesda I,”for its forceful yoking of striking images with otherworldly, almost medieval language. This poem was especially entertaining to read aloud (I read all the poems aloud to get a sense of their music) because of its cryptic-sounding words like “Keeling,” “Gargarism”and “Clyster.” And though I have yet to mine sense out of this poem, I’m not sure I need to, the way I don’t need to mine sense out of a fairy tale.
And yet, language works in strange ways. As much as I enjoyed the unfamiliar vocabulary of “Angel of Bethesda I,” I had a hard time finding pleasure in the botanical jargon of “Swarm.” After taking the time to look up several words in the dictionary, I now know that “stridulant”means having a harsh grating sound and comes from the more regular “stridulous.” (Note to author: why choose “stidulant”over the perfectly good “stridulous”?) I now know that “spikelet” is a small or secondary spike in grasses. And “instar”is an insect in any one of its periods of post-embryonic growth between molts, not, as I’d suspected, a tracking device for luxury automobiles.
Why did I prefer “Gargarism” to “spikelet”? Maybe this is just a matter of taste. If so, then it’s only fair that I define my taste, which runs, at least in prose, toward plain, sandpapery words. I prefer the stridulant (to borrow a term) Anglo-Saxon to the stuffy-sounding Latinate, and the beauty of simple, clear expression over purple prose. I mistrust the choice of “verdant”when green will do (as in “Swarm”), or “voluminous” instead of big (as in “Luxury Appointments”). “Hormonal detonations”(“This is Not a Bill”) don’t detonate for me.
The moments that stay with me in poetry are ones that don’t feel puffed-up or self-conscious like the stereotype of a poem, but rather freshly-invented and meaningful, like words that might tumble out of your mouth during an especially memorable conversation. I appreciate the internal rhyme of “waist of this whist-day”from “This is Not a Bill.” It’s catchy. But I’ll never forget the spine-tingling precision (from “A Night at High Spur”) of “The lovers in their sleeping bag/are constrained by the zipper/to huge slow lunges.” I noted the repetition of the “p”sound “your stripes/palpitate” in “Luxury Appointments.” Good job. But (in the same poem) I was much more moved by the artless candor of “I love you/inch by inch.” In “Phototaxis2,”(read in the usual incantatory poetry-reading voice by its author) I successfully detected the consonance of “gauze-dimmed gaze.” But I had to pause and replay the line “clench and slack and clench of oysters”several times to admire the way those words and sounds captured the movement of an oyster shell opening and closing.
And now the time has come to remove my mask. I am not an avowed philistine. In fact, I am perfectly capable of reading and enjoying poetry, even if I like to pretend that I’m not. My real problem, however, is that I read poetry in a way that it probably should not be read, as a prose writer hoping to steal a few tricks here and there. The poets I’ve picked on above may be innocent of poetic crimes, if guilty of prosaic misdemeanors. As I read their work, I focus heavily on the connection of word to meaning, at the expense of word to sound or word to beauty. Also, I tend to ignore line breaks or rhythm, probably because we don’t have line breaks in fiction, nor do we have rhythm. (We have something close to it, which we call “flow,”but this is based more on logic, grammar, and syntax than sound.)
And so I’ve concluded that even though poets and fiction writers both use words in our work, our primary motivations have little in common. For us, all is sense; for them, more is sound. In fact, I suspect the business of poetry is far more closely related to musical composition. And so for Drunken Boat’s next issue, I suggest a repetition of this same exercise, but with composers.
Maybe even composers of ambient music.