|Daily Times - Site Edition||Wednesday, June 07, 2006|
PURPLE PATCH: Reasons for poetry —William Meredith
To appreciate a poem conceived in these terms — conceived for what many readers would consider non-reasons — is not easy for most of us. What kind of poem harbors “a host of reservations about language, human reason, and their holds on life,” and with a “deeply skeptical or limiting vision of the poetic imagination and its place in the world”? Aha! says the part of our mind that waits with a club for what is not a poem. How can anything call itself a poem if it mistrusts language and the power of the poetic imagination? Is not all mystery made lucid to the poetic imagination, and precisely in language? But the often ill-advised left side of the brain is wrong to thus object. Let us ask it to consider a poem whose last line proclaims this heresy, whose last line in fact is, “There are limits to imagination.” This is Robert Hass’s beautiful “Heroic Simile.” It purports to be a simile about how a soldier falls in a certain Japanese movie, and it likens him chiefly to a great pine tree, an image which does not appear in the movie:
At one critical point in the narrative — and the simile is offered as a story — the poet heightens the mystery of metamorphosis by dramatizing the process itself:
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon. . .
They are waiting for me to do something
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them...
I don’t know
whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean
and there’s nothing I can do.
We are asked to believe that the poem takes place at the limits of imagination, where the poet’s debilitating reluctances threaten to overpower his fancy and drag it back into the territory of the literal. And the poem shows us, by exhibiting its own process, how the energy is to be found, in the process of simile itself, to mix modes and times and feelings in ways that are disturbing and mysterious and, for our souls’ sakes, necessary.
Here I want to posit three roles a poem may take, and to suggest that one of these roles accounts for the stance a poem takes. I offer these three stances not to head off the proper surprise of a new poem but as an exercise in resilience, the way you might strengthen your eyesight by looking at objects near, middling, and far in regular succession. I think of them, as three reasons for poetry, identifiable genetically with the DNA impulse which starts a poem growing. The reason behind a poem shapes its growth and determines the way it is delivered. To stretch the metaphor further, it determines how the poem is to be picked up and spanked into breath by the reader.
If every poem is new, it is also associated in its own mind, and ideally in the reader’s, with other poems of its species. Poems hold one another in place in our minds, Robert Frost said, the way the stars hold one another in place in the firmament.
The three roles I envision are these:
The poet as dissident. Underlying poems conceived by the poet as dissident is a social criticism, whether of a tyranny, like George III’s or Stalin’s, of an abuse, like nuclear pollution, or of a system, like capitalism. As an activist poet, the dissident is likely to be formally radical, since the large metaphor of his work is revolution, but not necessarily.
The poet as apologist. Underlying poems conceived by the poet as apologist is acceptance or approval of the human and social predicament of his tribe. However much the poem may focus on errors or imperfections in its subject, there is implied an order or decorum in the model. Often the poem’s mode is praise, overt or implicit, of the specific subject or of the human condition. Every work of art, the Christian apologist WH Auden said, is by its formal nature a gesture of astonishment at that greatest of miracles, the principle of order in the universe. The poet as apologist is apt to have a pronounced sense of form, but not necessarily.
The third and commonest stance of the poet is the poet as solitary. While the poem by the poet as solitary will sometimes take the stance of talking to itself, more often it speaks from the poet as individual, to the reader as another individual, and intends to establish a limited, intense agreement of feeling. There is no implicit agreement about social needs or predicaments. Such solitary experiences, and they make up most of lyric poetry, carry on their backs the world they are concerned with, like itinerant puppet-shows They create a momentary event where the poet and the reader dwell together in some mutual astonishment of words. The best teacher I ever had told us a lyric poem can only say one of three things. It can say, “Oh, the beauty of it” or “Oh, the pity of it,” or it can say, “Oh.”
This is a crude trinity, and if useful at all, useful at the elementary level of detecting and dispelling false expectation.
William Morris Meredith, Jr (born 1919 in New York City) is an American poet who graduated from Princeton University in 1940. He has held professorships at Princeton University, University of Hawaii, and Connecticut College and is the author of nine books of poetry including “Effort at Speech” for which he won the National Book Award and “Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems” which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. This excerpt is from his essay of the same name
Home | Editorial