An Essay on Poetry
Steven C. Scheer
According to the Judeo-Christian Bible, God created the world by means of words, by divine fiat. He said "Let there be," and there was. So it was words that brought the world into existence in the first place, and it is words (by means of human fiat, if you will) that create our own worlds as well. For it is by means of words that we apprehend, categorize, and even think and feel and know our world. We even interpret our most important experiences (like falling in love) in terms of the words our culture uses to talk about them.
When I taught my composition courses in college, I presented my classes with two theories about the relationship between language and reality. I called the one most people assume to be true the Expressive Theory, and I called the one I still think is true the Creative Theory. According to both, of course, "things are what we say they are." But in the case of the Expressive Theory the emphasis is on "are" ("things are what we say they are"), whereas in the case of the Creative Theory the emphasis is on "say" ("things are what we say they are"). What this simple scheme tells us is that words come before meaning, words give rise to meaning. But once words have given rise to meaning, it seems to most of us that meaning came before words. That's just how "creative" of our realities words actually are.
Poetry is art by means of words. The word itself is of Greek origin and its etymological meaning is "making" (to say that someone is a poet is to call him or her a "maker"). This oldest of the human arts was born in song (and dance). Rhythm and rhyme (and reason) go hand-in-hand when it comes to poetry. Though the language of poetry is the language of emotions, it is not devoid of rationality either. In a good poem the head is the head of the heart, even as it is the heart that gives life to the head. And this is true even if we accept Pascal's famous dictum about the heart having reasons that reason will not understand.
Trying to define poetry is probably a useless enterprise. The literature on it is vast. Most famous poets have written about it. For Alexander Pope, for example, the essence of it came from what "oft was thought but never so well expressed," for Wordsworth it was a matter of the "overflow of powerful feelings . . . emotions recollected in tranquility," whereas for Shelley poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Coleridge was perhaps the most ambitious in asserting that in writing poetry the human mind imitates the divine mind in a god-like act of creation (by a kind of human fiat, which is thus an imitative repetition of its original counterpart).
My own attempt at getting at the essence of poetry will be more humble: poetry is the creation of meaningful beauty (or beautiful meaning) by means of words, which thus both create and express who or what we are. There are no limits as to the subject matter of poetry (today's poets even use so-called obscene language in their poems). Whatever our human hearts and minds can contemplate or brood over or entertain (pun intended?) is fair game. Love & death & sex & marriage - even the price of tea in China.
Poetry used to enjoy great popular appeal. This was especially evident in the nineteenth century. In the second half of the twentieth century things began to change. Poetry seems to have gone to colleges and universities where it is nowadays only read in literature courses and, of course, in creative writing courses. It seems that today's readers of poetry are other poets. (And if "hell is other people" - as Sartre would have it - how could other poets be the salvation of poetry?) There is, of course, another way of looking at this: poets (of the academic sort) are alive and well in academia (as well as in coffeehouses here and there), and still have their fans, limited as they may be, whereas the popular appeal that poetry once enjoyed has by now shifted over to popular music. It is through popular music that most people still enjoy "poetry," even if they don't think of it in those terms.
One problem that lots of people have with poetry is that poets don't "tell it like it is," they use strange and incomprehensible language, full of "quaint and curious" metaphors (not to mention metonymies and synecdoches). There is, of course, a good reason for this. But it has a circuitous history. Once what we now call clichés were indispensable. In an oral culture repetitious and formulaic phrases aided and abetted memory. After the invention of writing, repetition and formulaic prose came slowly to be seen as hackneyed, as not truly responsive to realities (thus, as even perhaps distortive of them). The same old same old deadens our senses and our perceptions, so that using the same old words for new feelings would render the new feelings prematurely old.
Poets use new metaphors (or put things in new perspectives) in an attempt to make us see and feel things as if for the first time. They renew the old so that we may, like children, have that sense of wonder again about what's around us or in us, for that matter. Of course, famous poems, poems that we love and perhaps even know by heart ("knowing by heart" is an interesting phrase, is it not?), seem to bear up under repeated readings or recitations. Here repetition of what is fixed ("formulaic") does not diminish our perceptions. This may be a paradox. Or perhaps just the old-fashioned "test of time." Certain poems pass this test with flying colors (if I may be permitted a cliché here).
Actually, this problem of poets not "telling it like it is" is intricately related to common phrases and expressions, too. There are innumerable common phrases and expressions in our languages that were once fresh as daisies but have become overused and worn out by time. So we no longer think of the mental feat it takes to understand them. We seem to understand them instantly (even automatically), as if they were all so clear that they needed no interpretation at all (like "passing a test with flying colors"). The difference between such commonplaces and "difficult" poetry is a difference in degree and not in kind.
One way I used to illustrate this in beginning literature classes was by means of a comparison between a popular song and a poem that students might have found too difficult to understand. Here's an example:
Love in the First Degree
I once thought of love as a prison,
A place I didn't want to be,
So long ago I've made a decision
To be footloose and fancyfree.
But you came and I was so tempted
To gamble on love just one time,
I never though I would get caught,
It seemed like the perfect crime.
Baby, you left me defenseless,
I have only got one plea,
Lock me away inside of your love
And throw away the key.
I am guilty of love in the first degree.
I thought it would be so simple,
Like a thousand times before.
I'd take what I wanted
And just walk away,
But I never made it to the door.
Now, babe, I am not begging for mercy,
Go ahead and throw the book at me,
If loving you is a crime I know that I'm
As guilty as a man can be.
Baby, you left me defenseless,
I have only got one plea,
Lock me away inside of your love
And throw away the key.
I am guilty of love in the first degree.
Like many a poem, this song also sustains a metaphor. It talks of love as if it were a crime for which the lover can be imprisoned. But how and by whom? Clearly the imprisonment in question is not an imprisonment at all in a literal sense. The speaker wants to be locked away inside of his beloved's "love," so that prison here emerges as, in some sense, a commitment, even a marriage (of happily ever-aftering fame to boot). Note, too, that these connotations are not at all negative. The speaker is more than willing to become his beloved's "prisoner." In any case, people (young as well as old) have no problem with a song like this. Yet they might have difficulty understanding the following:
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
I have copied this poem here with all the idiosyncrasies that e.e. cummings is famous for (like the liberties he takes with punctuation, for example), but (of course) there is much more that's idiosyncratic here than meets the eye. Yet "irrational" as the words of the poem may seem when taken literally, they amount to a beautifully intense expression of a man's love for a woman (in this case, of e.e. cummings's love for his wife). What the reader (who stops resisting what at first may look like strange and unfamiliar metaphors) can quickly see is just how wondrously and uniquely love is described here, so that the reader may actually experience it with the speaker of the poem in such as way as if it were the first time ever anyone ever fell in love.
Such is the power of poetry. The trick is to stop resisting it. The trick is to recognize, implicitly, that the language of poetry is simply our ordinary language renewed and intensified. It is as if something were being said (and thus created and brought into reality) for the first time. When it comes to a good poem, each time is the first time. The words become ours. We become the words. So that only after things are what we say they are, can they really be what they are to begin with.
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I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking
of the man who
left in September.
His name was Law.
My face in the bathroom mirror
has white streaks down it.
I rinse the face and return to bed.
Tomorrow I am going to visit my mother.
She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books—
some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.
Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,
my lonely life around me like a moor,
my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation
that dies when I come in the kitchen door.
What meat is it, Emily, we need?
Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see
over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps
once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.
A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.
“In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton
who was hanging a litter of puppies
from a chairback in the doorway. . . .”
It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
Now and then a remark trails through the glass.
Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,
too early for melons.
Hairdresser in town found God, closes shop every Tuesday.
Mice in the teatowel drawer again.
Little pellets. Chew off
the corners of the napkins, if they knew
what paper napkins cost nowadays.
That volcano in the Philippines at it again. What’s her name
Anderson died no not Shirley
the opera singer. Negress.
Not eating your garnish, you don’t like pimento?
Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor
where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes
curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.
My mother has a way of summing things up.
She never liked Law much
but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.
Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me
at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.
But early this morning while mother slept
and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights
where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing
Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,
I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.
She knows how to hang puppies,
It isn’t like taking an aspirin you know, I answer feebly.
Dr. Haw says grief is a long process.
She frowns. What does it accomplish
all that raking up the past?
Oh—I spread my hands—
I prevail! I look her in the eye.
She grins. Yes you do.
Emily’s habitual spelling of this word,
has caused confusion.
in the first line of the poem printed Tell me, whether, is it winter?
in the Shakespeare Head edition.
But whacher is what she wrote.
Whacher is what she was.
She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night.
She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.
She whached the bars of time, which broke.
She whached the poor core of the world,
To be a whacher is not a choice.
There is nowhere to get away from it,
no ledge to climb up to—like a swimmer
who walks out of the water at sunset
shaking the drops off, it just flies open.
To be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,
although she uses these words in her verse
as she uses the emotions of sexual union in her novel,
grazing with euphemism the work of whaching.
But it has no name.
It is transparent.
Sometimes she calls it Thou.
“Emily is in the parlour brushing the carpet,”
records Charlotte in 1828.
Unsociable even at home
and unable to meet the eyes of strangers when she ventured out,
Emily made her awkward way
across days and years whose bareness appalls her biographers.
This sad stunted life, says one.
Uninteresting, unremarkable, wracked by disappointment
and despair, says another.
She could have been a great navigator if she’d been male,
suggests a third. Meanwhile
Emily continued to brush into the carpet the question,
Why cast the world away.
For someone hooked up to Thou,
the world may have seemed a kind of half-finished sentence.
But in between the neighbour who recalls her
coming in from a walk on the moors
with her face “lit up by a divine light”
and the sister who tells us
Emily never made a friend in her life,
is a space where the little raw soul
It goes skimming the deep keel like a storm petrel,
out of sight.
The little raw soul was caught by no one.
She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a salary
or a fear of death. She worked
in total six months of her life (at a school in Halifax)
and died on the sofa at home at 2 P.M. on a winter afternoon
in her thirty-first year. She spent
most of the hours of her life brushing the carpet,
walking the moor
or whaching. She says
it gave her peace.
“All tight and right in which condition it is to be hoped we shall all be this
day 4 years,”
she wrote in her Diary Paper of 1837.
Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons,
vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters,
locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.
“Why all the fuss?” asks one critic.
“She wanted liberty. Well didn’t she have it?
A reasonably satisfactory homelife,
a most satisfactory dreamlife—why all this beating of wings?
What was this cage, invisible to us,
which she felt herself to be confined in?”
Well there are many ways of being held prisoner,
I am thinking as I stride over the moor.
As a rule after lunch mother has a nap
and I go out to walk.
The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April
carve into me with knives of light.
Something inside it reminds me of childhood—
it is the light of the stalled time after lunch
when clocks tick
and hearts shut
and fathers leave to go back to work
and mothers stand at the kitchen sink pondering
something they never tell.
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
She shifted to a question about airports.
Crops of ice are changing to mud all around me
as I push on across the moor
warmed by drifts from the pale blue sun.
On the edge of the moor our pines
dip and coast in breezes
from somewhere else.
Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows
of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.
Law lived in a high blue room from which he could see the sea.
Time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now
still carries the sound of the telephone in that room
and traffic far off and doves under the window
chuckling coolly and his voice saying,
You beauty. I can feel that beauty’s
heart beating inside mine as she presses into his arms in the high blue room—
No, I say aloud. I force my arms down
through air which is suddenly cold and heavy as water
and the videotape jerks to a halt
like a glass slide under a drop of blood.
I stop and turn and stand into the wind,
which now plunges towards me over the moor.
When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die.
This is not uncommon.
I took up the practice of meditation.
Each morning I sat on the floor in front of my sofa
and chanted bits of old Latin prayers.
De profundis clamavi ad te Domine.
Each morning a vision came to me.
Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul.
I called them Nudes.
Nude #1. Woman alone on a hill.
She stands into the wind.
It is a hard wind slanting from the north.
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving
an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.
It pains me to record this,
I am not a melodramatic person.
But soul is “hewn in a wild workshop”
as Charlotte Brontë says of Wuthering Heights.
Charlotte’s preface to Wuthering Heights is a publicist’s masterpiece.
Like someone carefully not looking at a scorpion
crouched on the arm of the sofa Charlotte
talks firmly and calmly
about the other furniture of Emily’s workshop—about
the inexorable spirit (“stronger than a man, simpler than a child”),
the cruel illness (“pain no words can render”),
the autonomous end (“she sank rapidly, she made haste to leave us”)
and about Emily’s total subjection
to a creative project she could neither understand nor control,
and for which she deserves no more praise nor blame
than if she had opened her mouth
“to breathe lightning.” The scorpion is inching down
the arm of the sofa while Charlotte
continues to speak helpfully about lightning
and other weather we may expect to experience
when we enter Emily’s electrical atmosphere.
It is “a horror of great darkness” that awaits us there
but Emily is not responsible. Emily was in the grip.
“Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done,”
says Charlotte (of Heathcliff and Earnshaw and Catherine).
Well there are many ways of being held prisoner.
The scorpion takes a light spring and lands on our left knee
as Charlotte concludes, “On herself she had no pity.”
Pitiless too are the Heights, which Emily called Wuthering
because of their “bracing ventilation”
and “a north wind over the edge.”
Whaching a north wind grind the moor
that surrounded her father’s house on every side,
formed of a kind of rock called millstone grit,
taught Emily all she knew about love and its necessities—
an angry education that shapes the way her characters
use one another. “My love for Heathcliff,” says Catherine,
“resembles the eternal rocks beneath
a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
Necessary? I notice the sun has dimmed
and the afternoon air sharpening.
I turn and start to recross the moor towards home.
What are the imperatives
that hold people like Catherine and Heathcliff
together and apart, like pores blown into hot rock
and then stranded out of reach
of one another when it hardens? What kind of necessity is that?
The last time I saw Law was a black night in September.
Autumn had begun,
my knees were cold inside my clothes.
A chill fragment of moon rose.
He stood in my living room and spoke
without looking at me. Not enough spin on it,
he said of our five years of love.
Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces
which floated apart. By now I was so cold
it was like burning. I put out my hand
to touch his. He moved back.
I don’t want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.
Everything gets crazy. When nude
I turned my back because he likes the back.
He moved onto me.
Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself
thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
There was no area of my mind
not appalled by this action, no part of my body
that could have done otherwise.
But to talk of mind and body begs the question.
Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out.
Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.
Law stayed with me.
We lay on top of the covers as if it weren’t really a night of sleep and time,
caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language
like the children we used to be.
That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,
as Emily would say. We tried to fuck
but he remained limp, although happy. I came
again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,
until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down
on the two souls clasped there on the bed
with their mortal boundaries
visible around them like lines on a map.
I saw the lines harden.
He left in the morning.
It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.
Kitchen is quiet as a bone when I come in.
No sound from the rest of the house.
I wait a moment
then open the fridge.
Brilliant as a spaceship it exhales cold confusion.
My mother lives alone and eats little but her fridge is always crammed.
After extracting the yogurt container
from beneath a wily arrangement of leftover blocks of Christmas cake
wrapped in foil and prescription medicine bottles
I close the fridge door. Bluish dusk
fills the room like a sea slid back.
I lean against the sink.
White foods taste best to me
and I prefer to eat alone. I don’t know why.
Once I heard girls singing a May Day song that went:
Violante in the pantry
Gnawing at a mutton bone
How she gnawed it
How she clawed it
When she felt herself alone.
Girls are cruelest to themselves.
Someone like Emily Brontë,
who remained a girl all her life despite her body as a woman,
had cruelty drifted up in all the cracks of her like spring snow.
We can see her ridding herself of it at various times
with a gesture like she used to brush the carpet.
Reason with him and then whip him!
was her instruction (age six) to her father
regarding brother Branwell.
And when she was 14 and bitten by a rabid dog she strode (they say)
into the kitchen and taking red hot tongs from the back of the stove applied
them directly to her arm.
Cauterization of Heathcliff took longer.
More than thirty years in the time of the novel,
from the April evening when he runs out the back door of the kitchen
and vanishes over the moor
because he overheard half a sentence of Catherine’s
(“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff”)
until the wild morning
when the servant finds him stark dead and grinning
on his rainsoaked bed upstairs in Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff is a pain devil.
If he had stayed in the kitchen
long enough to hear the other half of Catherine’s sentence
(“so he will never know how I love him”)
Heathcliff would have been set free.
But Emily knew how to catch a devil.
She put into him in place of a soul
the constant cold departure of Catherine from his nervous system
every time he drew a breath or moved thought.
She broke all his moments in half,
with the kitchen door standing open.
I am not unfamiliar with this half-life.
But there is more to it than that.
Heathcliff’s sexual despair
arose out of no such experience in the life of Emily Brontë,
so far as we know. Her question,
which concerns the years of inner cruelty that can twist a person into a pain