WHAT IS A POEM, ANYWAY?
Poets are notorious for coming up with manifestos and pronouncements. Everyone has a powerful opinion that what he writes, and what his friends write, makes up the real poetry, and what everyone else does is not poetry.
I’ve made some pretty strong pronouncements myself about the ragged-right-margin, confessional babble that has posed as poetry — a wheezing old man with a walker who still calls himself “avant garde.” I’ve also railed against the primitivist strains in poetry — rock lyrics, rap and much of “slam” poetry is just spewing, often by people who have read no poetry.
Well, what is poetry to me? It is a form of writing, sometimes narrative, sometimes merely descriptive, that has a paraphrasable meaning, and employs poetic devices such as rhythm, alliteration, consonance, rhyme, or assonance. Poetry is aware of what has been written before; it builds on earlier poets (which is why a depressed teenager at an open mike is almost never a poet.) Above all, poetry is imaginative — it taps into myth, symbol, and magic, and uses imagery to convey and reinforce its message. The final ingredient is that the language itself must be beautiful, imaginative, striking.
Good poets first acquire the craft to write in established forms, and, later, the skills to break the rules. Even so-called “free verse,” when it is worthy, employs some of the traditional devices, often in subtle and shifting ways, but there nonetheless.
To rhyme or not to rhyme? I avoided it for most of my life in my own work, even though I love my Romantic poets and my Poe. Rhyme is a dilemma, precisely because it is difficult to do something with it that has not been done many times before. Almost anything can be said in rhymed verse, but all verses are not necessarily poems. Greeting card verse and most song lyrics may be poems “by the book,” but they are not good poems.
There is another level to poetry, and this is the part that cannot be taught. The “born” poets acquire their craft early on, and then turn the details over to their subconscious. They gain the ability — not all the time but when they are “tuned in” — to write long stretches of highly polished poetry almost as if dictated to. It’s either a form of insanity, or it’s inspiration. This is what poets pray for — and we sanctify it by calling it the visitation of the Muse. The Muse-inspired is the Bardic voice, in which the power of creation seizes the poet and takes him places he never expected to go.
The experience of writing, and of reading, this kind of poetry is like having the top of your head lifted off (thank you, Emily Dickinson). This is the poetry I live to write, and to read. My belief in this will explain my impatience with poets who aim too low, and who seem to have a deficiency of psychic energy and imagination.
When a poet of this sort has the misfortune to be a religious fanatic, he writes holy scriptures and founds religions. It is a sad fact that good poetry redeems us, but the poems of religious fanatics lead to wars of conquest and extermination. Plato may have been right to be suspicious of poets.
Perhaps one of the reasons that saner poets cling to the idea of the Muse or spirit guide — think of Dante guided by Virgil through Hell — is that this view of things keeps us in our place. As poets, we may be privileged to envision things that ordinary mortals do not, but we are still ordinary mortals, and the Muse only grants us glimpses of higher things.
Having said that, and dared to put myself, from time to time, in the League of Super-Poets, I hasten to add that all esthetic definitions are man-made, and are unique to a culture. Everything I say about poetry might be nonsense to a poet in another time and place. What Chinese poets in the Ming or Yuan Dynasties considered to be their craft is very, very different from what we do. Poets in Greek, Latin, Arabic or Japanese, ancient or modern, likewise do what they do with radically different conceptions of what makes a good poem. I can only say what is true for me within the literary tradition that I am part of. And I add that I have read, or tried to read, many other modern poets’ manifestos or statements about poetics, and I find most of them incoherent, not to mention intolerant of any other view of poetics.
I am saying this just to explain a little of why I write and how I write. Although I have taken pleasure in writing a few poems with a formal structure, it is usually a challenge I set for myself, not something done out of a feeling of necessity. Most of my poems are improvisations. Iambic pentameter comes naturally to me and I often compose in it without thinking; other times I consciously use short lines and seek to use rhythm and repetition to hold a piece together. Sometimes there is a formless, prose-like “recitative” or warm-up exercise, before the truly poetic passages kick in. This is a lesson from opera: start with something loose and seemingly formless, and then off you go.
A few poems took me years to finish. Sometimes I had to wait for the “Muse moment” that gave me the right rhythm and opening line. Other times I have written an entire long, unplanned poem in one unbroken stretch, as though possessed.
In almost everything I write, I anticipate a voice speaking or reading the lines, and a listener, rather than a page reader. For this reason I strive for lucidity. Even if the idea I am conveying is complex, I want to convey it in language the listener will grasp. I regard a written poem as a script for oral reading, so I do not play visual games with typography. If my language seems unusually restrained in this age of vulgarity, it is because I respect my reader. In this entire book, sex and mayhem abound, but there is only a single four-letter word.
Respect for the reader takes another form, too: don’t speak unless you have something to say. The “dear diary” school of poetry is not for me, because most writers lead boring lives. We are not, most of us, fighting bulls, dodging bullets in battle, or exploring Antarctic wastes. Poets who sit around reading poetry, and reading mind-numbing books of criticism, are going to have very little to say that anyone wants to hear. Most of my own reading is in history, science, the classics, philosophy and, of course, my favorite genre, horror. Homer picked the Trojan War to write about because it was the most important thing he could find. I write about colliding galaxies and religious fanatics blowing up Buddhas and office towers because these things are important.
Repeatedly, I have had people come up to me after poetry readings and say, “I’m so relieved and so surprised. I understood what you were saying. Why don’t other poets do that?” Why, indeed? I say this, not in boast but in challenge to the next generation of poets.
— BRETT RUTHERFORD, from The Gods As They Are, On Their Planets (2005)