Poetry for beginners

A word here about liking a poem. This should of course be our primary objective and motive. But to like is a function of the critical intelligence, as this passage by W. H. Auden makes clear:

As readers, we remain in the nursery stage as long as we
cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long,
that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a
book are two: this I like, this I don’t like.

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Written by

William Meredith

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August 28, 2001



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The Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco, in a poem called “Dissertation on Poetic Propriety,” asks for “a new definition. . . a name, some term or other. . . to avoid the astonishment and rages of those who say, so reasonably, looking at a poem: ‘Now this is not poetry.'” I too want to argue for a broader definition of poetry, a definition which will increase our sense of the multitudes that poetry contains. For those of us who care about poetry in this time of widely diverging definitions are apt to be consciously limited in our tastes and churlish in our distastes. We often have more precise ideas, based on these distastes, about what poetry is not than about what it is.

If I cannot come up with the new definition Pacheco asks for, what I say is at least intended to turn aside the easy negative response in myself and in others to poems which are not immediately congenial. For whenever we say, “Now this is not poetry,” we are adding to the disuse of all poetry.

Perhaps the most useful definition, in fact, would begin with a statement about expectation: the expectation with which a reader engages a poem, and the reasons for which a poet may have undertaken the poem, and the possible discrepancy between these two. We have all had the experience of fighting a work of art because it was not doing what we were asking of it. John Ashbery said in an interview: “My feeling is that a poem that communicates something that’s already known to the reader is not really communicating anything to him and in fact shows a lack of respect for him.” Since what is communicated in a work of art is also how it is communicated, a false expectation is almost certain to produce a false reading. And often we confirm this by the happy surprise that comes when a work we had been defeated by suddenly opens itself to us—we find that it performs very well the job of work which was its reason, once we stop asking it to perform some other service which was no part of its intention.

A word here about liking a poem. This should of course be our primary objective and motive. But to like is a function of the critical intelligence, as this passage by W. H. Audenmakes clear:

As readers, we remain in the nursery stage as long as we
cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long,
that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a
book are two: this I like, this I don’t like.

He goes on with the lovely, schoolmasterly, and abashing accuracy of an Audenism:

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five; I can see
this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t
like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t
like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like
it; I can see this is trash but I like it; I can see this is trash
and I don’t like it.

My argument is that we should use the third option as often as possible, when the first response is not spontaneous with us. When we can’t say of a poem, especially of a poem that comes recommended, “I can see this is good and I like it,” we owe it to ourselves and the poem to try to say, “I can see this is good, and though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance, et cetera.”

Poems seem to come into being for various and distinct reasons. These vary from poem to poem and from poet to poet. The reason for a poem is apt to be one of the revelations attendant on its making. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader, Frost said. The reason for a new poem is, in some essential, a new reason. This is why poets, in the large Greek sense of makers, are crucial to a culture. They respond newly, but in the familiar tribal experience of language, to what new thing befalls the tribe. I shall have some comments to make here about three generic reasons for which poems seem to come into being, but even within these genera, the occasion of a poem is always a new thing under the sun.

And poets don’t respond as one, they respond in character, with various intuition, to the new experience. What each maker makes is poetry, but why he makes it, his reason, is his unique intuition. The reason determines the proper mode of apprehension. It is part of the purpose of every poem to surprise us with our own capacity for change, for a totally new response. For example, David Wagoner’s lines called aggressively, “This Is a Wonderful Poem“:

Come at it carefully, don’t trust it, that isn’t its right name,
It’s wearing stolen rags, it’s never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won’t get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn’t decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won’t take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you’ll learn what’s trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

The resilience such a poem asks of us is a reader’s first responsibility. To assume one knows what a poem is going to do is (to turn John Ashbery’s statement around) to show a lack of respect for it. I think it is chiefly a lack of resilience that has kept the poetry public so small in our country, and has divided what public there is into dozens of hostile sects. We say of our own chosen poetry—Olsen or Frost, Lowellor Bly—the poetry whose reasons strike us as reasonable, “Now this is poetry,” and then generally, of everything else, loudly, airily, and with great conviction, “and this is not.” Criticism, which is at its most perceptive when most appreciative, is thus often narrowly appreciative. It divides and rules and does little to promulgate the astonishment, the larger force of poetry.

And it is very easy to reject poems whose reasons do not declare or recommend themselves to us. Take an extreme mode of recent poetry which Robert Pinsky has described in The Situation of Poetry. This school, he says, has “a prevalent diction or manner” which embodies, “in language, a host of reservations about language, human reason, and their holds on life.” He quotes a poem by W. S. Merwin and says of it: “It moves in a resolutely elliptical way from image to atomistic image, finally reaching a kind of generalization against generalizing in the line: “Today belongs to few and tomorrow to no one.”

Pinsky concludes: “This poem presents a style well suited to a certain deeply skeptical or limiting vision of the poetic imagination and its place in the world.”

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:

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain, in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.

They stacked logs in the resinous air,
hacking the small limbs off,
tying those bundles separately.
The slabs near the root
were quartered and still they were awkwardly large;
the logs from midtree they halved:
ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood,
moons and quarter moons and half moons
ridged by the saw’s tooth.

The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon. They are too canny
to call in neighbors and come home
with a few logs after three days’ work.
They are waiting for me to do something
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them.

How patient they are!
The old man smokes a pipe and spits.
The young man is thinking he would be rich
if he were already rich and had a mule.
Ten days of hauling
and on the seventh day they’ll probably
be caught, go home empty-handed
or worse. I don’t know
whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean
and there’s nothing I can do.
The path from here to that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.

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, Frost said, the way the stars hold one another in place in the firmament.

The three roles I envision are these:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 W. H. 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.
  3. 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. I will rehearse the three roles with some examples.

If a poet is committed to an overriding social grievance, as currently some of the best European, Latin American, and United States minority writers are, the poem is best read as a kind of ceremonial rite, with a specific purpose. A dissident poem aspires to be an effective ritual for causing change.

If a poet feels, on the other hand (to quote an easygoing character in one of my own poems), that the human predicament “is just a good bind to be in,” the poem should be read as an occasional poem, occasioned by some instance—however flawed or imperfect—of an existing order. An apologist poem aspires to be a celebration.

If a poet thinks of himself only as a man or woman speaking to men and women, the poem should be read simply as poem. A solitary’s poem is a message written on one person’s clean slate to be copied on another person’s clean slate as an exercise in person-hood. A solitary poem wants to become a little universe or a charade.

It is my cheerful illusion that these are fairly clear distinctions to apply to modern poems. Though I apply them to poems, they reflect intentions, brief or long-standing, of the poet who aligns himself with them. They shade into one another, and readers would disagree about many borderline cases. But at best, they could be helpful in determining how a poem wants to be read.

Here is an attractive example of a militant poem, by a poet who I think was twelve years old at the time.

“The Cemetery Bridge”

Well, as you all should know, there’s a dead man
in the George Washington Bridge.
How he got there, they was digging and drilling
these real deep holes for the pillows
of the George Washington Bridge.
While they was digging and drilling, a man fell in.
Of course he was dead, but we will never know for sure.
So they pay his family millions of dollars
so they won’t have to dig him up and start all over again.
Please spread this story around.

Terrence Des Pres, a very gifted prose writer, believes that all serious writing today must be politically committed writing, militant writing. In a letter he wrote to me soon after we had debated this for the first time, he put it this way:

Most Anglo-American poetry (excluding old guys like Milton
and Blake) looks at life and says, that’s how it is, that’s the
human condition. Political poetry also says that’s how
things are, but then, instead of settling for the hard
comfort of some ‘human condition,’ it goes on to say, this
is not how things must be always. Not even death is that
final, when you consider that some men are forced to die
like dogs, while others have the luck to die human.
Political poetry is concerned with precisely this
distinction. And if, by way of example, we ardently
oppose the designs of state and the powers that be–
as, say, during the Vietnam war years–is this
opposition not a true part of our experience? and if so,
is it not a fit subject for poems? Fitter, perhaps than
the old laments like lost love, the soul’s virginity, etc?”

The poem Terrence Des Pres sent with that letter is by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.

     Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include the poem “Five Men,” by Zbigniew Herbert.

The intention of Herbert’s subtle and moving poem seems to be to convert poets from writing the old laments like lost love, the soul’s virginity, etc., and to enlist them in action to change their political circumstances, if not indeed their own political natures. The poem does not simplify. It retains the demanding reticence of poetry. As a conscience, the reader responds, or not, to its call for change, as clear and ambiguous as Rilke’s “You must change your life.”

Here is a third example of dissident poetry, a fragment of one of June Jordan’s powerful statements about our society’s way with black citizens. Irony is its heavy device, but it is pure enough poetry not to say all it means, not to mean only what it says.

   Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include the poem “Poem: On the Murder of Two Human Being Black Men, Denver A. Smith and his unidentified Brother, at Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1972,” by June Jordan.

For all that it is implicit, in these three poems we have just looked at, that the role of the dissident is the most urgent role at a time like ours, I think there is never any deliberate choosing, except on grounds of temperament—the poem’s or the poet’s—between the three roles. The time is always a time like ours. Ours is simply the one we must respond to truly. Each of the three responses I am trying to delineate asks a great deal of the writer and the reader. The three short poems I offer as examples of apologist poems don’t shirk moral responsibility, but rather contain it within a system whose imperfection they take as given. The imperfections of society, in the poems about equating money with life (in “The Cemetery Bridge”), or countenancing political murders (in “Five Men”), or race murder (in June Jordan’s poem) can only be responded to militantly, by poet and reader. The imperfections in human nature exhibited in the next three poems are sources of grief but lie beyond grievance. They invite various and complex response.

“On Looking for Models
by Alan Dugan
The trees in time
have something else to do
besides their treeing. What is it.
I’m a starving to death
man myself, and thirsty, thirsty
by their fountains but I cannot drink
their mud and sunlight to be whole.
I do not understand these presences
that drink for months
in the dirt, eat light,
and then fast dry in the cold.
They stand it out somehow,
and how, the Botanists will tell me.
It is the “something else” that bothers
me, so I often go back to the forests.
     “Traveling through the Dark
by William Stafford
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason–
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all–my only swerving–,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

   Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include “The Whipping” by Robert Hayden.

My third category will probably strike readers as having the same spinelessness as the category other in a quiz or don’t know in a poll. But in the art which speaks most eloquently for human peculiarity, the poet as solitary seems as serious and deliberate as the socially active or passive poet. He is not at odds with either of them but for the moment removed from them by some concern he can share only person-to-person. Here then are three solitary poems.

     Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include the poem “The Boxcar Poem” by David Young, Boxcars (Ecco Press, 1973).

     Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include the poem “The Bear” by David Fisher, Teachings (Ross Books, 1978).

A poem like Zbigniew Herbert’s “Five Men” must necessarily imply that its reasons are the most urgent reasons a poem can have, that other reasons are somehow trivial. Poems themselves are sometimes bullies, or seem to be. But this is true only as one hypothesis precludes another. Poetry has always resisted being used as propaganda simply because, like other fully created things, it contains and rejoices in contradictions. “When you organize one of the contradictory elements out of your work of art,” Randall Jarrell tells us, “you are getting rid not just of it, but of the contradiction of which it was a part; and it is the contradictions in works of art which make them able to represent to us—as logical and methodical generalizations cannot—our world and our selves.” Contradiction, complexity, mystery—these are not useful qualities in propaganda.

If some of my suggestions about how to open ourselves as readers are valid, they mean that we must be ready to be astonished, even when that is uncomfortable and morally expensive. When we engage a poem we should credit it with infinite options, not just the three which I have labored, which may strike the reader as obvious or incomplete or wrong. Whatever a poem is up to, it requires our trust along with our consent to let it try to change our way of thinking and feeling. Nothing without this risk. I expect hang gliding must be like poetry. Once you get used to it, you can’t imagine not wanting the scare of it. But it’s more serious than hang gliding. Poetry is the safest known mode of human risk. You risk only staying


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