The Accomplished and the Insufficient: What Readers Should Ask From a Poem

Written by

Thom Ward
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Year

2003
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As you may know, April has been christened National Poetry Month by the high priests of American verse. Chain and independent bookstores feature splashy displays highlighting new collections of poetry. Bookstores, libraries and colleges are hosting readings by hundreds of poets, both distinguished and emerging. This is the month, as T. S. Eliot wrote, "breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land" and "mixing/ Memory and desire," the poet's euphemisms for the past and future.

But when we read or listen to a poem it becomes an immediate experience that speaks to both our heart and mind. The accomplished poem effortlessly transfers the workings and playings of its language, ideas and music. Such transference can illuminate, instruct or comfort, provide surprise and pleasure, and, sometimes, even wisdom. After all, the word poem comes from the Greek word poiein "to make or create," and those makings ought to help us negotiate our lives.

Yet, in truth, many adults put aside reading poetry once they've left high school. For them contemporary verse seems cryptic and vague, some sort of elitist-language labyrinth. Others might pick up a magazine or literary journal, read a poem and feel completely shut out from the experience the poem is trying to deliver. These readers are not dense or obtuse. No, sadly, they've just encountered an insufficient poem, one that failed to complete the necessary language transference from writer to reader.

Over the last decade I've scribbled many ideas about poetry and poetics in my writing journals. Why do some poems move through us like warm gusts of wind? Why do others fall flat? Here are some possible answers.

The accomplished poem thinks and sings, sings and thinks. If it finds itself offering large, complicated ideas it does so most effectively with small, crisp words. Moreover, the accomplished poem compels us to speak its syllables aloud, to metabolize the collision of consonant and vowel, glottal and phoneme, to share in the various modulations of voice, pitch and timbre.

Listen to how the orchestrated vowel sounds--various a's and o's--along with the pattern of l's and k's pull us into the sound-cage Ellen Doré Watson creates at the end of her poem, "The Sounds Between What's On My Mind."

"Blazing in the dark, / my resolve seems so loud, but I haven't learned/ how to coax it to daylight, where it's sullen/ and only smolders. The way smoke above the house/ lofts upward, then floats down like a dirty cloak. [1]" The poem's treatment of subject matter is carried through the sound-bounce of assonance and alliteration, the various patterns of rhythm and rhyme, its jazz and blues. As such, psychological and philosophical urgencies amplify and resonate.

Conversely, the insufficient poem is not mindful of the kinetic force behind each syllable and stress, doesn't flex the muscle of rhythm. Its language is flabby. Without music or invention, the poem relies on easy sentiment and contrived answers, is clever for the sake of cleverness. Insufficient poems, to quote Macbeth's lament, lapse into "sound and fury, Signifying nothing."

Poetry lives in its words and beyond them. Simply put, those ideas not linked to language may comprise the largest presences in the poem. Silence is one of the most potent elements in an accomplished poem. The porous, generous spaces between words and stanzas become those moments in the poem's drama where the reader--through the alchemy of this art--is pitched onto center stage and given a compelling role to play.

Two small but apt examples: "Tomorrow the dentist./ Today the thought." (from a ten-year-old poet, no less). We enter the poem through the chasm of silence between the two declarations.

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include the excerpt of the poem by Rumi at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience [2].

What Jelaluddin Rumi leaves unoccupied, we happily fill in. Is the speaker's plea directed at a lover or a god? Perhaps both as it's left open-ended. Talk about memory and desire.

Steamrolling the reader with too much language, the insufficient poem doesn't allow silences, big and small, to contribute to the poem's dreamscape. The language is deprived opportunities to leap and shift, to nudge up against potential subjects and themes, to back off, then go, if need be, mute.

In his collection of essays, Music at Night, Aldous Huxley argues that, "Silence is an integral part of all good music. Compared with Beethoven's or Mozart's, the ceaseless torrent of Wagner's music is very poor in silence. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it seems so much less significant than theirs. It 'says' less because it is always speaking." In similar fashion, the issues a poem alludes to, without directly stating, may, ironically, be the very stuff that enables the reader to advance his dialogue with the ideas, metaphors and images that are presented in language.

Fresh combinations of ideas, metaphors and images that provide flashes of insight punctuate the accomplished poem. It upends the reader's preconceptions, persuades him into believing its versions of various episodes, fictions and facts. It questions, probes and challenges its own assertions. Showing and telling, the accomplished poem makes the abstract concrete. When Pablo Neruda calls the watermelon, "the green whale of summer," the reader recognizes the appropriateness of this connection, yields to its force and beauty.

Driven by surprise and verbal acrobatics, the accomplished poem magnifies human experience. Birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, marriage, parenting, aging and death become more immediate. Donald Justice's celebrated poem, "Men at Forty" begins: "Men at forty/ Learn to close softly/ The doors to rooms they will not be/ Coming back to"[3]. The poet's heart-intelligence plugs us into voltage coursing through so-called ordinary things.

The insufficient poem confuses motion with action. It shuns improvisation, those colors and textures that Miles, Bird and Satchmo find between the notes. The reader never feels as if time and space have been intensified or obliterated. The ambiguities and ambivalences unique to human beings are not revisited, reshaped, re-imagined. Locked into something like Calvinistic predestination, the insufficient poem fails to explore the unlikely, the implausible. We're better off with popcorn and the remote.

But it is a completely different activity to walk about in the architecture of an accomplished poem. Its sound-cage, idea-chains and linguistic configurations suggest possibilities of being and knowing, stir us up a bit. As we read we discover what we didn't know about x, q and k, what we thought we knew, what we had forgotten, what we had not apprehended. Subconscious vocabularies are awakened. Deeper presences are felt.

Sometime during 1874, Emily Dickinson pinned two fragments of stationery together. On that stationery was scribbled the following:

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include the poem by Emily Dickinson at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience [4].

Every time it's revisited, the accomplished poem communicates something new, transports us to where art encounters latent metaphysical questions and concerns. In sum, the accomplished poem delivers a shock to our souls.

It's one thing to ruminate about poetry and another to write it. Ultimately, any ideas we might advance about an accomplished poem remain secondary to the poem itself. (Another reason it's accomplished!) And so, I'd like to finish with a poem from Love Song with Motor Vehicles, a new collection by BOA poet Alan Michael Parker.

Parker's poem illustrates many, if not all, of the aforementioned satisfactions. Sharp and intelligent, spiked with humor and levity, it's also deadly serious. We give ourselves over to its activities and metaphors. For instance, we ride, of all things, a piece of bacon and a slice of Wonder Bread toward matters metaphysical. Go figure. An even if we haven't participated in the poem's specific imaginative urgencies, (I don't know about you, but I have never been a god of draperies), these urgencies, through the poem's workings and playings, become ours. Read. Listen. Feel. Think. But most importantly, enjoy.

Read "The God of Draperies" on poets.org. [5]


A poet, essayist, and creative writing teacher, Thom Ward is also Editor and Development Director for BOA Editions, Ltd. His latest poetry collection, Various Orbits, will be released by Carnegie Mellon University Press in summer 2003.


NOTES

  1. From "The Sounds Between What's On My Mind" from Ladder Music published by Alice James Books. Copyright © 2001 by Ellen Doré Watson. Reprinted by permission of Alice James Books.
  2. Translation by Robert Bly.
  3. From "Men at Forty" from A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry & Prose, published by Middlebury College Press. Copyright © 1991 by Donald Justice
  4. .
  5. "The Infinite a sudden Guest," from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
  6. From Love Song with Motor Vehicles, published by BOA Editions, Ltd. Copyright © 2003 by Alan Michael Parker. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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