Saturday, September 13, 2008

Michael Dirda: "Five Propositions About Poetry"

  1. In a very general sense, poets tend to use language in two ways: the artful or the natural. Either they transmute their thoughts through metaphor, striking imagery, or unusual syntax into something rich and strange; or they pack their meaning into what Wordsworth famously called the language really used by men (and women). On the one hand, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Jorie Graham; on the other, William Carlos Williams, Archilochos, and Billy Collins. Most poets opt for flash and filigree—after all, "O, for a beaker full of the warm South, / Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene" (Keats) sounds like poetry. It takes real confidence, and sure judgment, to set down words as simple and deeply moving as "Pray, undo this button" (Shakespeare).

  2. Where a "Complete Poems" is a monument, a "Selected Poems" is an invitation, a sometimes needed icebreaker for shy new readers. In other words, most of us. Just as expository prose generally aims to ingratiate, emphasizing clarity and communication, so a lot of poetry blithely ignores the ordinary courtesies: It is simply there, true to itself. Let me be fanciful: If you picture good prose as a smooth politician deftly reaching out to the crowd and welcoming everyone into the party, then poetry is Clint Eastwood, serape flapping in the wind, standing quietly alone on a dusty street, pure coiled energy. He's not glad-handling anybody.

  3. To read a volume of poetry is to enter the world of the mesmerist. In a serious artist's collected poems, the single constant is usually his or her distinctive, increasingly hypnotic voice. Without relying on plot, dramatic action, or a cast of characters, lyric poets, especially, must entrance us with their words until we cannot choose by hear. Eager for more, we turn page after page because we find ourselves in thrall to a particular diction.

  4. Nearly everyone can come up with a good explanation for why they don't keep up with contemporary poetry, but the main one is simply that reading strange and unfamiliar poems sounds a lot like schoolwork. The language often seems so... high-pitched and bizarre or just plain hard to understand. In fact, the best way to enjoy contemporary verse is simply to read it as though you were dipping into a magazine, listening to a news report, overhearing a conversation. Don't make it a big deal, simply thrill to the words or story. As the critic Marvin Mudrick once proclaimed: "You don't read for understanding, you read for excitement. Understanding is a product of excitement." Later on, you can return to the poems that speak most strongly to you and make them a part of your life.

  5. Memorize the poems you love most. As Anthony Burgess wrote: "The dragging out from memory of lines from Volpone or The Vanity of Human Wishes with the twelfth glass is the true literary experience. I mean that. Verse is for learning by heart, and that is what a literary education should mostly consist of." When I was a teenager, I used to walk to high school. To pass those tedious twenty or thirty minutes I decided to memorize favourite lines and stanzas from Oscar Williams' anthology, Immortal Poems of the English Language. "With rue my heart is laden... I met a traveller from an antique land... We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship...The waste remains, the waste remains and kills...That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea...Our revels now are ended." In all my life no time has ever been better spent.
From Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda.



Blogger Leon Wing said...

Billy Collins: “Surely, you can enjoy a poem before you understand it . . . The grasping of a poem’s meaning, however provisional it may be, is only one of the many pleasures that poetry offers.”

8:43 AM, September 14, 2008  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Thanks for sharing this, Reza. Really nice. I laughed at the Clint Eastwood image and analogy, haha. No.4 is so true, a good reminder to me and all of us, on enjoying the poem.

The mention of the hypnotic voice of the poet in (3) reminds me of how you are slowly growing into your own poetic voice. Keep writing! :)

4:18 PM, September 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:10 PM, September 18, 2008  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

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6:32 PM, September 19, 2008  

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