A MEDITATION ON POETRY
“Poetry is not about experience; poetry is experience.” I cannot recall who said that but I believe it to be true, as I try to explain to friends and family this mysterious something we poetry folk value so highly. My belief is based on twenty-five years of giving readings of my own poetry; teaching poetry classes to teenagers and adults; organizing poetry marathons and salons; and working with senior citizen groups.
Some credit must go to the late Dr. Alfred Holman, my poetry professor at The College of New Jersey. On the first day of class, he proclaimed dramatically that more damage was done to poetry by bad English teachers who had no idea what poetry was all about than by any other force; he was determined that we were not going to join their ranks. He made us read aloud until we could each give decent oral interpretations of Hopkins, Auden, Jeffers, Dickinson, and Whitman. This required that we gain some understanding of the work before we opened our mouths. True, he flogged us through “The Wasteland,” but it was the fifties and Eliot was God.
As a teacher and a poet I did not wish to join to ranks of the “bad” readers, or to allow my students to do so. I wanted them to understand poetry as our oldest form of art, closely allied to song, and even more primitively to the sheer pleasure of making sound: from the ancient chants of pre-literate peoples, through the happy babble of any child learning to talk, to the hand-clapping, bleacher-stomping, cheer-repeating of a crowd at a basketball game. This is why we like nursery rhymes as children, and why despite our philosophical horror, we find ourselves repeating catchy TV commercials. All of it is related to our natural instinct to make sound, make rhythm, and have it mean something. My mission has always been to convince ordinary people that we have an instinctive connection to this thing we call poetry in our minds, in our hearts, in our throats, and in our guts.
What seems to have ruined poetry for of ordinary people, for most of the last century, is an over-emphasis on poetry as a repository of some didactic message available only to those who know how to interpret it – the teacher or poet like some high priest tossing chicken bones to predict tomorrow’s weather. The idea that most poetry is readily accessible to any sensible person with an open mind and heart seems to have been lost on many teachers (and those who teach teachers) along about 1906. I emphasize the school experience because, the tradition of families reading aloud at home having been gone for so long, schools are one of the few places where the tide might be reversed.
Techno-maniacs that we are, Twentieth Century people came at this art form armed with tools – a list of approximately fifty terms which one must know in order to appreciate poetry. In many schools, the poems were taught as examples of these terms, and little else. As young people searched dutifully for similes, metaphors, ceasuras, and beat out iambic pentameters on their desks (some are still doing it!) is it any wonder that they missed the “soft explosions” in their minds which Ezra Pound said poetry induces?
Is it any wonder that when I first said the P-word in a classroom full of adolescents, there came a low rumble like the sound of a rebellious mob? Or that even many prose writers who are my friends today, remembering bad experiences say, “I just don’t know much about poetry,” or “Can’t say I like it a lot…”
How do we approach poetry, the spinach of our high school menu; the mystery-which-makes-me-feel-stupid of many adult lives? Do we throw away the tools? Toss out any form of serious analysis as no longer relevant? Are there any other routes by which one might arrive at that magical synthesis of sound and sense where it all “goes click like a lock,” as it did for Yeats?
A possible route is blatantly evident when, after the groans die down, you ask a group of kids what they do not want to do with poetry. The answers are always the same. They don’t want to “take it apart,” and they don’t want to be required to write it. “Learning all those dumb terms,” is often included in their list of no-no’s. Fair enough.
Do I need to be able to identify chord patterns to enjoy a folk song or a symphony? And if composing was a requirement, most of us would have the same disdain for music that so many people have for poetry. Terms? That is a trickier question. If you want to compare skate-boards, or computers, or appliances, or lawn mowers or golf clubs, most would agree that is helpful to be able to name what you are talking about.
So what does a poetry missionary to do convert the heathen hordes? Throw open the gates and rely on the quote which began this essay. Poetry is experience; shared experience, if you will. Allow your potential converts, be they teens, truck drivers or senior citizens, to experience the poems.
Step one. Get a bunch of poetry books, all sizes, shapes, time periods, styles, etc. Be not afraid of how far back you go. The goal for each person: pick through the books until you find three poems; one you like, one you hate, and one which you cannot imagine is poetry.
Step two: Each person should find a partner so they can read aloud and share what they have found. Silence is forbidden. The room should be alive with a nice dull roar. The reading aloud aspect of poetry is crucial; it was an oral form centuries before Gutenberg, and in many cultures it still is. “Put it in your mouth,” I tell students of any age. “You are the instrument for this performance.”
One of the most delightfully creepy things I know about poetry is this. In order to write a poem, we can assume that the poet read it aloud many times before it took final shape. That reading required certain breath patterns to make the poem fall into place. When you read aloud, you are breathing with that poet – be it Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath or Sappho!
As step 2 progresses, the person in charge can either cruise around the room listening in on the sharing, or sit still, shut up and watch the fun, whatever feels best. What happens? A lot. A few stories will suffice.
An automobile mechanic whom I happen to know has just been dumped by his girlfriend, pokes a none too clean forefinger at a page and declares, “Now that. Boy, does that make sense. He sure got that right!” He has indicated an eight-line poem about the pain caused by a faithless lover. I ask him to read the poet’s name at the bottom. “P.B.Shelley. Who’s he?” I point to the date. We both laugh. He collars several friends with, “Hey you guys, look at this old poem!” and I move on to seek other converts.
Another time and place, during the Vietnam war, and too-thin rebel with tight jeans, head band, and long hair dyed red, buttonholes two others to hear what she has found and then says, “No. I want to read this to the whole class. This is sooo great!” Perched cross-legged atop a desk she begins, “I walk up and down, in my stiff brocaded gown,” and ends with a lament for her lover who died, “fighting for the Duke of Flanders, in a pattern called a war. /Christ! What are patterns for?” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” that old chestnut from my own high school days, was for her, a powerful anti-war statement. She never noticed that the language was old fashioned.
Popular songs provided another way to open the gates. Another group, and each person was challenged to bring in only the words to a favorite song, neatly rendered on a sheet of paper, to be shared as a bulletin board. That was when the teacher started learning. All kinds of things she had never heard of appeared.
There was the gentle “House at Pooh Corner.” (To this day I still laugh when I find myself in a “honey pot stuck on my nose” kind of situation.) There were pungent, and well written satires on modern life by groups I had dismissed as shouting unintelligible nonsense into their overloaded microphones. Not all of it was wonderful, but as we read the words out loud, we found that some songs could stand alone, but some needed the music because it supplied elements that were missing from the rhythms, or the “colors” of the words.
I discovered to my dismay that John Denver was boring because he never varied his rhythms; but that the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” does not have a set rhythm. Its “beat” is the cadence of an English sentence. That song has delighted me ever since. The students discovered that in order to have a conversation, they had to learn the names of things. Enter the terms: but as practical tools. These discoveries were made, incidentally, in a class labeled, “below average.”
With a group of any age, it is possible to mine personal experience and move more deeply into shared experience. The topic: an automobile accident; one you have been in, or seen. I take the group through an exercise in which one at a time, they focus on their senses and write down the sights, sounds, smells, colors, feelings, physical sensations, etc. They are often willing to read what they have written aloud, and share the experience. It is then a short step to Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck” and easy for anyone to see how he took that experience and made it into a poem.
The same exercise done with strawberries usually results in amazement at how different we are; how we each have very different strawberries in our minds, our taste buds, our memories and even our hearts. Then I give the group “Strawberries” a gently sexy poem about the memory of a lost love, and we talk about how the poet evokes the summer day, the sadness, the rain. And so it goes.
Then of course come the challenges to name a poem about “real stuff.” And I get to debunk the real-men don’t-do-poetry myth. Golf? “The Great Scarf of Birds.” Football? James Dickey’s “The Bee” or “To Vince,” the latter a devastating indictment of how professional sports leaves older men as hollowed out wrecks. War? Endless choices, but one can begin with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” from WW I; Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” from WW II; Jusef Kuomanyakaa’s “Thanks” from Viet Nam; to convince the macho guys that poetry seeks to be real, not pretty.
Can you write a sonnet about an air raid? Yes. Karl Shapiro did a whole sequence of them. A truly honest poem about how guys feel about getting married? Oh yes! Gregory Corso did it . Poems in translation? In every class, I watched as without fail, students who were photographers gravitated to Octavio Paz’s “Wind Water and Stone.”
The young man who watched his father die after two kidney transplants will observe to the group as he reads Mary Oliver’s “Prayer for my Father,” that yes, at the moment of death, a person’s face does look like that. A Vietnamese, alone in America, who watched most of his family drown when their boat capsized, will read a gentle Robert Louis Stevenson poem about a mother comforting a sick child. A football player will be able to assure us that Dickey’s poetry is honest because he has been “In the Pocket” and that is what the experience is like.
And although I too decry the increasingly ingrown nature of the contemporary “po-biz” scene, I teach poetry workshops for the Writers Room. Why? Because the people who come are not planning on careers as poets. They are ordinary people: a housewife, a computer programmer, senior citizens, a farmer, a car salesman, teachers, a stone mason, a bus driver, a massage therapist, a physician, a financial consultant. They have an urge to share experience; both giving and receiving, both making art and appreciating it, in the truest tradition of amateurs.
Left on their own to experience poetry without any barriers to that experience -browsing in libraries and bookstores, attending poetry readings like those at the Writers Room – people of all ages and conditions will find their way to what speaks to them. Those endlessly fascinated by this process may become poets. The rest, one hopes, more open human beings for having experienced something beyond themselves. Because reading it or writing it, that is where poetry takes you. Laugh or cry, be exalted or terrorized, uplifted or shamed. The deeper we go, the more we are all alike.