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What readers should ask from a poem

The accomplished and the insufficient 

What readers should ask from a poem

As you may know, April has been christened National Poetry Month by the high priests of American verse. Splashy displays highlighting new collections of poetry can be found in chain and independent bookstores. Libraries and colleges are hosting readings by hundreds of poets, both distinguished and emerging.

            When we read or listen to a poem it becomes an immediate experience that speaks to both our heart and mind. The successful poem effortlessly conveys the workings and playings of its language, ideas, and music. It 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 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."

            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. It 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 a 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 10-year-old poet, no less). We enter the poem through the chasm of silence between the two declarations. "Come to the garden, love / where the flowers / have starred the pomegranates. / If you do not come, / they will not matter. / If you do come / they will not matter." What Jelaluddin Rumi leaves unoccupied, we happily fill in. Is the speaker's plea directed at a lover or a god? Perhaps both. Talk about memory and desire.

            The insufficient poem deprives the language of opportunities to leap and shift, to nudge 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." The issues a poem only alludes to may, ironically, be the very stuff that enables you to advance your dialogue with its ideas, metaphors, and imagery.

            Showing and telling, the accomplished poem makes the abstract concrete. When Pablo Neruda calls the watermelon "the green whale of summer," you recognize the appropriateness of this connection, yield 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." The poet's heart-intelligence plugs us into the 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. We never feel as if time and space have been intensified or obliterated. The ambiguities and ambivalences unique to human beings are not revisited, reshaped, re-imagined. 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 she scribbled the following: "The Infinite a sudden Guest / Has been assumed to be --- / But how can that stupendous come / Which new went away?" Every time it's revisited, the accomplished poem communicates something new, transports us where art encounters latent metaphysical questions and concerns. It 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 MotorVehicles, 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. We ride, of all things, a piece of bacon and a slice of Wonder Bread toward the metaphysical. Go figure. And even if we can't relate to the poem's subject matter, (I don't know about you, but I have never been a god of draperies), it can, through the poem's workings and playings, become ours.

The God of Draperies

When revelation comes, the God of Draperies

Cannot decide the difference

Between in and out.

A patio is out though in a yard, he thinks,

Nursing his ignorance

And a mostly gone Tom Collins,

The sunshine and the cicadas and the loveliness

Competing for his rage.

But a car is out? So what about a swizzle stick?

Out of the box but in the drink,

Then out of the drink and in the mouth.

A little bit in and out, he thinks, the vinyl slats

Of the ancient chaise lounge

Stuck to him

Like bacon to a slice of Wonder Bread.

And the soul is in? And heaven is out?

But when the soul is

Out, is it then

In heaven?

Time for another

Drink, a tall one, but only half.

Which is the way it is, he thinks,

With gods and worshippers and revelation;

No one is ever sure

Exactly who

Has been revealed to whom.

A local 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 this summer.

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