Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult.
Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered.
And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.
As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”
Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”
You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.”
Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise.
Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful.
There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to.
They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.”
The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category.
But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon.
You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:
There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance.
There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton.
The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.
No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…
Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry.
This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth.
Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness.
The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.
It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.
Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.”
The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance.
Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”
Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe.
It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief.
The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup brimming over.
There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:
There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list.
Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal.
When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves.