What is this?
Maybe it's some kind of avant garde poem, Jim? It kinda looks poemy doesn't it? Okay, we'll go for it. (There's no money involved is there?) Okay. It's a poem.
And you would be wrong.
There is a line of logic that says:
If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck,
and looks like a duck, then it's probably a duck.
And that's a reasonable sound point of view to take.
When we see a shape like the one above all
left-justified with jagged lines and
split into blocks of text then we think
'poem' because we're used to that shape;
Only it's not a poem any more than what I just wrote is a poem. The first is a random selection of x's. The second is a paragraph of prose cut up to make it look like a poem. The thing is when we see a shape like this:
we automatically think 'horse' and our head is filled with horsey associations: galloping, whinnying, trotting, neighing. (You can tell I'm not really into horses when that's all that comes to my mind, can't you?)
People have squabbled for years over what a poem is. What they don't squabble so much about is what to do with a poem when you get your hands on it. A poem is something to be solved. Okay, prose is something to be solved too. You've having to 'solve' every sentence I write. You don't solve them individually. You solve them cumulatively. The meaning expands to fill your head as you read.
Okay, that's another sticky point. Some poets don't think that meaning should be the end result of a poem. Fair dues. But you cannot get wherever you think a poem should take you without going through meanings:
When you see those letters what do you think of? C-A-T means something. It will also make you feel something. That something might be delight. It might be absolute loathing. Or fear if you're a gatophobe. It is not meaningless. The end result of a poem may not be a nice neat meaning but a load of meanings are the rungs you have to climb to get wherever it is you end up.
What I believe is that when we see something that is poem-shaped our brains go into a different gear. To go all Worzel Gummidgey on you, we put our 'poem heads' on. Or I suppose Worzel would say: 'poemtry heads'.
A poem starts at the presentation level.
So, let me present a poem by W S Merwin:
Who would I show it to
In his short essay 'How Do We Make a Poem', Robert Scholes, the American literary critic and theorist, opens with this tiny poem and then asks:
One line, one sentence, unpunctuated, but proclaimed an interrogative by its grammar and syntax – what makes it a poem? Certainly without its title it would not be a poem; but neither would the title alone constitute a poetic text. Nor do the two together simply make a poem by themselves. Given the title and text, the reader is encouraged to make a poem. He is not forced to do so, but there is not much else he can do with this material. – Semiotics and Interpretation, 1982
He goes on to say that to make a poem out of this text one must first know “poetic code” specifically “the code of the funeral elegy”. If you hand this poem to a very young child he or she could read it without any problems. But I bet their first question would be: What's an 'elegy'? And that's a fair question. Elegies don't crop up much these days. There was one in Four Weddings and a Funeral (W H Auden's 'Funeral Blues') and there was one in Dead Poet's Society (Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!') but these are the exceptions. It's probably just the word that's fallen into disuse. I bet more than a handful of poems were penned to the King of Pop when Michael Jackson died recently. In fact here's one. It's not called an elegy but that's what it is: a poem or song composed especially as a lament for a deceased person.
Of course there is a specific form that used to go with an elegy back in the day, the elegiac stanza, an iambic pentameter quatrain rhymed abab which acquired its name through its use by Thomas Gray for Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but no one bothers about formal stuff like that because even death has lost so much of its formality these days; no black dresses, or ties or armbands.
If Merwin's poem was merely a sentence it would probably fall at the end of a paragraph when the narrator of the poem, the 'I', would explain who the 'who' is, the audience if he were to write his elegy; this poem is not it, it is talking about an elegy that the narrator might write if he had a suitable audience. I get that. Every poem I write gets vetted by my wife before it goes in my big red book of poems. If Carrie precedes me into death (now there's an old-fashioned turn of phrase) who will I show my poems to then? What would be the point of writing an elegy if she couldn't be my editor for that poem?
I have made Merwin's poem my own. I don't know who in Merwin's life this was for and I'd rather not know. I have made it mean something. I have decided what this poem means. That doesn't happen so much with prose; the poetry gets lost in all the words. Let me illustrate with a whole chapter from Shadow Child by P F Thomėse:
A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow, a man without his wife a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?
It's a profound bit of text. It deserves to be a chapter on its own. It's every bit as profound in its own way as Merwin's poem. But it's not poetry. For starters it is a part of a much longer work. Even if it is the second chapter we've still learned that the narrator is the father and that he lives alone with his wife after the death of their only child, a daughter.
People approach a poem differently than they do prose, with a little more caution, respect even. They don't expect things to be explained to them. They expect to be asked to do some work. Even plucked from its place in his novella, Thomėse's three sentences – shorter than many poems – explain themselves. What is there to add? Well, a little. Just because it is prose doesn't mean that what you see is all you get. What he's asking, in part, is how would it feel to be an unnamed thing? Why would something not be named? There are hundreds of thousands of names for things, how did this one thing get missed out? Was it so awful that no one could bear to name it? If you name something then it becomes real. Denying this a name is an attempt to keep it at a distance.
I could go on. But I think I've made my point.
In a poem you, gentle reader, are its context.
Scholes wrote his essay in 1982. I wrote the following poem in 1996. There are only so many truths out there I guess and we all get to them in our own good time. I've always felt that this truth was mine though, exclusively. It rather disappoints me that I wasn't the first to put it into words. That said, Scholes expressed his thoughts in prose, this is a poem:
READER PLEASE SUPPLY MEANING
Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.
They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.
In the end it doesn't matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.
August 18, 1996
A poem, any poem, is an artefact, a relic, a thing abandoned by the past. 'Reader Please Supply Meaning' is thirteen years old. The person who wrote it is 'dead'. Someone else is writing these lines, someone who has read a bit more and lived a bit more than he had. I feel sadder when I read this poem that I do reading either the Merwin or the Thomėse. I understand them in an abstract way. I can put myself in the shoes of the writer. But I remember who I used to be when I wrote my poem. At least I have an idea who I used to be. Who I used to be then is not who I am now.
I'm often amused when, on shows like The Antiques Road Show, the experts can't agree of the function of some item maybe less than a hundred years old. They look at it and fiddle with it and make their best guess based on their experience. We can only understand things up to the limits of our own experiences and so no one will be able to fully understand Merwin’s poem who has not lost a loved one in death. The relationship between the narrator and the person he has lost may not be the same as ours – that is not so important – but first-hand knowledge of loss is. The same goes for Thomėse's chapter. I have lost neither wife nor daughter and I am grateful for that but I have lost both parents and so I can understand what these two men were on about up to a point. Beyond that point I have to project, to imagine, to create a scenario in my head where those words can play themselves out.
T S Eliot wrote:
The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. – Tradition and the Individual Talent
It is entirely possible that Merwin had not lost anyone in death. My assumption was that he'd lost his wife. I projected my own relationship with my wife onto the poem. I was wrong. I'm wrong on both counts. The poem was written after the death of his friend James Wright. Or maybe not. I know he wrote him an elegy, just not necessarily that one. I don't even know if Wright died before the poem was written. And I don't need to know.
The poem should stand or fall on its own merits.
A poem is a dead thing. I know many hands will go up in the air when their owners read that. “Oh, no! A poem is a living thing!” No, it's not. There are preconditions that need to be satisfied before anything can be labelled 'alive' The poem exists, that I'll give you, at least a copy does because what you're reading just now is not the original – that's in my big red book, although, if I'm being honest, that one is also a copy; the original was probably a scribble on some scrap of paper long binned. So, this one and the one you have just read are reproductions and the ability to reproduce is one of the boxes we need to tick to decide if something is alive but really that is the first hurdle at which our argument falls flat. The rule is that the thing must be able to reproduce itself and all the poem has done is lie there and think of England while I made a fair copy of it.
I cannot even argue that the poem is “alive” in my head because I couldn't in all honesty write it down from memory. I can't remember where I wrote it or under what circumstances. No, the only place it exists is on the page and backed up on my office PC, the external hard drive attached to it, my laptop and the external hard drive attached to it and uploaded on the Web. There may well be a copy on a zip drive somewhere. Oh, and there’s a copy on the flash card in my camera.
Reading is reanimation, a breathing of life back into something. When you read your own thoughts intermingle with the words on the page and produce something new. I say 'words on the page' and not 'my thoughts' because all that is left of the thoughts that went into that poem are gone. Only the words remain with the potential to mean something to and to cultivate feelings in the one reading them.
So, the next poem you see, keep this in mind. Remember what's required of you. The breath of life is in you.