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Does Poetry Matter?

John Hildebidle

When I reveal that I frequently teach the reading and analysis of poetry to MIT undergraduates, the response varies from, "Oh, my God!" to, "They do that there?" I am willing to testify that we do teach poetry here, and have long done so, and do it to satisfied students, I have reason to think.

But then the African-American poet Audre Lorde insisted that "Poetry is not a luxury," and although she was certainly not thinking of this august institution of higher learning, many of us have come to think of ourselves as (nearly) missionaries offering Civilized Thinking and Humanity to the Heathens of Orthodox Numerosity. I was told recently that Freud said (was he lamenting?) "Wherever I go in human psychology, I find that a poet has been there before me."

To quote another contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, "to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." Poetry makes or helps us pay attention in two ways. First, by encouraging us to look at what we might let pass by unnoticed. Let Oliver have the podium again, now about (of all things) snails.

When you look at them, nothing happens, not like the startle of
your heart when the heron rises, or when the wind shutters shut
then opens and falls over the hill. Still you know this

moment is important, like a page from an ancient document, found
in a dusty jar, in a dry cave. Who are we? What are our chances?

I know, that looks like prose, not verse – but it is in fact a particular intersection of the two, called a prose poem, so I don't shy away from invoking it. That's a bit of observation and meditation that will have me scouring the pavement for snails, the next wet morning I walk my daughter to school.

Here is another account of the trade of poet, by the contemporary Irish writer Eavan Boland:


They like all creatures, being made
For the shovel and the worm,
Ransacked their perishable minds and found
Pattern and form
And with their own hands quarried from the hard words
A figure in which secret things confide.

Boland's first line is tricky – poets do in fact like all creatures, or if not quite all, many. They are, you might say, omnivores of potential subject- or metaphor-matter. Some – like Marianne Moore, who spent hours as a librarian poring over obscure volumes of natural history, fill their poems with remarkable and unfamiliar (even if you are a regular watcher of Nova or Nature) beasts. Others are more satisfied with the day-to-day (Oliver is clearly one of these), but take the time to look and to think more than most of us do. But notice that Boland refuses to make poets distinct (peculiar? eccentric? even lunatic? those are not uncommon popular notions of versifiers, in these times. Also time-wasters and daydreamers). The poets are like others, in having work to do, and even useful work. Part of that "work" of poetry, what it does and invites us to do along with it, is to look at the world through which we live, no matter how unprepossessing it may seem. William Carlos Williams wrote poems about weeds, wet red wheelbarrows, plums left in a refrigerator for breakfast, and (once) a brown paper bag being blown down a city street.

A second kind of "attention paying" is attention to language: we must not, poets tell us, ignore both the way the world looks and the way it sounds. Here is Oliver again, rebuking an instance of sloppy use of a familiar word, or perhaps sloppiness (and soppiness) of thought about a familiar concept:

And what did you think love would be like? A summer day? The
brambles in their places, and the long stretches of mud? Flowers in
every field, in every garden, with their soft beaks and their pastel
shoulders? On one street after another, the litter ticks in the gutter.
In one room after another, the lovers meet, quarrel, sicken, break
apart, cry out. One or two leap from windows. Most simply lean,
exhausted, their thin arms on the sill. They have done all that they
could. The golden eagle, that lives not far from here, has perhaps a
thousand tiny feathers flowing from the back of its head, each one
shaped like an infinitely small but perfect spear.

That is the same work that Shakespeare undertook, three hundred years ago, and yet we still throw around the word love as though it were the simplest monosyllable on the market. "I love my wife." "I love the Red Sox." "I love my parents." "I love pesto." "I love U-2." "I love Siamese cats." I hope, as parent and husband (and despite being a baseball and pasta and cat fan) that there are subtle but significant shades of meaning at work here.

It is not as though, as Shakespeare’s sonnets demonstrate, "paying attention" to language necessarily produces ease of comprehension. I once served on a faculty committee charged with the task of drafting legislation adjusting the GIRs. One of my fellow committee members grew impatient and demanded that we find and use "algorithmic language." Alas, the beast does not exist, nor (and I’ve tested this, over nearly 20 years, with the help of some of the smartest students ever) are there any pure and absolute synonyms in our language. Look up any word in any dictionary, and you will find multiple (and often contradictory) meanings. Language, we now say in the lit biz, is "polyvalent."

From Oliver, again:

There is so much communication and understanding beneath and
apart from the substantiations of language spoken out and written
down that language is almost no more than a compression, or
elaboration – an exactitude, declared emphasis, emotion-in-syntax
– not at all essential to the message. And therefore, as an elegance,
as something almost superfluous, it is likely (because it is free to be
so used) to be carefully shaped, to take risks, to begin and even
prolong adventures that may turn out poorly after all – and all in
the cause of the crisp flight and the buzzing bliss of the words, as
well as their directive – to make, of the body-bright commitment to
life, and its passions, including (of course) the passion of
meditation, an exact celebration, or inquiry, employing grammar,
mirth, and wit in a precise and intelligent way. Language is, in other
words, not necessary but voluntary. If it were necessary, it would
have stayed simple; it would not agitate our hearts with ever-
present loveliness and ever-cresting ambiguity; it would not dream,
on its long white bones, of turning into song.

Even poets, in other words, get frustrated; but turn frustrations into virtues. I cannot resist observing that, in contradiction to what Ms. Oliver argues, the role of language (and thus, I am arguing, of poetry) in making of "meditation" an "exact celebration or inquiry" is especially necessary at a place like MIT, which so privileges inquiry and so often ignores or defeats (by the sheer weight of time-overload) aspects of meditation and celebration.

The frustration that is part of Oliver's formulation is characteristic of the way poets talk about language, as they try to tinker/mold/coerce/weld/hammer words into fitting the moment and the response. "Poetry is the art of saying in two words what is better said in ten" (Brian Sewall). Or, "writing poetry is like trying to catch a black cat in a dark room" (Robert Greacan). Or this poem, by an Irishman long resident in the U.S., Greg Delanty, raised by a printer-father and a printer by trade himself. The "mystery" he talks about is partly the trade of typesetting, but surely it’s more than that as well. The meeting is one with his now-dead father. We have reached another of Freud’s "corners" but not perhaps just a psychic one. I am tempted to invoke metaphysics, in fact.

Grant me the skill to free the leaden words
from the words I set, undo their awkwardness,
the weight of each letter of each word
so that the words disappear, fall away

or are forgotten and what remains is the metal
of feeling and thought behind
and beyond the cast of words
dissolving in their own ink wash.

Within this solution we find ourselves,
meeting only here, through
The Mystery . . .

One last bit of Oliver. An old friend insisted I get to know her poetry, so I’ve been reading a lot of it lately, and may be overusing it. In an essay about poets she was fond of in her younger days, she has this to say about Whitman:

I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple – or a green
field – a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary
way is it an intellectual thing – an artifact, a moment of seemly and
robust wordliness – wonderful as that part is. I learned that a poem
was made not just to exist, but to speak, to be company.

"Seemly and robust wordliness" – I like that phrase, all the more so since it works just as interestingly if you misread "wordliness," as I did the first time I read the paragraph, making the characterization "seemly and robust wordiness." Whitman was hardly seemly, in his life or his art; but wordy he surely was. And then again "wordy" poetry is what poetry is (in the sense that calculus is numerical, I suppose), with all the rich and complex implications I've been trying to sketch out.

"To speak" – and, as Adrienne Rich reminds us, to speak about something that matters, not just passing moods and impressions:

Poetry wrenches around our ideas about our lives as it grows
alongside other forms of human endeavor. But it also recalls us to
ourselves – to memory, to association, forgotten or forbidden

But let me diverge a bit from the poets-on-poetry line, and call upon two scientists. The first, Chet Raymo, teaches college physics and writes a regular science column in The Boston Globe. He, having laid out a paragraph of scientific writing, numbers and all, offers this:

Scientific literature emphasizes that part of our
experience which is common to anyone who makes
the observations in the same way. . . .Yet it is not
enough. We are emotional creatures. We have
appetites. We are driven – by awe, terror, love, hate.
A diet of purely objective knowledge is oppressive. . .
Facts, yes, a flood of facts. But more.

That "more" (notice – not just other) he calls by its rightful name, poetry.

My other scientist, Stephen J. Gould, holds a chair in paleontology at Harvard and writes like a dream. Indeed the only flaw in his credentials is that he is a lifelong Yankees fan. In an essay called "For Want of a Metaphor," he writes about an altogether obscure eighteenth century French "savant" (his word for it) Pierre- Louis Moureau de Maupertuis. His argument is that the roundly, richly-richly named gent might well have beaten Mendel to the punch by . . . what, a century? But instead he is no more than a curiosity? Why?

We often think, naively, that missing data are the primary
impediments to intellectual progress – just find the right facts and
all problems will dissipate. But barriers are often deeper and more
abstract in thought. We must have access to the right metaphor, not
only the requisite information.

And where better to find metaphor than poetry, which is the most compressed and high-grade metaphor-ore we have.

We should, surely, round things off with a poem. Recently a book came out with the not-facetious title Very Bad Verse. The editors were bold enough to name, and print, what they averred is the worst poem in the language. I am convinced, by the way, that they are well wide of the mark; but as my father used to say, "That's what makes horse races." In any case, let me offer what I think is perhaps the best poem in English written in this century. I offer it as an instance of the way poetry can force our attention toward the deepest and often the most painful of elements. If Freud was right, he found the poets awaiting him in many a dark, melancholy corner. This is a poem about loss. I'd always thought it was about the death of a loved one; it seems I was wrong, and the biographical roots of the poem have to do with the end of a long-standing relationship. But the poem leaves that unsaid, and for once "vagueness" is no vice. Indeed part of the point of the poem is the way it avoids the point, and masks it in cliché and joke:


The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may feel like (Write it!) like disaster.

– Elizabeth Bishop 

The poem is a villanelle, one of those maddeningly repetitious forms that demand that the same words, even whole lines, not just the same sounds, keep coming back and back. And we realize at the very end that the sound that has been haunting the poem is "disaster." Veiled, resisted, but there all the while. I've seen the working drafts of the poem, and it's striking how prosy and dull and "safe" it is, until she begins to scribble rhymes, and let the possibility of her real impulse show through. The uncertainties of the poem fall away, in the end, and what becomes bluntly, painfully "certain" is the note that has been haunting the poem through all the flippancies and denials and avoidances – "disaster."

The second poem is by Seamus Heaney. It is about his father, and at another level about parents and children. He has written beautifully about his mother as well. But being an only son and the father of one son in turn, I can't help but be struck by this poem. Not because I was raised on a farm, by any means, but because the role-reversals and mutual annoyances seem so true to the experiences of sonhood and fathering:


My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and riding to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

One of the things I admire about this poem is the way it crosses all boundaries of place and occupation and class. I don’t know exactly what a "headrig" is, and I couldn’t sketch a "sock" with any precision. But it makes no difference at all: "An expert." That fits widely, no matter whether you are thinking of plowing or selling furnaces (my father's trade) or art or mechanical engineering, or whatever. And the poem can transgress or overcome change and loss. The father is older, weaker (biographically, not yet dead; but again who cares?), no longer purely an "expert." But that more powerful figure is alive again, in words at least. And is that what haunts the voice of the poem? "Beware of what you wish for," the old folktale says, "You might get it." Or "beware of what you remember. It might not stay sedately under wraps."

If this were a truly MIT exercise, I would set you a final exam, taken from the riddle-poems by the master riddler in our language, Emily Dickinson. But I will spare you that. The moral of the story is really two-fold: poetry matters because paying attention to both the inner psychic world and the outer physical world is of great importance, and not just to scientists or psychiatrists, either. And paying attention to the language we all live in, and perhaps are formed by, is just as important. Ask Bill Clinton. Or ask a recent poet-laureate, Rita Dove:


a word is found so right it trembles
at the slightest explanation.
You start out with one thing, end
up with another, and nothing's
like it used to be, not even the future.

That's a hard standard, any way you look at it. It is a challenge, to those of us who like to lay claim to the title "poet." But it strikes fear into our minds, as well. How you say it affects – determines, in fact – what you say, and what you say has impact and effect, both back to the past and ahead to the future. That is what we need poets – especially – to remind us.

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