it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.
Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.
—Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”
I n recent conversations I’ve asked friends whether they read poems and why not. The question is generally why not; aside from a handful who read them often, I’ve found little enthusiasm. Among the replies have been several who preferred reading nonfiction, several who said they didn’t understand poems or found them inaccessible, several who claimed proclivities for linear thinking and aversions to ambiguity; “pretentious” and “esoteric” were thrown around.
An execrable ex wanted to enjoy poetry but hadn’t found a writer whose poems resonated consistently. I asked him what anticipated reward moved him to engage with a piece of writing. “Learning something new,” he replied. “Whether a new fact, a new perspective, a new word, a new idea, or a new way to articulate an old idea.” Well.
An Austin psychonaut refracted and dispersed my question into three. Noting that poems were slow in a fast world, she wondered why she might slow down to engage with them—whether she would get left behind. Observing that she had traditionally approached literature to receive, she asked how poems actually gave—whether they gave as much as they took. She questioned—finally—whether there were value in poetic meaning, which seemed to proffer few definitive answers.
Well. I had no definitive answers.
I should have defined poem when I asked the question. Before proceeding as though discussing something sole and whole, I should have pointed at the thing to confirm we didn’t have the same name for two different flocks of birds. American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich wrote that “in the wash of poetry the old, beaten, worn stones of language take on colors that disappear when you sieve them up out of the streambed and try to sort them out.” A thing reveals its identity through its relations to other things. Verse—be it rhymed, metrical, or free—may be identified by its divergence from prose, which is applied toward ends that are often distinct from the aims of a poem.
The aims of poems are manifold and nonessential to my definition. The crucial thing is that successful verse makes sense. Successful prose, by contrast, adopts sense. We know it adopts sense because when we encounter effective prose we can usually read it quickly. It doesn’t demand sustained scrutiny to decide how words within the body of text relate to each other. They simply do. They aren’t tasked to create sense where none has been assumed; neither are we.
When prose is well-written the result is that we construe language as a medium; it conveys some objective fact or situation or idea that is independent of language. Verse isn’t so sure. Poems hand us a down blanket burping feathers and call it shish kebab. Then, if we can agree that shish kebab signifies this thing that keeps us warm and ticklish, we can relate. This is not for the sake of confusion. This is to draw attention to language as a function of social agreements. Which is to underscore that words do not convey facts, situations, or ideas, but create these.
Imagine yellow. What is it? Yellow isn’t a canary or the paunch of an egg, but it may describe these. Light with a dominant wavelength of 580 nanometers isn’t yellow, but it is a condition that makes yellow possible. You might spend hours pursuing the meaning of yellow without once mentioning candlelight on the kitchen ceiling, though your omission wouldn’t make it less yellow than that goldfinch with the scrap wing you tossed into traffic, as a kid, on a hunch it might fly. All this to say that yellow is the consensus reached when two individuals neglect the dishes and turn their attention upward, to the warm glaze leaping across beams, and point, and tongue their low incisors, then round their lips just so. Yellow, they agree. Yes.
Which is to say that we are, in our daily lives, responsible for making decisions about the meaning of words, and for taking pains to understand each other. I once heard the rules of the road in America contrasted with the rules of the road in Nepal, where there are none. In Nashville, following established laws allows drivers to focus on their individual safety almost exclusively. They don’t need to be especially mindful of other drivers; they won’t be held accountable if others fail to heed those laws. In Kathmandu, with few enforced rules to structure traffic, everyone is responsible for everyone else. Pedestrians cross anywhere; drivers must pay attention. In their freedom, each motorist is inextricably bound to all others. This is to define poem analogously: an approach to verbal expression that is lawless and contextual, that demands careful attention, that stimulates relation. It is the thing that floods dry contrary stones until their colors bleed a fresh, athletic logic.
I’ve been thinking of poems lately. There’s a sense, now, of contracted possibility on a grand scale. I don’t mean in theory. The reality of what is possible in our daily lives is more limited than it was in February of last year. I have been shut in small rooms, hushed by terrors biological and political. I have interpreted power and appeased those who flaunt it structurally. I’ve gone days speaking no words except the ones they made.
We are suffering, now, in old and new ways. (This is not projection, but an observation.) An awareness of our ancient hurt grasps even those for whom it’s news. In America—this peculiar ecosystem, as the myth goes, where individual parts may act without disturbing everything else—we’re daily confronting the centuries of violence that we’ve rationalized, closeted, and rewritten for as long. We’re lying in the bed we’ve made and made.
In their responses to my question about poems, my friends have led me to consider whether the possibility exists of conceiving new circumstances in a tired idiom, which seems ill-suited for engagement with disruptive ideas. The problem, to my mind, is evident.
“My hunch is that this era—of scrutinizing collective priorities, of forging new arenas for solidarity—clamors for somethings poems are uniquely positioned to supply.”
Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared that the limits of his language were the limits of his world. Illustrating this idea, English novelist George Orwell wrote that the aim of Newspeak—the language of the totalitarian superstate in his too-familiar dystopia—is “to narrow the range of thought.” Through reducing the vocabulary available to Newspeakers, the state would make free thought “literally impossible, because there [would] be no words in which to express it.” We hardly need an imagined politics to exemplify this danger; we have witnessed persons of enormous influence frame the world within a stiflingly meager set of terms. The enmity they’ve sewn has yielded intractable divisions. Has made us deaf to divergent camps. Has killed us in our homes and neighborhoods. Now we’re thousands innocent and dead. This isn’t metaphorical. This isn’t biological. This is the reign of words, the images they engender, the situations they originate.
My hunch is that this era—of scrutinizing collective priorities, of forging new arenas for solidarity—clamors for somethings poems are uniquely positioned to supply. Those are: an exercise in paying attention, an idiosyncratic approach to relation, and an idiom to inaugurate the arriving world.
American philosopher Richard Rorty has described the evolution of literal language as a result of “people who did happen to find words to fit their fantasies,” creating “metaphors which happened to answer to the vaguely felt needs of the rest of the society.” Sex and gender, for instance, caught on—were invented then associated by vocabularies that codified power by shortchanging biological nuance. Historically wielding metaphors to equate human beings and animals, architects of genocide haven’t needed to corrode whole populations’ capacities to instinctually recognize the value of human life; they have needed merely to combine words that stuck. By the same token, the progress of civilization may be told as the story of wild vocables being successfully (and often, as it were, unwittingly) translated into broad tongues. Rorty notes that the Romantic poets—like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley—contributed to the development of an ethical consciousness that would inform the culture of political liberalism. Adrienne Rich, whose poetry and essays have influenced feminist thought and sexual politics, observed that in radical exploration there is “a difficult and dangerous walking on the ice, as we try to find language and images for a consciousness we are just coming into, and with little in the past to support us.” On this point, I say to my friend the psychonaut that the best poems give much; among their gifts is a way to reconcile the vastness of experience with a mode of expression that has not previously accounted for certain kinds of experience. The evolution of Rich’s career reveals a poet who first assimilated the conventions of a male-dominated craft, then ceaselessly pursued new styles, structures, and vocabularies for centering and empowering the perspectives of women—a poet who reconstituted the world and encouraged us to tread as boldly.
Rich and the Romantics answer to the apparent dearth of certitude in poems. Whatever they are, they emerge precariously, as saplings from the cracks of a rock face. If works of prose are written to convey known information coherently, then poems are penned to record the pulse of something that is not yet fully understood. The full scope of a poem’s meaning is recognizable only after it has, across decades, conversed with other poems and other arts, refracting lines of public discourse and informing common speech. Every poem extends a contribution to a much larger project, making both the writing and reading of poems a fundamentally collaborative endeavor. Rich renders this as a kind of continuous shared exertion in her poem, “Turning,” affirming that “Finally, we will make change.” She describes this process as
first our own, then other’s—
that barrier, that stream
where swimming against the current will become
no metaphor: this is how you land, unpurified,
winded, shivering, on the further shore
where there are only new kinds of tasks, and old:
writing with others that open letter or brief
that might—if only—we know it happens:
no sudden revelation but the slow
turn of consciousness, while every day
climbs on the back of the days before:
no new day, only a list of days,
no task you expect to see finished, but
you can’t hold back from the task.
In periods of societal transition, old modes of expression don’t just fail to address the unique needs of our historical moment; they maintain harmful attitudes that continue to instigate old forms of violence. Conventional vocabularies, comprising metaphors that have crystallized over time, evoke a more or less distant past. It isn’t the individual poem that provokes a “sudden revelation,” but the collective exercise of reading and writing poems that signifies our commitment to the diversification of language and to linguistic fluidity across time. “The subject is how to break a mold of discourse,” Rich writes, “how little by little minds change / but that they do change.” This “slow turn of consciousness” produces the potential for inclusive thought and institutions that are increasingly sensitive to historically marginalized perspectives. Gradually we discover ways to articulate—then nuance and validate—our traumas, joys, priorities, fears, and hopes.
I reply to my friend the psychonaut that this task—finding modes of expression suited to address our unanticipated needs—is indispensable and, yes, necessarily slow. Our objective is to craft language that will, in Rorty’s words, “strike the next generation as inevitable.” Highlighting the evolution of language as the continuous creation and gradual literalization of metaphors, he acknowledges the centrality of the poet within efforts to redescribe ourselves. What matters—to our collective understanding of historical and contemporary narratives, and thereby to the values we share and the institutions we build to support those values—is how we choose to describe the things that populate our public and private lives. Thus emerges the poet’s work.
The poet’s work varies with the age in which she writes. I’ve heard twenty-first century poetry critiqued for its failure to speak, as Walt Whitman did in the mid-nineteenth, for “the female equally with the male…[for] every hue and caste…[for] every rank and religion.” It avoids claiming that “these are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands” and that “if they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing.” Writing on the cusp of Civil War, Whitman’s emphasis on the commonalities that united members of a bitterly divided nation appealed to an audience that might have had limited terms for discussing solidarity, and that was receptive to an imagined national identity that could transcend political boundaries.
“The full scope of a poem’s meaning is recognizable only after it has, across decades, conversed with other poems and other arts, refracting lines of public discourse and informing common speech.”
The contemporary situation demands a different poetic orientation. “The universal is a fantasy,” writes Claudia Rankine in her introduction to The Racial Imaginary. “What we want to avoid at all costs,” she explains, “is an opposition between writing that accounts for race and writing that is ‘universal.’ If we continue to think of the ‘universal’ as the pinnacle, we will always discount writing that doesn’t look universal because it accounts for race.” Rankine’s observation, which could not have emerged from the chapter of American history that produced Whitman’s comprehensive attitude (there existed no frame of reference or body of works to make it sensible), may be contemplated even beyond the scope of race. Continuing to hold poems to an unattainable standard of universality diminishes writing that explores the perspectives of any except the most privileged identities in our society. Such a nonviable expectation hinders poems from affecting what Whitman sought to facilitate through the structural and subjective inclusiveness of his verse, but which must be attempted by contemporary poets through alternative means. That is, solidarity.
Rather than sharing a common language or nature that might be adapted as a basis for unity, we are essentially alike, Rorty argues, just in our susceptibility to pain. “Human solidarity,” he writes, “is not a matter of sharing a common truth or a common goal but of sharing a common selfish hope, the hope that one’s world—the little things around which one has woven into one’s final vocabulary—will not be destroyed.” Words like kindness, decency, and dignity, he argues, are not reflections of human nature, but ultimately lead to “a heightened awareness of the possibility of suffering.” The role of readers and poets, now, is to create language that will help us to suffer less than we have suffered in the past. If their work aspires to solidarity, it must replace universal postures with sensitivity to the nuances of personal—and, in particular, traditionally devalued—experiences. On Whitman’s search for a poetic correlative to an idealized American political project, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner has noted the remoteness of its realization, speculating that “Whitman comes to stand for the contradictions of a democratic personhood that cannot become actual without becoming exclusive.” In this century, many poets are embracing both: actuality and exclusivity are central to their project, which is dedicated to recording suffering and validating its own amorphous vocabulary.
In this sense, exclusivity is not opposed to inclusiveness; instead, it seeks to include individual members of a whole by first establishing their “irreducible otherness.” Justin E. H. Smith, a Professor of History and Philosophy at Paris Diderot University, has considered the term “relatable” in the context of esotericism and learnéd traditions, identifying it as a misnomer in its common use. Taken as synonymous with familiar, relatable forgets that the work of establishing meaningful relation requires serious contemplation, that is, a recognition of otherness. Relieved of the myth of universality, we can shed illusions of breadth to attend the depths of our singular, irreplicable experiences. Most astoundingly, we may peek into the depths of others.
Outwardly, my childhood bears little resemblance to that of the poet Robert Hayden. I have to strain to imagine what it must have been like growing up as a black boy in an early twentieth century Detroit ghetto, ostracized by peers and subjected to parental abuse. Yet, for all the differences in circumstance between us, I note similar physiologic responses each time I read his poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” While Hayden recalls the mornings his father woke early to thanklessly heat their home, a bright wave washes my vertebrae, snakes along my collar and jaw bones, touches the base of my skull, wakes the spots behind my ears. It chills the backs of my legs and pricks the insides of my knees and I cry. I let it come. He yields insight for which there is no solace. “What did I know,” he writes, and again, “what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
“What matters—to our collective understanding of historical and contemporary narratives, and thereby to the values we share and the institutions we build to support those values—is how we choose to describe the things that populate our public and private lives.”
His words are none too extraordinary; they are “labor,” “splintering,” “chronic,” “angers,” “indifferently.” I sieve them up; their colors slip. Together, though, they make a banked fire blaze in the blueblack cold. Before I’m able to consciously pair feelings I’ve experienced with feelings I intuit through the poem’s speaker, my central nervous system responds. Drawing me into relation with a perspective that varies widely from my own, his words elicit an emotion that is yet deeply familiar. I could have traced its contours in a cave. I could have placed it on a spectrum between terra cotta and turmeric but until I’d read “Those Winter Sundays” no words had so precisely touched it. Hayden’s enabled me to articulate a persistent internal conflict: that in a world of scarcity, love and pain are cyclically bound. In my ignorance, I’ve been responsible for both; beyond my ignorance, I’ll be responsible for both. In and beyond my ignorance I am and will be formed by each, round and around. I mention this because poems—which involve fewer kinds of sensory information than other mediums that exercise empathy in audiences, like movies and music—demand more imaginative work than perhaps any other art, giving readers space to more fully inhabit the perspective of an other. It is exceedingly difficult, in turn, to neglect the concerns of anyone who can feel what you have felt—particularly something as devastating as pain, which touches everyone. In an essay Rich explains that
Among myriad forms of cruelty, incuriosity may be the most intolerable. Habitually reading poems teaches us to be attentive—not just to language, but to all things. Let us attend one another, then, we who are strange. Let us buzz in the space between two hopes, bizarrely vocalizing, listening, making sense. Now is the hour for walking on ice. We have interpreted the old masters all of our lives, have over-interpreted for fear of misinterpretation. Let us now be interpreted. Let us speak now, finally, in our own tongues. We will know who is committed to the arriving world by their courage to become disoriented in an unfamiliar idiom because it moves them closer to genuine relation.
To my friend the psychonaut I reply that, no, there is no one way to think about any poem. There is no correct answer here; you cannot discover it. An approximation of the answer volleyed between a couple of neurons in the writer’s brain a long time ago; you’ll never inhabit the machinery that processed the information that produced it. So that’s that. As with poems, so with life: attention yields meaning. And meaning—arranged among the symbols of whatever name you like—offers a source of consolation while suffering persists among we who are finite (we who, inexplicably, can imagine infinite and yearn for it).
You—I address you not generally, but reverentially—You have to create the poem’s meaning. Not for the sake of explaining it to someone, but because your pain may become penetrable insofar as you can describe it—can assign it a story, a justification, an origin, a name. Because your propensity for cruelty may be corroded to the extent that you can relate to the suffering of an Irreducible Other Precious Life.
I assure my friend that these are not tools in any traditional sense. You pick up an axe until the task is done but this task will never be done. Take up these lines at your leisure. Here is your opportunity to visit the most private room a person has. This is the gift.
Finally, I admonish the poet, do not surrender yourself easily. I am sacrificing my time and energy to meet you in your living room, this puzzling place, this house of mirrors. I’m yielding somethings precious—my comfort and my control—to be with you, to understand you. I arrange these affirmations like sweet rice and marigolds in the doorframe of this lyric and come, now, into your language, to know your inalienable light. ◘