T.S. Eliot didn’t actually say this, however. It’s a line from one of his poems—The Wasteland, I think. Poetry gives us the opportunity to deliver beautiful soliloquies that may or may not support our personal views. Every poem is like a dramatic performance, with thrust and counter-thrust…sometimes off-stage. Every poem offers a mood, a speculation, a stance vis-à-vis the universe. We may be dealing with a death or a rush of giddy delight, a moment of dejection or an ironic observation in the manner of a joke. We attempt to honor and preserve such moments by encasing them in verse, choosing our words carefully and attending to the cadence of the sentences, the slither of the sibilants and the clatter of the “k”s.
For centuries the special attributes of a poem—the meter and rhyme and metaphor and all the rest—served the purpose of aiding the memory. Before the Ipod era it was words, rather than songs, that kept rolling around in our heads, and we had to keep them alive ourselves. Nowadays, when such needs have largely vanished, poets draw upon such literary devices less often, though a poem is still meant to be a special utterance, an elevated moment of thought, observation, or feeling—usually all three at once. Abstraction is also far less popular than it used to be. I suspect there are more abstract nouns in a single poem by Emily Dickenson or George Herbert than in the current issue of Poetry magazine.
Love built a stately house where Fortune came,
And spinning fancies she was heard to say
That her fine cobwebs did support the frame…
Critics sometimes complain that many contemporary poems are little more than glorified journal entries. There may be some truth to that, but if so, what of it? The question is, how interesting was the entry, and how effectively was it glorified? Thumbing through my own recent journals just now, I didn’t spot a single entry that seemed worthy of poeticizing. Yet when I read a poem by Louis Jenkins, Margaret Hasse, Robert Bly or Beverley Rollwagen, phrases that seem commonplace in themselves harbor a humor and depth and perfection in ensemble that ring in the ear (and the soul), and we are taken aback by the subtlety of the truth that’s being conveyed without being made explicit.
Truth in poetry? Now there’s a dangerous subject. Often the “truth” of a poem is little more than, “Look at that, isn’t it marvelous!” Poems with roughly comparable frequency advance the truth, “Look at me, aren’t I marvelous!” I am less often intrigued by poems that advance truths in the vein of “Look at that, isn’t it horrible!” Baudelaire was a master of the genre, and it seems to me an entire lexicon of adjectives related to disgust could be drawn from his work that ought never to appear in poetry—because they beg the Big Question.
In the end, poetry is an expression of personality. I have enjoyed reading the poems of A.R. Ammons recently, and have also enjoyed reading the poems of Linda Pastan, but not so much. Perhaps I would prefer to sit in an Adirondack chair beside Linda than A.R., but on the printed page Ammons wins out. Yet reading any poem gives our mind a jog, or a jag, or a jolt, or a jiggle. Scientists will someday discover the poetic lobe of the brain, but I already know where it is, and I can assure you, it’s well worth visiting. How do you get there? As a first step, try picking up a book of poems and opening it.