So what is a poem, and what should it do? I find myself agreeing with most of the ideas (if they are “ideas”) in Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica”: “wordless as the flight of birds,” “motionless in time,” and “should not mean but be” are not precise instructions for poetry, but ideals that I think the best poems aspire to and in some sense achieve. Poetry should be art, not rhetoric: it may end up convincing you of all kinds of things, but not by arguing through them. Good poetry achieves its ends by other means than marshalling evidence and convincing a jury.
As I said in a recent post introducing the countdown concept, a poem should not have “hidden meanings.” Very often English teachers’ delight in uncovering hidden meanings, in constructing a club of initiates who know how to pick apart a poem (equipped with either “cultural literacy” or postmodern theory), creates hidden meanings by suggesting they exist. So too, the baggage we bring to a poem produces meanings there that aren’t observable in the text. In fact, one of the reasons I like good old “deconstructive” close reading is that it insists on taking the text at face value (even though “deconstruction” is almost always seen by students as some sort of arcane process of getting at invisible meanings). So, take a poem like Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken”. We tend to see the poem as being about following a different drummer, taking the road “less travelled by.” But that’s just because we like roads less travelled by. There are no such roads in the text of the poem: “both that morning equally lay” untravelled.
Poetry should have energy and at least convey a serious interest in what it talks about. Bad poetry is often tentative, “in quotes,” insincere, saying what it thinks you want to hear instead of what the poet truly experienced. For an example of poetic “energy” I recommend William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” On the face of it, this is a poem about how pretty flowers are and how good they make the speaker feel. What crap: a greeting card might say the same thing. But I get the sense even though it’s a trite observation, Wordsworth, in this poem, actually does convey being carried away by a feeling. He can’t resist thinking and feeling about the flowers. Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not powerful! The poem has such energy that you can feel it many years and styles later in this amazing video by a giant rapping squirrel. “Respect Wordsworth!”
Poetry is a written art for the spoken voice. It borders on prose, because it’s written down; it borders on song, “spoken word,” rap, and oratory, because it’s a vocal art form. Some poems are songs, and some songs are poems, but they’re not wholly overlapping categories. But such is the power of great poetry that it can transcend meaning altogether. Just as there are great songs where you can’t understand the words when they’re performed, it’s possible for great poetry to exist in a language you don’t understand. Unless you do understand German (as playwright Edward Albee said, “I understand that German is a language”), check out Rainier Maria Rilke’s “Jugend-Bildnis meines Vaters.” Read aloud, this poem is poetry no matter what language you speak, and I don’t think that’s an entirely sentimental, or snobbish, or subjective claim.
Oh, and so you’ll know: the three eligible poems linked here (by MacLeish, Frost, and Wordsworth) don’t appear in the Countdown proper. We’ll see Frost and Wordsworth there, but MacLeish, unfortunately, will have to be content with being a kind of epigraph to the Countdown. The first two poems in the Countdown, #64 and #63, will appear on Thursday, 27 August.