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Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

Poetry: Why Bother?

Reading for "soul-culture."

I came of age intellectually during the 1960s, among heirs of the New Criticism, and before the other "isms" had insinuated themselves into the teaching of literature. "The poem is all there is," I remember one of my undergraduate professors saying. "Nothing else is important except the words you see on the page." A poem was self-contained and self-sufficient, we were told. It would explain itself. All we had to do was read the poem, work it like a field, and we would find the key to meaning in its sounds and image patterns. Everything in the poem would point to the truth of the poem, the truth of the poet, the truth of human existence. It was that simple. Truth was available for those who were willing to work to find it.

Which, of course, was not simple at all. Poems, we learned, were like machines that could be taken apart, analyzed, diagrammed, and reassembled—except that we rarely got around to reassembling them. The intricacies of interpretation were mastered by those who practiced the acrobatics of analysis, an art so coolly rational that it could discard context. Historical, theological, psychological, political, biographical, cultural contexts were beside the point.

This rigid system of interpretation has now given way to its exact opposite, perhaps an inevitable response to the stringencies of New Critical pedagogy. On the one hand, we should hardly regret the demise of an approach that arrogantly dismissed contextual criticism. Every poem, after all, is written at a particular time in a particular place by an author with particular biases. On the other hand, now we often hear that the poem is important only insofar as it reveals its own, its author's, or its culture's deficiencies and prejudices in the inevitable struggle for power—which means that an individual poem is important only insofar as it reveals problems, not the least of which is its assumed inability to speak clearly. Most would agree that these days the interpretation of interpretation provides more challenging fodder for scholars than the interpretation of the poem it self, whose meaning is considered particularly slippery. To read poetry for the delight of poetry, to study literature be cause one loves it: these have been for many years signs of a certain cultural naivete, if not outright bad faith.

But the current crisis not only involves teachers and readers of poetry; it necessarily involves the writers of poetry as well. Every age has its bad poets, but the last quarter of the twentieth century seems to have spawned more of them than any other—except maybe the Romantic era, a period which created both great poetry and stunningly terrible verse, enshrined now in humorous collections of bad poetry.

I know whereof I speak, having served as poetry editor for three religious publications and as an editorial board member for a secular literary journal. Most of the poetry that comes across my desk is pretty bad. Not only are the majority of these poems technically deficient, they are also usually boring. I am always looking for inspired poems, those that will break through my mundane world and shake me up a bit, but more often I find predictable arrangements of words and lines, stale descriptions, and a predilection for anything other than the concrete image, which is the foundation of good poetry.

The sorry fact is that while the secular publication on whose board I serve receives its share of mediocre submissions, when it comes to the truly awful stuff, the religious publications win hands down. And when religious poetry is bad, it is spectacularly so—filled with cliches, abstractions, relentless rhythms, and predictable rhymes. To be a poet, religious or other wise, one must first of all be a reader of poetry. Who knows where these would-be poets have found their models. In the pages of other religious publications, perhaps.

A very welcome event, then, is the appearance of four excellent books on the reading of poetry, written by four poets, each of free and clear voice in the academy—evidence that artists are beginning to fight back. And these books are evidence, too, that there is a ready audience hungry for guidance in learning the language of poetry.

If many potential readers of poetry have been turned away by bad teaching, more still have shrugged poetry off as too difficult and, quite frankly, irrelevant. Kenneth Koch argues convincingly that to ignore poetry is to miss out on one of life's delights. Poetry is for anyone interested in what it means to be human. He begins his book, Making Your Own Days, with the assertion that poetry is a language of its own—a language that must be learned and can be taught to both readers and writers. Koch emphasizes in particular the incarnational nature of poetry and explains the music of poetic expression. In addition, he deals with the mysteriousness of inspiration and the necessity of telling the truth ("One expects to be forgiven for what one tells if it's a good poem," he contends). As a poet, he describes the process of writing; as a teacher, he gently encourages inexperienced readers whose doubt and lack of confidence have prohibited them from exploring the delights of poetry. Then he provides an anthology of poems with his own commentary.

Koch, a professor of English at Columbia University, is a prize-winning poet of no small reputation and the author of other books on the teaching of poetry, including the often-reprinted Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? and Wishes, Lies and Dreams. But this most recent book is his best. His chapter on inspiration depicts the poetic process more accurately than anything else I have ever read on the writing of poetry. He describes the urge a poet must feel to get back into an emotion in order to write and then revise a poem. Sometimes, he says, the inspiration is not there. "If there is no revealed feeling, no shock, no exhilaration, there may be nothing the words can do but lay out the silver and linen—no pheasant is brought to the table."

Koch tries to show both the novice reader and the beginning writer what is inside a poet's head during the process of writing a poem, thereby making the discovery of the poem the final result of both reading and writing. His method here is reminiscent of some of the early reader-response theorists, who insisted on the importance of active not passive reading. But Koch does not hand final authority over to the reader. This is a shared process, he insists, in which reader and writer walk together through the world of the poem.

Unlike many contemporary theorists, Koch is not afraid to use the word truth. What poets look for, he contends, is the truth of experience and the means of expressing it. How refreshing these words sound after two decades of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets' insistence that the source of the experience of poetry is in language alone—that poetry does not translate or explain experience; it simply presents language. Poetry is more than this, Koch says. Poetry forces the writer to pay attention and to find what is true. In fact, the process of writing might even have a role in creating truth.

Another poet/critic who boldly links poetry and truth-claims is J. D. McClatchy, the editor of the Yale Review and the author of four collections of poetry. In Twenty Questions he says,

A poet's wishes—the impulses and obsessions of his or her imagination—are urged into rhythms and lines, subjects and stanzas, shaped to point toward some emerging or retreating emotional and moral truth. The best critics—by which I mean the most useful—often start with truths, and work backward toward the wish.

In many ways this, too, is a book about reading—and for McClatchy reading is inseparable from questioning. Thus the 20 short chapters ask questions about poetry and poets (including Alexander Pope, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Richard Wilbur), about dreaming, and about great teachers of poetry (Harold Bloom, Cleanth Brooks). The beauty of this book is that it is so obviously written by a poet who cannot help but use poetry as he writes about it. About W. S. Merwin he says:

His lines can seem like silk panels moved by invisible hands—crossing, overlapping, changing suddenly but imperceptibly a color or a mood. Merwin's poems are not vessels to contain meaning, but nets to catch new meanings as they drift through the lines on successive readings. Settled loosely on the page as on a slide, each poem is a sort of solution in which ideas float, detach, combine.

Reading poetry, Molly Peacock claims in How to Read a Poem … , leads inevitably to collecting talismans, those poems "that give [their] bearer a special hold on life." The author of four books of poems and the former president of the Poetry Society of America, Peacock totes her favorite poems around "like amulets against the world."

Why do readers of poetry choose poetry and not prose? Poetry, she claims, tells us how to live in a way which prose cannot because poetic thinking is unlike any other kind of thinking we do. It is both more interesting and more strange. It is more comfortable with ambiguity, a state Peacock labels as the "very definition of adulthood." And then to demonstrate, she shares a few of her talismans with the reader—poems by Jane Kenyon, Gerard Manley Hopkins, May Swenson, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, Margaret Atwood and others.

For Peacock the personal connection, the reminiscent image, the oddly familiar gesture, the universal relationship such as that between fathers and sons or mothers and daughters—these are important identifications a reader makes with the particulars of a poem. Without this bit of autobiography which we as readers bring to the reading of a poem, the poem would not be able to work on us as it does. Peacock shows, for example, how her meeting with Jane Kenyon influenced her reading of one of Kenyon's poems, and how a poem by Elizabeth Bishop in vested with a peculiar dignity Peacock's own memories of the filling station her grandfather owned. What the reader brings to the poem—all of her experiences, everything she has ever read, the person she has most recently conversed with, the memories she has told no one—every part of personal experience brought to the reading of poetry helps the reader make that important connection without which the poem will never be come a talisman.

Edward Hirsch's book, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, is aptly subtitled, for it's clear that Hirsch himself—a professor at the University of Houston, the author of five books of poetry, and the recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship—is besotted with his subject. Yes, his approach in this book is a bit stagey at times; be ware especially of the introductory paragraphs, which contain a little too much of the ethos of The Dead Poets' Society, a film calculated to sustain the myth that poetry's appeal is often fatal for those whose nerve endings are exposed, those who are oh-so-sensitive that they are in imminent danger of being pushed toward the brink by Art. But the basic metaphors that Hirsch uses are sound: that poetry is a message in a bottle, that the reader is a pilgrim, that reading is like listening to a nightingale.

For Hirsch, as for Koch, McClatchy, and Peacock, the reader is a co-creator of meaning with the poet—a theme that he pursues perhaps more insistently than his three fellow poet-guides. "Reading poetry is an act of reciprocity," Hirsch says. "The poem has been (silently) en route—sometimes for centuries—and now it has signaled me precisely be cause I am willing to call upon and listen to it." And again: "The poet disappears into the poem, which stands mute, like an idol, until the reader breathes life back into it. And only then does it shimmer again with imaginative presence." Without the reader, Hirsch says, the poem is incomplete. With the reader the poet creates a "sacramental event."

It is no surprise that an addiction to poetry reading leads inevitably to poetry writing (after all, the best poets make it look so simple!), although I must note once again that it is clear that many contemporary writers of verse who submit poems for publication have not read much poetry beyond Hallmark cards, and clearly do not realize that the appearance of simplicity is pure illusion. The real work of the poet lies in the revising process. It is not uncommon for a poem to go through 50 or 60 (or in the case of Donald Hall's poems, 150) revisions before it is finished.

And what about Christian poets? Hirsch endorses Emily Dickinson's contention that people read poetry for "soul-culture," and he calls attention to poetry's kinship to prayer, observing that it originates in silence and eventually returns us to that silence, connecting us with mystery. He says that the poem is "a soul in action through words" and that "poetry provides us with a particular means of spiritual transport." Unsurprisingly, he is not particularly interested in the specific problems of readers and writers who are Christian, but he offers a cogent comment on those who are made uncomfortable by poetry, who tend to turn their backs on it as a viable means of expression. "The shifting borderline in poetry between imagination and reality," he writes, "between historical personage and fictive reconstruction, between lying and telling the truth, induces an ontological queasiness in some readers." I am re minded of a recent admission by a well-known Christian theologian that he just didn't "get" literature. What's the point, he asked? Why doesn't the author just say what he means?

While not speaking directly of religious poets or readers, Hirsch has identified what I would consider the key obstacle art provides for the Protestant believer who wants her truth straight, in propositional language she can accept or reject, not images that might point beyond themselves to mystery. Perhaps the reason almost all of the great Christian poets have been Catholic or Anglo-Catholic is that for those steeped in sacrament (the outward sign of an inner spiritual truth), image is so available in their "soul-culture" that it is second nature in their writing—and of course poetry depends on it.

This happy confluence of books on the pleasures of reading poetry is, perhaps, a sign of a change—maybe of the return of an old-fashioned love of literature in the classroom. We should read poetry to be delighted, surprised, touched. We should read to experience something new, to see something we have never seen before from that angle, to name that which until the moment of the poem had never been named before in quite the same way. These names include, of course, the experiences of culture and of self. But we need to read, not as some would have us, to uncover the evils of hegemonic discourse or to "get in touch with ourselves," but to be taken outside the narrow worlds of self-definition and cultural cliche and to be connected with something vaster than we can ordinarily imagine.

Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner is professor of English at Wheaton College and poetry editor at the Christian Century. Her most recent volume of poems, Finding Cuba, will be published this year by Chimney Hill Press.

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