Biting Off More than I Could Ever Chew–In Which I Attempt to Defend Poetry

Dear Lily June,

You were born to two poets. This means a number of things about your life: That you are the product of two sentimental nitwits who will cherish each memory we have of you twice, once as a living experience and the other as poem fodder. You will be, in your lifetime, much to your dismay or amusement, both a daughter and a muse.

This also means you were born into a kind of poverty. They don’t use the term “starving artist” for nothing, and though your parents are large in body, we’re fairly anorexic in the pocketbook. You may go without material goods because your parents chose to “pursue their art.” It’s a bum deal, Lily, but no one picks their parents. I can hope we teach you something of the value of Art and the comparative uselessness of Stuff. But that’ll be pretty pretentious talk to a ten-year-old who just wants an up-to-date iPad someday.

Der Arme Poet
This painting is entitled “The Poor Poet.” So you can pretty much see what attracted your parents to the art form: the promises of riches and bling.

And if it turns out you, like a majority of people I’ve met or talked to, don’t even enjoy poetry? Then your poverty will run deeper than ours, and I can’t even think of how we’ll make amends. The best I can do, kiddo, is explain to you now the choice I made, so that if you can’t (or won’t!) try to tackle a sonnet or a sestina or a villanelle or even just free verse someday, you might, at the very least, understand something about your mother and her history.


Poetry is a Window Which YOU Own

The first thing you need to know about poetry is that you own it. Not just a poem you’ve written, Lily, if so you ever choose to do. I mean, like the critic Harold Bloom once wrote,

“The meaning of a poem can only be another poem.”

There’s a high-minded term for his quotation’s concept–the Heresy of the Paraphrase–which means essentially that a poem can’t just boil down to a piecemeal translation of every word and image on the page. Instead, as Elliot Eisner, a professor from Stanford and a leading academic mind, once wrote,

“Poetry was invented to say what words can never say.”

I can see already that I’m being cryptic and pedantic all at once (accusations many would make of poetry itself)!

Let me start again, Lily. Poetry is an art form that’s best perceived by its audience as a window, not a door. A door grants you access to another space, another room. It’s a solid thing, never changing. It always swings one way, letting you in or out of it, and the room it contains has only what you bring into it. Not knowing the forms very well (but a blogger whom I much respect recently made the comparison), I would liken door art to abstract paintings or improvisational jazz.

Their point is to take you away from the immediate, so you’re not just staring at a series of painted lines on a canvas or listening to the progression of various chords on a instrument. They try to transport you to another emotional plane. To be honest, those are doors which remain locked to me. I respect the people who open them to find dazzling ballrooms, but I can’t get farther than a broom closet, and I find them thus intensely puzzling.

Poetry, though, is like a window on train: You see through it what you want to see, while simultaneously, the glass reflects you back. What I mean by “you own it,” is that your interpretation is equally valid to the poem’s meaning as that of the Poet’s. Too many people read poetry as if they’re trying to get to the right answer. Like the students in Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry,” many readers want to

“…tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”

That’ll get you about as far with the poem as it would with a person. Unless a poem can develop Stockholm Syndrome, it’s not going to love you for “trying to get it.” But you can love a poem if you don’t insist it spill all its secrets to you. If you instead, as through a window, look through it to find both its meaning and yours simultaneously.

In that way, the relationship between a poem and its reader is like the lazy son that Rumi describes who says,

“…there’s a window open / Between us, mixing the night air of our beings.”

Or if Rumi is not enough, Emily Dickinson gave her nod to my theory as well, far before I was ever alive, when she wrote,

“I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose – / More numerous for Windows – / Superior – for Doors”

But what does that really mean, you ask, Lily. To your mother, it means that Poetry IS Possibility. It means that Prose’s house doesn’t contain as many windows by which to both watch the setting sun through and to see your face inside of that sun on. Of course, to Dickinson, Poetry also had more doors, so that contradicts my theory, doesn’t it? I guess you’ll have to embrace the words of Whitman, then, who said of himself (but may have just as well been speaking of Poetry):

“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”

They say, in Poet World, that you can either be a fan of Whitman or of Dickinson. Your Mom is, without question, a member of Team Emily.


It Only Takes One Poem to Love Poetry

A prejudice starts like this: A man in a hat attacks you in a back alley, stealing your purse. A week goes by, and you’re suddenly stopped by a man in a ball cap who asks the time. You instinctively clutch at your belongings, suspecting that something in hat wearers is intrinsically dangerous. Years go by, and you measure every one in a hat by the same yardstick: You cringe at sombreros, cower at cloches, and can’t pass a fez or a derby or a fedora without shuddering. It’s a pretty miserable way to live, and the same is true with hating poetry. One pretentious poem shouldn’t put a bad taste in your mouth for the whole art form, simply because you couldn’t “get it.”

Poems aren’t rabbits to be caught or objects to be got, but if you keep an open mind, you could learn a lot by not ruling out an entire medium just because you don’t like a few of its “hats” or the people who wear them. Henry Rollins says,

“Have you ever seen poets? What a miserable f*cking bunch for the most part.”

He may not be wrong. For every poet who’s passionately playful with language, there’s also a Marianne Moore who seems bitter, and who writes of the art in her poem “Poetry,”

“I, too, dislike it.”

The truest fan of poetry I ever found was my mother, who only loved two poems in her whole life and passed that legacy of love onto me.

She taught me to love poems with a work by e.e. cummings. She was taking a college class in her forties, trying to find a way to sharpen her resume so she could escape her abusive husband. She found this work instead:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

If I weren’t so in love with your father, e.e. cummings might be my “out clause.” Good thing he’s been dead for fifty odd years.

It’s a beautiful poem to me, Lily, in part because my mother loved it so. She read it to me, proffering interpretations I’ve down since forgotten as up I grew. What I know is that it’s about love. What I know is that it’s about how, even no one’s can become someone’s if anyone’s care for them. It’s about how love makes the seasons change and wishes worth hoping for. It’s about women like your mother and men like your father and children like you. It’s my window into this life I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, leading. It is your future and my present and my mother’s past. And her love of that poem was her gift to me because it set me on a path.

And she, too, was given the gift when she was a child. A studious, serious kid, my mother was largely friendless in school. And so one day, her teacher, a caring but fairly shy woman herself, left this poem by Dickinson on my mother’s desk:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

This “Nobody” probably wouldn’t have even had a Facebook profile!

I used to tell my students, when I taught that poem myself years later at the University of Alabama, that Emily D. predicted Facebook and other social media (like blogs, eh Lily?) with these lines. It seems everyone, as the Pittsburgh artist Andy Warhol predicted, is getting their fifteen minutes of fame now through exposing their photos and experiences and sandwiches (and other things I won’t discuss in your company) online now. They are literally shouting their names into the admiring bog of the world wide web.

But once upon a time, when there were only books and a young girl who buried her face in them, there was a teacher who saw her hiding behind the spines. And she started a love affair that would spread beyond your Grandma Raelyn to her daughter. If that’s the only legacy I can hand down to you, I hope you’ll treasure it as I have. Or maybe you’ll still want that iPad.


Poetry Readers are Some of the Hardest Working People on Earth

And maybe this, above all else, is why I treasure the medium so. It appeals to my work ethic, a sense that anything worth having is worth putting blood, sweat and tears into.

This Soviet poster reads, “Who doesn’t work doesn’t eat.” Those pancakes must be worth swinging a hammer for!

Lynn Emanuel, one of my first poetry teachers ever, says it best when she writes in “The Politics of Narrative,”

“And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader.”

Poetry doesn’t just reveal itself to anyone. Even “accessible poems” like the Shel Silverstein numbers my sister used to read to me on long car trips before I could even pick up a book, let alone understand one, require multiple readings and careful consideration to get full appreciation of all they have to offer–their sonic tickles, their carefully chosen white space, their humorous irony, their beautiful imagery.

It’s the combination of all these elements that carefully make up “what words can never say.” Each poem is a collage of heartbreak and beauty. So sayeth Dickinson,

“if I feel…as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Here’s to the top of your head taking off, little Lily, someday like a hot air balloon.

Picture Credits:

13 thoughts on “Biting Off More than I Could Ever Chew–In Which I Attempt to Defend Poetry

  1. originaltitle says:

    I have no doubt your daughter will grow up fostering a love of the arts and hopefully specifically poetry with parents like you guys! This was a beautiful way to describe the endless possibilities of poetry. Well-written. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ally Bean says:

    Wonderful blog post. I think that you’ve successfully defended poetry. I was one of those English majors who avoided poetry as much as possible. Now, as I age and there are no grades with which to contend, I kind of sometimes enjoy poems. I think that, like you wrote, I’m more willing now to work hard at understanding what is being said.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Olga says:

    Reblogged this on Mi versión en diminuto and commented:
    A beautiful defense of poetry. I can’t believe it just brings me sweet memories of my life as a student of poetry. Nothing to do with Shelley’s work A Defense of Poetry, but it does stir my mind in just about the same way; if only as a feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

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