A Cranky Reader on Modern Poetry

I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts about poetry by guest bloggers Carla McGill, Carol Bachofner, and Cullen Bailey Burns. After those C names and for the final post in this series of poetry talks by guest bloggers comes a D name, Deborah J. Brasket who blogs at Living on the Edge of the Wild. Enjoy!

by Guest Blogger Deborah J. Brasket

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry, how some moves me and some not at all. Reading recent issues of some prestigious journals, I found not one poem—not one—moved me. Amazing!

Most seemed like intellectual exercises or obtuse offerings of random thoughts and images. None engaged me intellectually, or stimulated my sensibilities, or even challenged me—let alone invited me—to a second reading. Instead they were studies in disappointment. I left them unfulfilled, still hungry and, admittedly, cranky.

Is it me? Is it them? Sigh.

Just what is it I crave from poetry?

Wallace Stevens once famously said: “You can’t get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.”

That’s what I want: The thing we die from lack of. That’s why I read poetry. What I look for in other works of art too—in prose and painting and music that rise to the level of poetry.

I want what Emily Dickinson referred to when she says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Something that tickles the hindermost parts of my brain, where I feel the synapses stretch and snap, reaching toward something just past my grasp.

I want what T.S. Elliot meant to when he writes that “poetry is a raid on the inarticulate.” Something dark and dormant, lying just below consciousness, rising into the light: a curved fin, a humped back, gliding momentarily along the surface of thought before dipping below again.

We have all felt that, I’m sure. Something deep and delicious, once known and now forgotten, woken momentarily. Something within us re-ignited, flashing briefly before dissolving into darkness again.

In “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish says: “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.”

He says: “A poem should be wordless / As the flight of birds.”

He says:

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

Reading his poem, I’m with him. I’m saying: Yes!

But then he almost ruins it with the last two lines:

A poem should not mean
But be.

Pointing to something static. Not in motion. Art for art’s sake. An artifact showcased in a museum.

Gwendolyn Brooks writes:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
And it is easier to stay at home,
The nice beer ready.

If it doesn’t make us squirm, if it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t urge voyages, is it art? Is it poetry?

Stevens calls modern poetry “the poem of the mind.” It’s “the act of finding what will suffice.”

He says:

It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.

A poem must construct something that it inhabits, that speaks to the reader, in the “delicatest ear of the mind,” “exactly, that which it wants to hear,” what the reader, that invisible audience, wants to hear—which is not the play, not the poem, but “itself.” Itself “expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two emotions becoming one.”

It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

Stevens is saying that a poem can no more “be” than “mean.” Rather, it must act. It must unite poet and reader in the act of finding what will suffice.

It is not static: It is “a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing.” It is always moving. It moves us to capture it in its passing. It moves us beyond ourselves, where the top of our head lifts away and there we go unbounded, grasping for just a brief moment what lies always, already, just beyond our grasp.

That which suffices. That which the lack thereof we die of every day. That’s what I’m looking for when I read poetry.

I want to feel my synapses snapping.

Deborah J. Brasket is a writer working on a novel and short story collection. She has an Masters in English and taught college composition and literature courses for many years near her home on the central coast of California. She features some of her poetry on her blog Living on the Edge of the Wild, where she writes about nature, writing, art, literature, and her travels sailing around the world with her family. Some of her work can also be found at www.djbrasket.com.


Filed under Books, Essay, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

21 responses to “A Cranky Reader on Modern Poetry

  1. Deborah, thank you for this post. I’ve mentioned before on Luanne’s blog that I’m rather shy around poetry, even intimidated by it, and I avoided all those poetry class when I was working on my English degree 😉 So your post resonates with me because, like many other art forms, I simply enjoy what I enjoy and can’t always express that enjoyment beyond, “well, it just made me feel something.” I’m that way about poetry. If when I read a poem, it makes me feel like the top of my head is going to come off, or if I get a strange, eerie chill down my spine or a warmth around my heart that sets me on the verge of tears, well, then I feel I’ve read a poem. Putting that feeling, that desire into words is difficult, but then that’s what poetry is for ;). Thanks again, and thank you Luanne for hosting Deborah! Happy Holidays to you both (and, Luanne, you are in my heart).

    • Thank you. I’m glad this resonated with you. I was an English major too and loved poetry, but not everything I read. Certain poets spoke more to me than others. I write poetry occasionally myself, and know how difficult it is. Writing about poetry is easier for me, and something I enjoy. appreciate Luanne letting me do so here. Happy holidays!

    • Marie, thank you so much for your kind words. He’s doing so well! Happy holidays!!!

  2. Deborah, I appreciated your blog. I’m not a poet, but I read poetry, and what you wrote rang bells with me. Your thoughts about poetry not being static apply equally to prose, and remind me that I must continue to recognize movement and its absence in my own writing.

  3. I loved this!! I agree with so much of what you wrote. At the very least I want a poem to surprise me – it needs to do SOMETHING with a unique word combination or metaphor that makes me stop, read it over again, and ponder the incredible workings of the human brain and creativity. Thank you.

  4. For me, the sound of the words and the rhythm of the lines comes before the message. I can read a poem and not even care or understand WHAT is being said, because I am carried away by HOW the poet says it. My kind of poetry is lyrical and is more like music than anything else. IF that makes sense. LOL

    • I feel the same way, Marey. I wrote a blog post about it once, trying to understand why I’m so strongly drawn to rhyme and rhythm, assonance and alliteration when it’s well done in poetry. I think it has something to do with the way our brain works, how it aids memory, and how it feeds into the rhythm of breathing, walking, dancing, even talking. It could contribute to our entrance into that thing called “flow.” And we see and hear it in nature as well, the rhythm of the seasons, the call of birds, the flow and sound of rivers, of the sea. Like you, I think the sound of things carries meaning, in and of itself, even without any literal meaning. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to the old nonsense nursery rhymes–the strong rhythm and rhyme as well as the vivid and delightful images. There’s meaning there, even though it appears “nonsensical.”

  5. I’m an editor as well as a writer. I just finished editing a book on Arabic poetry of the Abbasid age. It opened, or reopened, a window into a world where poetry was important. Essential. Like music. I used to live in such a world — the feminist community of the 1970s and 1980s. I read poetry because poetry was an important part of how we spoke to each other: Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Hacker, Pat Parker, Nikki Giovanni, Marge Piercy — the list goes on and on. I even wrote poetry — I’m primarily a nonfiction (and, more recently, a fiction) writer, but some things poetry does that nothing else can. What happened? I don’t know. Where poetry doesn’t live, doesn’t have a vital audience, it seems to get rarefied and precious. There’s poetry in the songs of my favorite songwriters — Pete Morton, Leonard Cohen, Janis Ian, James Keelaghan, etc. — but that and the decades-old books on my shelves are the only poetry I hear nowadays. It makes me sad.

    • Susanna, I think you’ve hit upon something, that poetry should be essential, like music, and that without a vital audience, poetry can become rarefied and precious. I wish I could find more younger, contemporary poets that speak to me. Like you, I tend to return again and again to old favorites. The last “new poet” that I read and loved and went out and bought his book “All-American Poetry” was Matthew Dickman. I was so enchanted, I wrote a blog post about his work and said:

      “His blunt, sometimes unbeautiful images strike you as an unexpected blow over the head, like that “thwack” from the Master’s stick on the student’s head, that makes you wake up and “see,” but you’re not sure yet what you’re seeing, only that this quick-silver clarity is already fading, while something solid and meaty seeped unawares into your bones and shored them up.”

  6. Hi, I have just wandered into your blog and feel that might be a good place for my tambourine… I shall follow! I like a bit of a surprise!

    I write poems to promote honesty about the cancer experience, under the banner “Ailsa wishes” on http://ailsawishes.wordpress.com/

    I had cancer myself in 2005 and I have tried to write from what I know because there are a lot of people out there writing amazing stuff about critical; illness some of which is inspiring, whilst some is sad –I try to capture the essences of emotion and twist that into laughter…

    I work for Macmillan Cancer Support in Supporter Donations, so I try to promote the truth

    Any feedback would be appreciated, have a great day!

  7. Pingback: A Cranky Reader: What I Crave When I Read Poetry | Living on the Edge of the Wild

  8. Deborah, Love reading your thoughts. Especially love the “cranky reader” part. I often feel myself getting a good crank going when I encounter blah blah blah writing as I cal it, or worse, downright yuck writing. There seems to be so much of that around. Of course one issue is that we need to decide for ourselves (at least partially) what is good and what is …

    It is always a good thing, I think, to define what art is for oneself. I feel these same ways often and grow weary of (for example) haiku that seem to miss the emotional mark, or that seem to be only emotional and leave nature out of the mix. For me, a poem ought to have technical precision only as a framework, not be THE house. I want rich rooms with crackling fires and yummy smells coming from stoves as lovers dash their hopes against one another. Writing ars poeticae is a good way to help define what is and what is not poetry (by way of exploration). I offer this small poem of mine (c. 2004) to show you where I find poetry on the Dickinson scale of head on, head off… or in my case the sensations are a bit farther down in the body (LOL):

    No Luxury

    Poetry is no luxury.
    It is the insect bite
    on the inner thigh
    that swells and reddens
    like fire and pulse.

    Poetry is first sex,
    hard member into soft
    pushing away the pure
    door to reveal a new home
    furnished with big chairs.

    Poetry comes hard
    as childbirth, bloody
    wet words gushing out,
    falling to the mattress
    and wailing for a breath.

    Poetry is no luxury
    at all. It must be hunted
    down, dragged over the hearth
    and eaten raw.

    • Carol, in addition to the comment below, I have to add that when I was writing this guest post for Luanne, I wrote a poem about what I crave from poetry called “Poems Like Oranges.” I think that’s why the final lines of your poem really grabbed me. I liken poems to oranges that you unpeel, and peel apart, and eat, and that in the end unpeel you, pull you apart and devour you. I’ll be blogging that poem next week, for anyone who’s interested in more poetry on poetry.

  9. I love your poem! Fresh ways of capturing the importance of poetry, how it can affect us and enrich our lives. I love especially those last lines, how it must be hunted down and dragged home and eaten raw. They speak to that sense of rawness, of muscularity and sensuality, that I crave in poetry.

    Yes, I think we do need to define what we love in art for ourselves. If we don’t do that much at least, how do we know what we love, and what to look for? By definition, I do not mean, and I do not think you mean, something that limits art in any way. Definition should capture the essence which surprises us again and again in all the forms it can embody.

    Thank you for sharing such meaty and satisfying morsels in your comment.

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