I confessed in my last post that I am a teacher of Poetry. I should also confess that I am a poet, for this condition allows me a second perspective from which to see poems—as writer and reader, as giver and receiver, both.
This means that several times a week I sit down with a blank piece of paper and play at making poems. I use the word play instead of work as it conveys the paradox of poetry as the exercise of freedom in the face of constraint.
Play suggests the challenge of discovering ways to subvert the rules of the game, even as we observe them—to figure out how to use limitations to our advantage.
Work, on the other hand, connotes duty, dullness, and drudgery—none of which has anything to do with poetry. (The final—fabulous—lines of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” describe and enact the dynamic of poetry-as-serious-play better than any I know. They also serve as his epitaph: “Time held me green and dying / though I sang in my chains like the sea.”)
Though I’m sure there are writers who make poems in solitude and silence, I don’t. In fact, I’m talking most of the time. I do this, partly, so I can hear what the poems are saying and whether or not they sing. I also do this to remind myself that when I write I am with someone.
W. H. Auden once said that poetry is a way of “breaking bread with the dead, ” and he’s right. All of the poems I’ve ever fallen in love with—and all of the poets who wrote them, dead and alive—are in the room with me as I write. They are informing the language I choose to use, the music of my lines, and the timbre of my voice, even as they stretch the limits of my vision. They are the Company I keep, and in return for their long and good companionship, I offer them my own poems.
Finally, speaking, singing, and listening to my own poems serves to remind me of the constant, yet invisible, presence of The Reader, whoever he or she may be. Just as surely as there are readers who fall in love with poetry, there are poets writing poems with the specific purpose of wooing them. I know this because I am one of them.
Robert Frost once said of the process of writing poetry, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He might also have added, “No love in the writer, no love in the reader.” Within this dynamic, poetry becomes a gesture, a set of signs and symbols expressing the shared humanity of reader and writer—concepts expressed through the material substances of book and ink, paper and pen—and so aspires to the condition of sacrament.
Any effort to define Poetry (with a capital “P”) in an exhaustive way is doomed to fall short, and this brief essay is no exception to that mighty rule. One reason for this inevitable incompleteness is that Poetry (like Love) is an abstraction, whereas true poetry (like true love) is found in the flesh-and-breath experience of it. Given this, it somehow seems fitting that I must finally resort to poetry to elucidate Poetry, and close this meditation with a poem I wrote some years ago when asked to define what Poetry meant to me.
Mille Grazie, Dear Reader, & Buon Appetito!
“I feel that the Godhead is broken up like bread at the supper,
and we are the pieces.” –Melville, Letter to Hawthorne, Nov 17, 1851
I’m a Sicilan woman
and my poems say mangia!
I want to feed you
bread and wine, fruit and feast,
blessed and broken words
to chew, chew, chew.
I want you to eat them
purely for pleasure,
to put your lips around p,
crack k’s with your crowns,
roll l’ s across your taste-budded tongue,
to swallow sweet & easy
the meal of your life.
For it is what your body craves,
your heart sorely wants,
what your gut loves.
It is lies & truth, death & life,
what you have always
and have never known.
It is itself and you besides,
every thing & no thing at all.
It stuffs you full and leaves you
heavy, hungry, starved for more.
It makes you glad.
It troubles your sleep.
It is my body & my blood.
Here. Take. Eat.