I write this with no claims to education or mastery of the art form. Rather, as an autodidact poet-in-training, I am ever humbled by my own efforts at poetry. It is an exquisite obsession whose practice, over lengthy time, has revealed some of its truths to me. I offer them here for consideration or reflection.
If poetry will ever find wider appeal, garner deeper affection, two things appear necessary. One is perhaps obvious, the other less so. Poetry needs to be read by people other than poets. In order for more of that to happen, poetry needs to be better understood by poets themselves.
Poetry is an eccentric literary species, with each poem an organic entity possessed of its idiosyncratic metaphysical biology. It is as different from prose as are mice from men. The taxonomy of poetry, I believe, has more affinity with drama, and even more affinity with musical composition, than with prose.
A poem wants to be read. That is its biological imperative. It wants to be read like the lung wants to breathe. And like breathing, its reading should be effortless. If not effortless, it will either die the death of disregard or suffer the illness of an unloved labor.
Formidable challenge to poets comes from the need to imbue their work with special qualities unlike those of other literary organisms.
Poems need to be seen with the ear and heard with the eye. Stimulating such extraordinary juxtaposition of our most perceptive senses is by far the poet’s most difficult challenge, demanding, as it does, an almost otherworldly sensibility. I don’t mean to play loose with semantics here. I’m suggesting that poetry indeed operates with uniquely implausible rules. Its authentic appreciation, therefore, requires an equally unique, equally implausible sensory system.
Within this context, however, it is the very aurality of a poem that is its quintessentially vital trait. Poetry’s written form should smoothly transmute to the spoken form without the slightest hitch or alteration of affect. Beyond the dictionary and thesaurus, a poet’s more valuable tools could be said to be the metronome and the voice recorder. A poem that hasn’t been recited by its author, over and over in the crafting, either aloud or in whisper, is likely to fail the art. In turn, careful listening to the recitation is the only way to assure that what the poet hears in his head will be heard by others.
While good poems quite often provoke thought, poetry per se needs not be understood by the mind. But it should always be understood by the heart. The best poetry provokes feelings and/or excites the imagination. Eliciting the reader’s cognition is not nearly as necessary as eliciting their emotion. Learning from a poem something of the world, or even of the poet himself, may conduce academic interest, but palpating the reader’s viscera is to achieve impactful high art. A poem that touches off different feelings in different readers is the pinnacle of the form.
Some final thoughts, on the physique of a biological and, I suppose, a personified poetry. I leave aside discussions of meter and rhyme, of syntax and forms. Those subjects are best left to aptly credentialed educators of writing. For me, other morphologies wear intuitive prominence.
Poetry walks more elegantly upon metaphor than upon legs of plain speech or straightforward observation. And by elegant I don’t necessarily mean pretty. Metaphor can successfully convey ugly, can jar or shock just as surely as it can swoon. The arms and hands of poetry can embrace and manipulate allegory with more finesse, and hence greater impression, than they can do for either of the less malleable conventions of chronicle or narrative. The face of a poem, its notional imprintable countenance, is best left in rough abstract sketch, instead of detailed portraiture, allowing each reader to project rather than perceive its meaningful sharper features. The mass and shape of a poem is also important. It needs to fit well into the reader’s psyche, in order to cohabit with his or her emotional content. If it doesn’t, it will quickly be lost. Ideally, it will fill a conspicuous space in the hierarchal mind.
I know I still have much to learn about poetry. My works to date barely approach these ideal qualities. But I intend to keep at it, as should every poet. As with many of life’s exertions, excitement and invigoration come with striving, while anticlimax often accompanies achievement. I imagine that if I could ever create a perfect verse, I’d have no choice but to cease writing. And that would be sad.