So you don’t see splashy ads advising, “Make Big Bucks on Poetry!” So it’s not the art form of this age—which is to say of a postmythic age where almost anything can be measured, where the Web provides an instant encyclopedia, where self-help books challenge existential angst and Dr. Phil picks up the scraps.
Before there were books, meter and rhyme enabled our ancestors to commit tribal wisdom to memory. Before the scientific age, human imagination employed metaphor, myth, and the common dispositions they created, to confront the mysteries of time, mortality, loss, change, otherness, good, evil, and the urgings of the human spirit. Brilliant writer that he was, Plato feared that the emergent phenomenon of writing (and hence of literacy) would diminish the mnemonic faculty, which not only trains the memory but also helps to effect cultural formation—the very functions in which poetry used to excel. To the extent that poetry is no longer deemed culturally critical in most literate societies, Plato may have been right. So it’s stuffed in the back attics of our need, like grandma’s bustle or that yellowing Dagwood comic strip lining a box of hat pins: quaint, touching...and irrelevant.
A persistent minority, however, insist that poetry continues to be written because it conveys what cannot quite be conveyed in any other way—and, further, that what it conveys both demands and engenders a sensibility indispensable to the living of a fully human life. They might also argue against the idea that poetry’s special province is always wisdom or profound ideas or overwhelming passion. That idea has led people to regard poetry as they do visiting clergy—with a deference more likely to effect distance than relationship. I’d like to argue that poetry addresses the entire range of human experience from whimsy to theology, from physical passion to scientific curiosity, from madness to mortality; that it does so by engaging (in degrees varying from poem to poem) all our faculties (intellect, imagination, the senses, emotion, memory, dream, intuition, and more); and that its effects range from humor to anger, from the pleasure of insight and recognition to the discomfort of mystery, from vicarious grief to what Dante identified as a whiff of angelic exultation.
Poetry attempts to do these things in a medium closer to music than to prose—more through the formal elements and possibilities of language than through its purely denotative functions. As the formal elements of sculpture derive from the very nature of stone, the formal elements of poetry derive from the qualities of language, most notably sound-play, rhythm, imagery, diction, and figures of speech. This fact explains why John Ciardi called his study of poetry How Does a Poem Mean? Ciardi, former poetry editor of the old Saturday Review, built on the concept of “form as meaning,” suggesting that the more attuned we are to the formal features of a poem, the more we “get” it—not just with the mind but with a totality of that instinct we call aesthetic. This is much like saying that one conversant with the refinements of vocal expression is likely to have a richer response to an aria than the average listener; or that a former basketball coach is more likely to appreciate the timing of a backdoor pass than the average fan.
One conversant with poetry, through formal study or simply devoted and attentive reading, brings a similar expertise to the poem. For example, if a poem has for its subject the horrors of war but is conveyed in a collection of clichés, the very choice of language trivializes and mocks the poem’s serious subject. (I think of the implicit commentary on marriage when celebrities are wed while skydiving.) If the diction is fresh and provocative but mounted on a rhythm more suited to Mother Goose than to the trauma of torn young bodies, the poem, for all its merits, limps (a little like a bishop who, to the strains of “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus,” enters his basilica on a pogo stick). If the images serve merely to set the scene but do not evoke the larger resonances implicit in the situation of the poem—if they lie about like empty luggage—then the poem fails to exploit the sensory resources of its medium. When, however, within the natural limitations that any medium presents, all elements conspire to deliver the poem as whole as possible, we approach the place where unity of subject and expression transcends the reductive tendency of language toward definition and abstraction. What is achieved then is a kind of independent, living identity. It is something more than an idea, profound or otherwise. It is art.
Attending to the formal qualities of a poem gives a special reward—not for the formal recognitions in themselves, but for the larger degree of pleasure and insight such reading affords. Among our most formal (and devious) of poets was Robert Frost. In his little poem “The Pasture,” Frost invites the reader to share something of his pleasure in the simple but intense focus that creative experience can entail:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring:
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long.—You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by its mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue,
I shan’t be gone long.—You come too.
The poet takes a task of indifferent importance (Billy Collins might have chosen taking out the garbage). But within the narrow limits of his rustic scene, Frost leads us to discover and then delight in a vision of renewal: nature recurring in its most elemental, indeed neonatal, forms. Recurrence is both a theme and a device in this poem. The images of the thawed pond and the new calf evoke spring and birth, while the diction, structure, and rhythm of the lines seem to affirm these images and to enliven them with a tension. That tension consists in the speaker’s awareness of the press of other duties. His apologetic, “I shan’t be gone long,” repeated in the last line of each stanza, begs our indulgence. Those words are followed each time by an invitation, “You come too.” Though the speaker is presumably an adult, the pitch of his language also suggests a child’s pleading. Doesn’t “I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away” sound like a boy finagling as much time outdoors as he can before returning to indoor chores?
If the first three lines of each stanza, in their nearly perfect iambic regularity, suggest the soothing cadences of the nursery, the counter-iambic last line of each stanza presents a significant departure from that regularity and its comforts. The three closing words of each stanza can be read as a very imperative grouping of stressed syllables that represent the harsh un-music of pragmatic time, to which the speaker and his guest must soon return. That pressure adds urgency to the speaker’s invitation. Frost uses his vernal enticements to nudge us (sly old codger) outdoors, and so outside our usual inattention: “You come too.”