Wednesday, April 06, 2011

On Poetry

David Orr's essay on the instrumentalization of poetry in Oprah's magazine is worth a read for all kinds of reasons, but especially for the concluding paragraph where he rightly laments:
I wish, though, that they had found space for someone — not a critic, necessarily, just someone willing to be honest — to talk about the actual experience of reading a poem. Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people. Not where poems come from. Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember. Not what the people who write them are wearing. Just what reading one of them is like to one person. If the chasm is to be ever so slightly narrowed, it seems to me this is how it will be done.
The best poems are not messages; they are lingual acrobatics, roiling heart and mind by setting them awash in words. In reading poetry, you don't so much suspend disbelief as give yourself permission to be lost in language--to be carried along on a wave of words that cascades in delight or sorrow. You give yourself to the poem and ride this wave like a kind of emotional and intellectual body surfing, holding your breath the whole way, perhaps with a smirk or growing smile, perhaps with a squint and creeping frown, perhaps with a tear burbling up from inside your soul that finally drops at the poem's heartbreaking end.

In a sense, a good poem doesn't mean something, it does something. Or perhaps, following Wittgenstein, we could just say the poem means what it does.

I can think of no better example of this than the poem that showed up in my inbox this morning, thanks to Knopf's Poem-A-Day for April, Poetry Month (what month isn't poetry month?!). Give yourself over to the delight of Cynthia Zarin's "Late Poem":

Late Poem

". . . a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern."

I wish we were Indians and ate foie gras
and drove a gas-guzzler
and never wore seat belts

I’d have a baby, yours, cette fois,
and I’d smoke Parliaments
and we’d drink our way through the winter

in spring the baby would laugh at the moon
who is her father and her mother who is his pool
and we’d walk backwards and forwards

in lizard-skin cowboy boots
and read Gilgamesh and Tintin aloud
I’d wear only leather or feathers

plucked from endangered birds and silk
from exploited silkworms
we’d read The Economist

it would be before and after the internet
I’d send you letters by carrier pigeons
who would only fly from one window

to another in our drafty, gigantic house
with twenty-three uninsulated windows
and the dog would be always be

off his leash and always
find his way home as we will one day
and we’d feed small children

peanut butter and coffee in their milk
and I’d keep my hand glued under your belt
even while driving and cooking

and no one would have our number
except I would have yours where I’ve kept it
carved on the sole of my stiletto

which I would always wear when we walked
in the frozen and dusty wood
and we would keep warm by bickering

and falling into bed perpetually and
entirely unsafely as all the best things are
—your skin and my breath on it.