When I was young I reflexively told people I liked poetry. I hardly knew any poets and barely understood those I had read, but poetry seemed to be a necessary affectation for the burgeoning literary snob that I was. I read randomly: Blake and MacLeish, Poe and Dickinson, Whitman and Carroll. I memorized “The Tiger” because I had to, “The Raven” because I was bored in class, and Dickinson because I was bored while sneezing.
I stuck to the poets of previous centuries for the most part, although I was vaguely aware that poets were not an extinct species, that dark corners of the planet still held strange specimens who wrote without meter or rhyme about The Orgasm and the joys of life as a Maoist rebel in Punjab, but I gave them a wide berth for fear that I might catch something and lose my ability to write with capital letters.
I couldn’t tell good poetry from bad, and that made me wary of everything I read. Perpetually afraid of being taken in by the wrong poetic crowd and waking up one day a chain-smoker in tight jeans in a Greenwich Village walk-up, I soon refused to read any poets I didn’t already know. Parched by the heat of suspicion, my love for poetry quickly withered and then fossilized, until I placed it on a shelf with my other forgotten youthful infatuations, like Star Wars and the clarinet.
Graduate school, of all things, rekindled my love for poetry. It was the eighth-century Japanese poetic collection Man’yôshû that started it, and my frustration that all the scholarship I read about the work was completely tone-deaf to its musical artistry. “What about the beauty?” I protested, “How come no one talks about the beauty?”
One day I was teaching a class on the Man’yôshû in the presence of one of America’s greatest East Asian scholars. I waxed eloquent on the historical context of the poems, the way they tied religion to the state, and the government’s use of the collection to solidify national unity in the eighth and nineteenth centuries. At some point the professor interrupted me with the same question I was wont to ask: Isn’t there something to this poetry besides politics?
Only then did I realize that, despite my protests, I was practically deaf to poetry; I talked about poetry because it was Important and defended its aesthetic dimensions out of a contrarian distaste for historical-critical scholarship, but I refused to spend the time to engage that beauty on its own terms. I tried to read more, and managed to fall in love with a few new (modern!) poets, but self-consciousness still hobbled me: Am I getting this? Is this worth spending my time on? Is this deep, or just confusing?
In the end, contemplation is what taught me to read poetry. I am a member of a Catholic religious order, and my life is a steady rhythm of psalms, Bible-reading, and Masses. That’s a lot of time spent praying with words someone else wrote, which at first seems hollow and impersonal. But there comes a point in the life of a young religious when everything changes; suddenly Christ shines through the text, and the ancient words of dead men become intimate missives between his soul and God. This is the gift of contemplation, the habit of seeing God by seeing the things of the world through His eyes.
Poetry requires the same habit of mind. Poetry tries to express an inexpressible aspect of reality by packing it into an impossibly small space so that the meaning of the words fold in on themselves, creating a pattern of layers that begins to resemble the contours of the real object in all of its dynamism. Even for unornamented poems, just reading the words is not enough; poetry offers an encounter with a living reality that the reader must open himself to. Contemplation is the habit of being open to this encounter.
But unfortunately, some of my early suspicions were right: not everything that passes itself off as poetry actually offers an encounter with reality, unless we count the poet’s own pretensions and vanity. And as writers of various kinds continue to jettison the search for meaning and beauty in favor of politics and nihilism, “poetry” can become a code word for “bad prose.”
To illustrate: Michael Solomon has recently taken passages from Sarah Palin’s e-mail dump and turned them into comic “poems” by hitting the ‘enter’ key at portentous moments. Here’s an example:
The Truth About the Moose
Chuck Heath was going to take Molly’s tag
And shoot a moose.
That Chuck Heath was offering to take Molly hunting
Since the season was coming to a close
And Wooten had still not taken the time
To take her hunting
So she could fill the tag.
Chuck Heath wasn't going to “shoot a moose,
Now compare this with a portion of a poem chosen at complete random from the May issue of Poetry, speaking of an elk skeleton seen in the woods:
The form was sinking away.
The skin loosened, becoming other,
shedding the mask that hides
but must also reveal a creature.
Off amid cliffs and hills
some unfleshed force roamed free.
In the wind, I felt
the half-life I watched watch me.
Elk, I said, I see
you abandon this life, this earth
I stood for a time with the bones.
What the latter verse lacks in comedy it makes up for with pretension and theory-laden words like “other” and “mask”—otherwise they are two peas in a pod. And this is precisely Solomon’s point: if poetry is just an exercise in self-importance, why shouldn’t Palin’s e-mails fit the bill?
I once wrote off poetry out of frustration at its meaningless pretensions. But Christianity and poetry need each other, because poetry gives a mode of seeing and Christianity gives an object to be seen. But the need is asymmetrical: Without poetry, the Christian might fail to see how the world relates to God; without God, poetry might fail to see that the world exists at all.
Gabriel Torretta, OP was a summer fellow at First Things and is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order.
The Daily Beast, Sarah Palin’s Emails Turned to Poetry
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