The other night I was reading The New Yorker and came across a poem that I liked, sort of. There is a special place in Hell for people who write blog posts about poems that they read in The New Yorker--it's a subsection of the monocle-wearers' circle, which Dante locates above the circle of ascot enthusiasts, but below the circle of corrupt fourteenth-century Italian magistrates.
I love that there are poems scattered among the articles in The New Yorker. They allow us to have a passing experience of poetry without getting all uptight and serious about it. Just imagine everything that Robin Williams says about poetry in Dead Poet's Society and pretend I'm saying it here, also, everything Garrison Keillor says before The Writer's Almanac and add that to what you're already imagining. The short of it is that we shouldn't be too serious about poetry. We shouldn't be afraid to talk about poetry, we shouldn't think that we need to know a bunch of stuff or read literary journals in order to say something interesting, and most of all, we shouldn't be afraid to simply enjoy poetry, that shit is awesome.
Here is the poem I like, sort of:
For months I'd moved across the open water
like a wheel under its skin, a frictionless
and by then almost wholly abstract matter
with nothing in my head beyond the bliss
of my own breaking: how the long foreshore
would hear my full confession, and I'd drain
into the shale till I was filtered pure.
There was no way to tell on that bare plain
but I felt my power run down with the miles
and by the time I saw the scattered sails,
the painted front and children on the pier
I was no more than a fold in her blue gown
and I knew I was already in the clear.
I hit the beach and swept away the town.
Don Paterson, Poem, “Wave,” The New Yorker, March 3, 2014, p. 65
My favorite line is this: "with nothing in my head beyond the bliss / of my own breaking"
Runnerup favorite is this: "I was no more than a fold in her blue gown"
My least favorite line is this: "I hit the beach and swept away the town"
I hate this last line, in fact, and it almost ruins the entire poem for me. When I got to that last sentence I was shoved out of the poetic bliss the poem had put me in. I was loving this wave, its hinting at imperfection and whispers of redemption. I was with the wave as it moved across the open water, all wet and velvety. But that last line steals from poem the full power of its craft. What a wholly different feeling we would be left with if that last sentence had been sliced away before going to press. Imagine if that last line wasn't there, and the poem ended with "and I knew I was already in the clear."
I know it would disrupt the rhyme scheme, but ending the poem there would allow the motion that the imagery invokes to continue. We would leave the wave right before the moment of its breaking, leaving the action implied and inevitable, allowing us to finish the image on our own, with emotion and spirit instead of with the cluck and clank of stupid words. Isn't that what we want poetry to do, to lead us someplace where we no longer need words?
last year I taught the Zen poetry of Ryokan in a Buddhist Studies class for which I was the TA. Sitting on the bus on the way in to discussion section, I forced myself to come up with an answer to the simple question "what is poetry?"
"Poetry is the process of bringing words to orgasm," I told the class, and we all burst out laughing. Then I said something like this: "Poetry takes words and brings them to the absolute edges of themselves, it brings them to the brink of their utility where they are able to transcend the confines of their definitions and actually MEAN something!" I most likely slapped down my book on my desk at that end part there.
Maybe my definition of poetry is a bit simple but I think it works. We can see it in action in the successful bulk of Paterson's "Wave," especially in this line:
"a frictionless / and by then almost wholly abstract matter."
I'm stuck on the double meaning of the word "matter" in this line, and how that double meaning, as executed in the poem, is self referential. Here's what I mean:
"matter" here can mean "substance," the actual stuff of the wave, or "issue," the fact of the wave' existence. How the word is embedded in the poem calls to this double meaning, invites ambiguity, and allows the word to exist as both meanings at once. We know from science class that no matter (substance) can be in motion without friction, even waves, but the wave calls itself "frictionless." Then it calls itself "almost wholly abstract matter." What is wholly abstract matter (substance) if not the matter (issue) of its existence? But the wave is only ALMOST wholly abstract, not quite purely thought but still some silky shreds of substance.
Where is the substance of a wave, anyway? It moves constantly across the open water, in no instance (matter) is its substance (matter) consistent. It can be isolated in the abstract, but in the actual it's all force pushing forward, leaving forgotten substance behind in a foamy trail of friction.
Unlike the motion of the wave, however, the mental motion from matter (substance) to matter (instance) that the poem inspires, is frictionless and forever.
So too is the sweet and subtle succor of the mind.