I love poetry. I don’t read it often enough.
Most of my reading is factual stuff. I want to know more about the origins of a movement. The mysteries of the universe. How plants communicate.
So I skim. Some call it speed-reading, but in fact, it’s mostly training my eyes to look for relevant keywords.
I can’t do that with poetry. Poetry, really, needs to be read aloud. Because reading aloud forces me to slow down, to savour the sounds of each word, to measure the musical rhythm of vowels and consonants, of rests and highlights….
I read aloud, so that I can feel the poet’s message resonating from my vocal cords into both head and belly.
Because poetry is not about facts, or arguments, or even about story. It’s about feelings. Poets try to evoke feelings with the fewest possible words. Which means that mental images get compressed, juxtaposed, overlapped. As they mesh, they create new connections, new images, new insights.
Which makes no sense at all to a literal mind.
How can Dylan Thomas have been “young and green under the apple trees”?
Where is Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain…where ignorant armies clash by night”?
How does William Blake
“See a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour”
If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.
Some people think they’re writing poetry when they write about emotions. They think that words like frustration, or fear, or shock, will evoke those feelings in the reader. They don’t. Generalizations only evoke generalized responses.
Robert Frost wrote about life. But he used concrete details: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”
Mary Oliver wrote about how swimming re-connected her to the origins of all mammals, who once came out of the ocean, and who were all born in the re-created ocean of a womb.
“Stroke by stroke my body remembers that life
and cries for the lost parts of itself —
fins, gills opening like flowers into the flesh —
my legs wanting to lock and become one muscle.
I swear I know
just what the blue-gray scales shingling the rest of me
would feel like!”
Not one abstract word. Not one generalization.
I find myself still in awe of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Roman Catholic priest who put his faith into metaphors 150 years ago. To him, the whole world was
…charged with the glory of God,
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…
And then, even while lamenting England’s industrial coal smogs, he ended with a note of hope:
Morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods,
with warm breast and with — ah! — bright wings.
Many of the biblical prophets chose a poetic form for expressing God’s intentions. Isaiah anticipated the Jewish return from exile:
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus…”
Perhaps poets are still our prophets. If we’re willing to hear them.