Oh, poetry, my first love, it may seem I have abandoned you. I’ve strayed to memoirs, essays, novels, and (gasp) even cookbooks, but you, I promise, will always remain first in my heart. You taught me nearly everything I know about the power of language.
The history of my relationship to poetry…
Decades ago, I would fall in love with a poem for its particular combination of oral, aural, and philosophical beauty. I loved Robert Frost’s “Birches” and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for their perfect words. I loved Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” for its wit. I loved Milton’s Paradise Lost for the grandeur of its fugue-like sound. And I loved T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for its exotic strange use of a language that follows its own logic, makes little rational sense, yet conjures a profoundly satisfying experience of tragedy.
I was enduring a painful divorce, living the life of a financially burdened single mother, holding a full-time job while trying to finish a degree so I could support myself and my children. Meanwhile, I was guzzling poems like an alcoholic.
I had no time for the connoisseur business of sipping and swirling syllables. The gritty details of daily life would not allow me to repose in a hammock, reading and writing the days away, however much I wanted to do just that. It wasn’t a bad time, loving poetry with my body more than with my mind, going for the sensual high poetry could give me. It was a whirlwind, as the beginning of any good romance always is.
Eventually I determined that in order to delve deeper into the unfathomable power of language, I needed to trek with the literary theorists.
From what I can make of the history of literary theory, a millennia-long quarrel began when Plato insisted that art, (of which poetry is one form) is merely imitation, therefore it is for plebes who can’t wrap their inferior minds around the supremely superior wisdom of philosophy.
Aristotle audaciously disagreed.
Aristotle said art is the very thing that makes humans superior to animals, and moreover, it is the poet’s job to speak of what is nobly possible, not merely what has happened. So the arguments about literature, for centuries, were concerned with judgments about what is good, beautiful and harmonious, in other words, what literature should be about and what form it should take.
“This is good, this is better, that stinks,” said the authorities. “Read this. Don’t read that.”
- “It is good to arouse human passion,” said one authority.
- “No it isn’t, human passion must be regulated and controlled,” countered the other.
This little dispute sums up the essential difference between political parties, and explains why neither politicians nor bickering literary critics can ever agree to stop wrangling and start accomplishing the real work.
I don’t want a critic living in my head, but I have entertained enough theory that I can’t get rid of him. I also can’t explain why the critic in my head speaks in a man’s voice. And he has an upper-crust British accent.
Whenever I read or write poetry, my critic now insists on joining the party. He yaps away, “What about gender… race… ideology… Freud… Jung… Marx… irony… the failure of Romanticism… and who chooses the canon?” He’s a fine, witty reading companion, but under his influence, the poems I write appear meager, undernourished and whiny.
But I’ve figured out how to shut his clapper about that. I’ve quit writing poems.
I figure he’ll eventually starve from lack of fodder. Meanwhile, since he’s a pompous ass and won’t lower himself to comment on personal essays, blog posts, romping good stories, or (gasp) cookbooks, I am free to amuse myself writing those.
But dear poetry, I have never stopped loving you. You abide with me. Your sensuous effusions, your imaginative images, and your goatfoot-milktongue-twinbird music lives in my body, mind, heart and soul. You inform and form everything I write.
What informs and forms your writing, your art, your current obsession?