What Can a Poem Be?
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life with varying degrees of urgency, asking myself, what can a poem be? I think this is an interesting question to ask, not just for poets, or people who read poetry, but anyone who is making something, who is creating what they hope will be a work of art. (What can a painting be, what can a photograph be, etc).
But first, it's important to consider the incredible difficulty it is for so many people to just arrive at the page. I don’t want to lose sight of that. Forget about dealing with rejection, or writer’s block, mid-career malaise – I just want to sit and think for a bit about all those who face so many obstacles that getting to the page itself is a bit of a miracle. The Irish writer, Eavan Boland, in her book, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, writes very powerfully about the obstacles she faced. “It may well be that women poets of another generation may not feel these things. And yet I do not think it was purely a temporal moment which made me feel as I did; it went deeper. I suspect there will be women again who feel, as I did, that through the act of writing a poem, they have blundered into an ancient world of customs and permissions. That world was The Poem.”
Eventually, and with some good luck and grace, one sits in front of the blank page, and has the enormous privilege to ask, what is a poem? what can a poem be? and maybe more importantly, what do I want my poem to be?
After a long journey, Eavan Boland arrives at this: “I want a poem I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.” That a poem could hold the weight of a life, that it could sustain us through a life, that we can grow in its presence, measure ourselves against it, and that we could find it again at the end of our life – I find this to be inspiring rather than morbid. And it’s asking a lot of a poem. As we should. Because, the poem is us. The poem is larger than us. The poet Li-Young Lee says, “I have the feeling that a line of poetry is the articulated dying breath.” A poem is our breath, our beginning, our end. In The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard talks about poetry as, “the original breathing of the child who breathes in the world.” He says, “poetry helps one breathe well.” And this, certainly, I’ve found to be true.
I ask myself the question, what do you want your poem to be, what kind of poem do you want to write, and the answer keeps evolving, book by book, poem by poem. I like what Andrew Motion says: “I want to write poems that look like a glass of water but turn out to be gin.” I think a lot of poets wish they’d written that line because it speaks to the wish for surprise and clarity and the tears that you know will come to the eyes when water turns out to be gin. Then afterwards, the slow burn, the soothing warmth, the feeling of being transported.
Because I write prose as well as poetry, and because I’m interested in the prose poem, the poem-essay, and the in-between spots in writing, I particularly like the following poem by Howard Nemerov:
Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
The image of the sparrows turning to snow, then the moment when they emerge again, flying, is a delight. It in turn reminds me of the passage in Jane Hirshfield’s book of essays on poetry, Nine Gates. She describes how a phrase by Chuang-tzu may be translated as either “returning to the nameless” or “to get into the birdcage without setting the birds of singing.” This is the way poetry speaks of language, she says, by tiptoeing. She also says, “To enter the cage without setting the birds off singing is the strategy, too, of poetry as a whole.”
I’m drawn to those silent poems, those poems that are careful and stealthy and brave, and I like thinking of the poem as a birdcage, too. Maybe this is why I went through a phase of being obsessed with photographing birdcages, hanging them in the sour cherry tree we have in our backyard. In spring, they hung amid the blossoms, and in the fall, they hung with the leaves changing colour, fluttering off the tree.
Sometimes, it’s important not to think just about what a poem can be, but how it makes me feel when I’ve finished writing it. The lines by Rumi are instructive:
“This is how it always is
when I finish a poem.
A Great silence overcomes me,
and I wonder why I ever thought
to use language.”
There is so much that hovers around a poem, so much unsaid, so much beyond language, and yet all those things are felt as the reader encounters the poem, lives with it, breathes it.
I keep asking the question, what can a poem be? And then I come across the poem by the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, in which she says:
but what is poetry.
Many shaky answers
have been given to this question.
But I don’t know and don’t know and hold on to it
like to a sustaining railing.
And I know my answers are equally shaky, but also that the question is worth visiting and re-visiting. Partly this is because of the simple fact that the possibilities of a poem are endless. Jorge Luis Borges says it this way:
For the fact that the poem is inexhaustible
And becomes one with the sum of all created things
And will never reach its last verse
And varies according to its writers...”
This is why, in spite of everything, I still place my faith in the poem. I love that a poem may be expansive and flowing, such as the long poem being written by Rachel Blau Duplessis titled, “Drafts,” and which she has been writing for 26 years +.
But I also love those short, condensed poems. And here we might think of the poem by Lorine Niedecker titled “Poet’s work”
Learn a trade
to sit at desk
And as for me? What do I want my poem to be? I want it to be comfortable in its own skin. I want my poem to be a movie, or a glimpse of a bird flying out of a birdcage. Was it a bird? I want my poem to be wild and wooly and huge. I want it to be Houdini, escaping from chains, and then from an underwater chamber, and then taking a deep breath, emerging from the depths. I want it to be a can of tomato soup, emerging whole, but then needing to be whisked with milk, uncongealed, warmed. I want my poem to be a chameleon, and I want it to be a wild horse on the Camargue. I want my poem to be an espresso, a shot of ouzo. I want my poem to know there’s no lay off, and there’s no letting it off the hook, I want my poem to know it’s the crack where the light gets in, and that there will never be a last verse. Oh, my poems, I don't even call my poems poems, anymore.