Why is poetry so captivating? Yes, I often feel captive to its call, its demands, its complexities and unfathomabilities, its ability to distill-penetrate-magnify to the nth power, its uncanny (in the hands of masters) capacity to capture the essence of our experience in a few phrases, images, metaphors: “Time is the fire in which we learn/ Time is the fire in which we burn.” These two lines of the late Delmore Schwartz are a case in point. They are at once music, rhyme, incantation, aphoristic and, ultimately, a profound crystallization of the haunting nature of time.
Or consider these two concluding lines of G.M. Hopkins’ Spring and Fall: To a Child, “It is the blight man was born for/it is Margaret you mourn for.” In this poem, Hopkins addresses a young girl, Margaret, who is in a vague state of grief – grief for the passage of time, for losing the innocence and place of where she grew up, for losing her youthful sense of immortality with the realization that spring inevitably turns to fall.
I thought of this poem recently while grieving over the death of my sister. She was my connection to my childhood, to our shared sense of history and our parents, to growing up in our own innocent world of Indiana in the 1930s and 1940s. I grieve her loss and the Hopkins couplet reminds me that I am mourning for myself, for the blight I was born for, for the inevitability of losing many of those we love before we too depart.
The insights that magnificent poems offer are not simply helpful sentiments; they are a way of what Richard Wilbur called “making a stay against chaos”; they help us organize experience and make, at least, some emotional sense of it all. I don’t say that poems necessarily are where we look for the meaning of life, but rather that they are a good place to help one come to terms with the emotional essence of this or that experience. For me, confusing or devastating experience can at least be tempered when I find a line or passage from a poem emerging out of my unconscious as my conscious self seeks a “stay against chaos.” More than once T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land have suddenly come to my consciousness in such a situation: “Shall I at least set my lands in order.” And somehow the almost ceremonial repetition of the line, somewhat like a prayer or psalmist responsive reading, helps. As Auden wrote of Yeats, “With the farming of a verse/Make a vineyard of the curse.”
It is, to be sure, a strange world, and why it works the magic it does is, I suppose, ultimately a mystery to all readers and poets, which is why poets so often write books trying to explain how the process works for them. For anyone interested, there are several such books I find particularly wonderful, though I keep discovering new ones. Some of the older goodies are by poets such as William Stafford, John Ciardi, Robert Penn Warren – and Cleanth Brooks, Karl Shapiro, John Frederick Nims and Donald Hall, to name but a very few. Shapiro, for example, offers an amazing discussion of about ten reasons why poets use rhyme. Prior to reading Shapiro I had been cognizant of only one or two reasons, i.e., to help us memorize lines and to create a sense of music. Shapiro, however, helps us to see how rhymed words can play off each other and can reinforce the essential importance of each other.
But rhyme is simply one device in a vast array of tools of which poets avail themselves. Many, in fact, avoid rhyme altogether. No one tool or technique guarantees success though image and metaphor do seem crucial. I think, for example, of Yeats’ description of an old woman – “Hollow of cheek as though she took a mess of shadows for her meat” – an extraordinary visualization of a gaunt face.
Yet memorable lines can also be more like statements of philosophy or even homily: here, I think of Frost’s “Earth’s the right place for love/I don’t know where it’s likely to go better,” or Robert Penn Warren’s: “And I love the world even in my anger/And love is a hard thing to outgrow.” On one occasion, when I found myself in despair over the demise of a deep relationship, lines from a Richard Wilbur poem surfaced, and I found the lines helpful in consoling my inner self: “Then lose them, lose/With love each one,/And choose/To welcome love in the lively wasting sun.”
After a while, after perhaps a long while of reading hundreds and hundreds of poems, some over and over again, lines stay with you and, almost with a will of their own, resurface when you need them. They seem to be summoned by strange powers within you, within the lines themselves, within life itself. I suppose that is the ultimate beauty and mystery of good and great poetry – it is really a process of life getting a grasp upon itself, of experience becoming conscious of experience, of language trying to get at the heart of the matter.