Stephen Burt: Why people need poetry
I read poetry all the time and write about it frequently and take poems apart to see how they work because I'm a word person.
I understand the world best, most fully, in words rather than, say, pictures or numbers, and when I have a new experience or a new feeling, I'm a little frustrated until I can try to put it into words. I think I've always been that way. I devoured science fiction as a child. I still do. And I found poems by Andrew Marvell and Matthew Arnold and Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats because they were quoted in science fiction, and I loved their sounds and I went on to read about ottava rima and medial caesuras and enjambment and all that other technical stuff that you care about if you already care about poems, because poems already made me happier and sadder and more alive. And I became a poetry critic because I wanted to know how and why. Now, poetry isn't one thing that serves one purpose any more than music or computer programming serve one purpose.
The greek word poem, it just means "a made thing," and poetry is a set of techniques, ways of making patterns that put emotions into words. The more techniques you know, the more things you can make, and the more patterns you can recognize in things you might already like or love. That said, poetry does seem to be especially good at certain things.
For example, we are all going to die. Poetry can help us live with that. Poems are made of words, nothing but words. The particulars in poems are like the particularities, the personalities, that distinguish people from one another. Poems are easy to share, easy to pass on, and when you read a poem, you can imagine someone's speaking to you or for you, maybe even someone far away or someone made up or someone deceased. That's why we can go to poems when we want to remember something or someone, to celebrate or to look beyond death or to say goodbye, and that's one reason poems can seem important, even to people who aren't me, who don't so much live in a world of words. The poet Frank O'Hara said, "If you don't need poetry, bully for you," but he also said when he didn't want to be alive anymore, the thought that he wouldn't write any more poems had stopped him. Poetry helps me want to be alive, and I want to show you why by showing you how, how a couple of poems react to the fact that we're alive in one place at one time in one culture, and in another we won't be alive at all. So here's one of the first poems I memorized.
It could address a child or an adult. "From far, from eve and morning
From yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither; here am I.
Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
[A. E. Housman]
Now, this poem has appealed to science fiction writers.
It's furnished at least three science fiction titles, I think because it says poems can brings us news from the future or the past or across the world, because their patterns can seem to tell you what's in somebody's heart. It says poems can bring people together temporarily, which I think is true, and it sticks in my head not just because it rhymes but for how it rhymes, cleanly and simply on the two and four, "say" and "way," with anticipatory hints on the one and three, "answer" and "quarters," as if the poem itself were coming together. It plays up the fact that we die by exaggerating the speed of our lives. A few years on Earth become one speech, one breath. It's a poem about loneliness -- the "I" in the poem feels no connection will last — and it might look like a plea for help 'til you get to the word "help," where this "I" facing you, taking your hand, is more like a teacher or a genie, or at least that's what he wants to believe. It would not be the first time a poet had written the poem that he wanted to hear. Now, this next poem really changed what I liked and what I read and what I felt I could read as an adult.
It might not make any sense to you if you haven't seen it before. "The Garden"
from lipstick ads in the 50’s.
Fruit of the tree of such knowledge
To smack (thin air)
meaning kiss or hit.
in the guise of outworn usages
because we are bad?
Big masculine threat,
insinuating and slangy.
Now, I found this poem in an anthology of almost equally confusing poems in 1989.
I just heard that there were these scandalous writers called Language poets who didn't make any sense, and I wanted to go and see for myself what they were like, and some of them didn't do much for me, but this writer, Rae Armantrout, did an awful lot, and I kept reading her until I felt I knew what was going on, as I do with this poem. It's about the Garden of Eden and the Fall and the Biblical story of the Fall, in which sex as we know it and death and guilt come into the world at the same time.
It's also about how appearances deceive, how our culture can sweep us along into doing and saying things we didn't intend or don't like, and Armantrout's style is trying to help us stop or slow down. "Smack" can mean "kiss" as in air kisses, as in lip-smacking, but that can lead to "smack" as in "hit" as in domestic abuse, because sexual attraction can seem threatening. The red that means fertility can also mean poison. Oleander is poisonous. And outworn usages like "smack" for "kiss" or "hit" can help us see how our unacknowledged assumptions can make us believe we are bad, either because sex is sinful or because we tolerate so much sexism. We let guys tell women what to do. The poem reacts to old lipstick ads, and its edginess about statement, its reversals and halts, have everything to do with resisting the language of ads that want to tell us so easily what to want, what to do, what to think. That resistance is a lot of the point of the poem, which shows me, Armantrout shows me what it's like to hear grave threats and mortal dishonesty in the language of everyday life, and once she's done that, I think she can show other people, women and men, what it's like to feel that way and say to other people, women and men who feel so alienated or so threatened that they're not alone. Now, how do I know that I'm right about this somewhat confusing poem?
Well in this case, I emailed the poet a draft of my talk and she said, "Yeah, yeah, that's about it." Yeah. (Laughter) (Applause) But usually, you can't know. You never know. You can't be sure, and that's okay. All we can do we is listen to poems and look at poems and guess and see if they can bring us what we need, and if you're wrong about some part of a poem, nothing bad will happen. Now, this next poem is older than Armantrout's, but a little younger than A. E. Housman's. "The Brave Man"
"The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.
Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.
Now, the sun in this poem, in Wallace Stevens' poem, seems so grave because the person in the poem is so afraid.
The sun comes up in the morning through branches, dispels the dew, the eyes, on the grass, and defeats stars envisioned as armies. "Brave" has its old sense of showy as well as its modern sense, courage. This sun is not afraid to show his face. But the person in the poem is afraid. He might have been up all night. That is the reveal Stevens saves for that fourth stanza, where run away has become a refrain. This person might want to run away too, but fortified by the sun's example, he might just rise. Stevens saves that sonically odd word "meditation" for the end. Unlike the sun, human beings think. We meditate on past and future, life and death, above and below. And it can make us afraid. Poems, the patterns in poems, show us not just what somebody thought or what someone did or what happened but what it was like to be a person like that, to be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive, so goofy, so preposterous, so brave.
That's why poems can seem at once so durable, so personal, and so ephemeral, like something inside and outside you at once. The Scottish poet Denise Riley compares poetry to a needle, a sliver of outside I cradle inside, and the American poet Terrance Hayes wrote six poems called "Wind in a Box." One of them asks, "Tell me, what am I going to do when I'm dead?" And the answer is that he'll stay with us or won't stay with us inside us as wind, as air, as words. It is easier than ever to find poems that might stay inside you, that might stay with you, from long, long ago, or from right this minute, from far away or from right close to where you live, almost no matter where you live.
Poems can help you say, help you show how you're feeling, but they can also introduce you to feelings, ways of being in the world, people, very much unlike you, maybe even people from long, long ago. Some poems even tell you that that is what they can do. That's what John Keats is doing in his most mysterious, perhaps, poem. It's mysterious because it's probably unfinished, he probably left it unfinished, and because it might be meant for a character in a play, but it might just be Keats' thinking about what his own writing, his handwriting, could do, and in it I hear, at least I hear, mortality, and I hear the power of older poetic techniques, and I have the feeling, you might have the feeling, of meeting even for an instant, almost becoming, someone else from long ago, someone quite memorable. "This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd -- see here it is --
I hold it towards you.