Becoming Poetry: An Introduction

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[This is the introductory chapter of the author’s new book of criticism, published by Louisiana State University Press.]

This book, Becoming Poetry, does not advance an argument for some kind of mystical transmutation of poets into the body of work they have created over their decades at the craft. Neither does it confound that work with the poet’s biography, although readers have often treated poetry as a skeleton key to the lives of poets whose autobiographical poses have invited such an identification. Apparent confession in poetry did not originate in the late 1950s, but coincides with the history of lyric, from Sappho mooning over an unrequited love, to Chaucer complaining to his purse, Shakespeare bemoaning his two loves “of comfort and despair,” Whitman celebrating himself and singing himself, Dickinson recalling an indescribably intense psychic state as “like a Maelstrom, with a notch,” and onward through the twentieth century and into ours. The confiding intimacy poets establish with their readers creates the impression that here they are, upon the page, translated into the poetry they have given us.

That impression of presence is, of course, an illusion, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. All art requires illusion, and poetry depends on the illusion of a person creating the semblance of life: a mind thinking, a body feeling, and a sensibility expressing itself through language. It is a sheerly symbolic presence that, regardless of the degree to which it shares those traits with the poet, is actually a fiction, a phantasm, granted the illusion of real existence through the reader’s imaginative interpretation of markings on the page. The poet of the Sonnets, who woos his young man and suffers at the hands of his lady “coloured ill,” stands alongside Hamlet, Falstaff, and Rosalind as one of Shakespeare’s supreme created characters, regardless of how much the sequence may autobiographically confess. Dickinson, for many readers an intensely personal poet, wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862, “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” A poet’s collection of imagined speakers and expressive voices does not equal or explain the biographical poet but constitutes part of what the poet becomes.

For becoming the work, becoming poetry, does not stop at the poet’s becoming recognized as the set of voices and personae readers encounter in the poems. Rather, I hope that the essays in this book, published over a period of more than twenty years, make clear that the argument for the staying power of a poet’s work, its likelihood to endure and enjoy a lasting identification with the poet, centers less on theme and character, and more on technique. Poetry does not present unmediated feeling, but in imagining a human presence, it creates an illusion of felt life through the devices and strategies available to the poet, an illusion that in turn creates responses in the reader. To take spontaneity as just one example, Allen Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” carefully creates an illusion of emotional immediacy, which Ginsberg achieved partly by replacing the initial draft’s “mystical” with the more kinetic “hysterical,” and partly by removing the commas that originally separated the now-hurtling adjectives. In the same way, Franz Kline’s black-and-white paintings, exactly contemporary with Ginsberg’s Howl, look emotionally raw in their giant gestural brushstrokes but, upon closer inspection, reveal fussy little edits in white paint, intimate articulations and corrections that Kline employed to shape his big black sweeps and swaths, perfecting the illusion of spontaneity.

Poems embody relations between form and impulse, technique and emotion, intellect and sensation. The apparently analytical methods of poetic technique, as Pound understood, ironically provide the means of communicating feeling. Technical expressiveness constantly furthers the imagined feeling of a poem, as when Shakespeare uses a single, rhythmically awkward metrical substitution to convey the realistically imperfect qualities of the woman his speaker loves:

Ǐ gránt | Ǐ név | ĕr sáw | ă gód | dĕss gó:

Mў mís | trĕss, whén | shĕ wálks, | tréads ŏn | thĕ gróund.

The mistress, the technique tells us, doesn’t possess a goddess’s perfectly tripping iambic gait but, as I suggest in one of these essays, tends more to trip trochaically over curbs. Alternatively, the conflict between technical virtuosity and feeling can thrill, as in Donne’s “A Nocturnal on St. Lucy’s Day,” when all the speaker’s clever intellectual invention of elaborate metaphors for absence, erasure, and nothingness cannot erase the fact of his love’s death, resulting in the poet’s pretense of failed technique that is actually, and paradoxically, a technical triumph conveying profound sorrow. Sound can introduce similar tensions, such as the discrepancy in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” between “Heard melodies” in the “sensual ear” and the “ditties of no tone” imagined by the “spirit.” His luscious-sounding, palindromic phrase “no tone,” in fact, describes lifeless silence, and its sonorous tolling in our ears predicts the speaker’s abandonment of the beautiful but lifeless, loveless world of the urn’s “Cold pastoral” in favor of our realm of sensuous life.

Because poetry’s most vivid illusions emerge through the skilled manipulation of poetic technique, the argument for any poet becomes a technical argument. If we value Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, and Ginsberg as poets, our admiration stems from their ingenuity in controlling form, language, sound, rhythm, image, and figurative devices in order to create an imagined universe that we recognize as uniquely theirs, yet one that also, necessarily, appears to participate in the larger world we all share. In this way, a poet who has accumulated a body of work becomes recognizable as the sum of the poetry and the totality of its strategies. For that reason, I have subtitled this book Poets and Their Methods. When we talk of Donne, Emily Dickinson, Edward Thomas, or William Carlos Williams, we generally do not mean the biographical person but the work that person has left us. The poet becomes the poetry.

Over half a century ago, the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Booth described Hamlet as “a succession of actions upon the understanding of an audience.” As a poet, I pay close attention to how poems work, how they operate as successions of actions upon the understanding of the reader, and how poets use the tools at their disposal to create a lyrically charged affective experience in our imagination. Those tools may range from the minutely technical, to the broadly thematic and stylistic, to the symbolic and allusive, and onward to the strategically structural quality of a single poem, a sequence of poems, or an entire book. An individual poet’s work over many years shows a larger structural quality as well. As readers, we witness a poet’s changing themes, obsessions, techniques, strategies, and styles as constituting a life in poetry. Many of these essays concern such lives in poetry and my subjective attempts to identify the essence and value of a number of poets who have become—or are in the process of becoming—their work.

The title section of this book, then, which contains half of its essays, examines volumes of poems selected from the author’s complete oeuvre as it stood at the time I discussed it, poets who had begun that process of becoming poetry. The opening section looks intensively at how particular works of particular poets operate, ranging in time from Shakespeare to a number of my contemporaries, including Andrew Hudgins, Paul Muldoon, and Mary Jo Salter. In one of these essays, I talk about Emily Dickinson’s poetic strategies next to my own, an exercise that taught me a great deal about what makes her art unique and inimitable. Since two of my essays deal with sonnet sequences, by Shakespeare and, in our time, Muldoon and Salter, I have also included an interview in which I discuss my own sequence, Danses Macabres.

The shorter concluding section considers just what we mean when we talk, often half-thinking, about “the music of poetry.” One of its two essays attempts to clarify the distinction between the two art forms through a detailed examination of what happens to poetic texts when they become songs. The other discusses listening to recordings of poets reading their own work—yet another way of becoming the poetry—and how that experience compares to reading poems on the page. The two pieces aurally extend this book’s investigation into the essential qualities of poetry and some of the poets who make it.

Unhappily, several poets I discuss are no longer with us, and their deaths have made them more purely their work. Unless we were privileged to be family or friends, the only way to know Phil Booth, Dan Hoffman, or De Snodgrass—all of whom taught me, all of whom, in different ways, played some role in helping me become the poet and the critic I became—is through reading their poetry. Poetry is who they became, and that is who they are. It may seem reductive, inaccurate, or inhumane to think of these gifted people, who loved, led lives, and had families, as what remains on the page. But looking at their poems, we see what they were and who they continue to be.

In 2020, when I published Loving in Truth, my own book of New and Selected Poems, I faced a highly subjective test of this notion. A dozen years earlier, when my collection The Long Fault appeared, I worried to my good friend, the novelist Sigrid Nunez, that the book, with its poems anchored in travel, historical events, photographs, works of art, and the omnipresence of death, might strike readers as impersonal. “No,” said Sigrid, “I think it’s a very personal book. Everything you love is here.” But beyond the themes that obsessed me, the strategies through which I turned those objects of love into poetry resulted in a book through which the poet in me could be discovered. Whether poets transform their lives into art or strive to explore themes outside the self, their poetry necessarily reflects who they are, mirroring their personal obsessions and their stance toward the world through the technical choices they make and the styles they devise and accumulate. Although it covers forty years or so, much of my own life does not appear in Loving in Truth; yet readers opening the book enter that life nevertheless. As I look through it, even as I argue that it is not the whole truth, it reflects me back, saying, “Yet this is you.”