R. Shalom spoke fluent English, but he hadn’t a clue what I meant when I said I write poetry. My husband and I were taking the sixty-minute ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera, Costa Rica when the young Israeli with oil-slick Ray-Bans and a fishing rod instigated conversation. I’d been embarrassed to tell him what I did, as he put it, “for a living.” I lived off poetry only in the metaphorical sense but not in the pay-the-bills sense, and I worried about throwing a metaphor at someone whose first language wasn’t my own. My husband, however, offered that I was a poet; I corrected, “I write poetry.”
R. shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean—What is poetry?”
I knew then, and there, I didn’t know either.
At the time, I was an MFA student, but no one had ever told me what poetry is. Some say it’s like pornography or love—you know it when you see it. I won’t surrender you to the dictionary; the entries are stultifying. (What the hell does “a literary genre in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and rhythms by the use of a distinctive style or rhythm” actually tell you?”) The etymology, as we know, blames the Greeks: poiein, “to create.”
Try to remember the first moment in which you understood what was meant by the word poetry. I can’t. Did my parents describe Dr. Seuss as poetry? Did a primary school teacher ask me to write a poem? My first conception of poetry was that it rhymed. But when did I learn rhyme?
“It’s writing,” I said, miming a scribble. “In lines.”
“Oh, lines…” R. Shalom replied, lifting his rod, and, more assured, “For bait.” He’d been telling us about Pacific marine life and school migration since we boarded. Context assumed reason.
A former anthropology professor tells a story about taking a group of students to China. He gave them one rule: They were not allowed to ask what they were eating until after they ate. One young man gobbled down a plate of gelatinous cubes, thinking it a savory pudding or gelatin snack. After leaving the restaurant, however, the professor identified the dish as congealed pig’s blood; the student, suddenly self-aware, vomited in the gutter.
Roethke wrote that poetry’s basis is sensation. Aristotle said that poetry is a mode of imitation. The two ideas aren’t far apart. Isn’t an imitation inherently rooted in sensation, the senses?
Recently I gave my advanced poetry students a handout of “encounter” poems, including James Wright’s “Blessing,” Bishop’s “Moose,” and Oppen’s “Psalm.” The ways in which the speakers of these poems encounter other beings—with a cocktail of adrenaline, prejudices, curiosity, and, sometimes, fear—mimics how readers approach a poem. The act of reading a poem tests the limits of our empathy. Though we may be able to postulate about the choices the poet made in the poem, we can never fully know a poem, the way we can never fully know an animal or a person.
My mother-in-law, in order to appeal to my interests, bought me a canvas print of a wine bottle. The caption, a scrawl: Fine Wine is like Poetry. “It’s poetry in motion,” Thomas Dolby sang. Bob Dylan is a poet. A Facebook post: Why isn’t Leonard Cohen included in the 20th-century American Poets stamps? The way the basketball player moves on the court is pure poetry. Target framed a coupon booklet as “Haikupons”:
date night has arrived
cheeks want a colorful boost
I can see you blush
My high school boyfriend was the first person I knew that wrote poetry. All of his lines ended in ellipses. They weren’t so much endstopped as decrescendoed, giving each short lyric a kind of wa-wa effect. I played guitar so, to me, anything that rhymed was best served by being set to music. But he got me thinking: Maybe I could write a poem.
When my AP English teacher gave us an unattributed poem, I knew, after months with my Perrine’s Literature, that it was John Donne’s. I couldn’t say why, and though the teacher might’ve thought it a lucky guess, I attest I knew.
When R. Shalom finally said, “Oh, you write about your emotions,” I gave up. What is poetry? I had no way to say. I felt like a phony then. I’d been gobbling it up by the plateful, not knowing what it was. How could I be a poet?
I once had a student who responded to most anything I did with “You’re such a poet.” I wore sandals to class one day. Poet. I mentioned Frank Zappa. Poet. I talked about traveling in Europe. Poet. I ate quinoa. Poet. I mentioned there would be wine at a reading I wanted them to attend. Poet. I like jazz and diagrams, walking in cemeteries and taking photos. Poet. Poet. Poet. Poet.
For a long time I wondered when I could call myself a poet. Was it after I’d taken poetry classes for a while? After I published my first poem? After I enrolled in an MFA program? After I published my first book?
My grandmother told some friends and distant relatives that I’m a journalist. I don’t blame her.
When my half brother, my only sibling, died of complications from a rare genetic disorder last year, poetry suffered with me. It trailed behind me like a stray dog I fed once a long time ago. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, and didn’t want to, didn’t need to.
Oppen confessed, “My abilities / Are ridiculous.” I felt ridiculous telling the Pediatric ICU nurses what I do. They didn’t ask me about poetry but their looks were as polite and bemused as R. Shalom’s. I stopped answering altogether or said I worked for a magazine. I changed the subject, told them that my husband was a physical therapy assistant—something in their field, their line. Anything else, anything but Poet. Poet. Poet.
A month after the funeral, I was scheduled for a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I almost turned it down, but family insisted I go. Some days, I got a little work done—a book review, a few revisions to my manuscript—but others I couldn’t bear to do anything but read Stevens and cry. (Who cries over Stevens?)
Perhaps it was this passage that set the tone, from “Large Red Man Reading”:
There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected
There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the tables, the tulips among
There were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again.
I imagined, in my studio, as I whispered over a book, I was reading aloud to my brother’s ghost who hovered just outside the window, who lived in the river down below, who was covered in mud or mist, was as large as the room or small as a wasp that bumped against the glass. I dreamed he ran past me (he couldn’t walk when he was alive). I know that if I could catch him, he would be returned to life. But he’s so fast, and I worry that I won’t recognize him if I do catch up, that I’ve never known him, never seen him, that he won’t recognize me—my face as a stranger’s, without purpose. Formless. I can never touch him, I couldn’t touch him. I have no way.
I taped a Ruth Stone line on my studio door: “The Muse is depressed.”
Though I am grateful for the opportunity, for the people I met, my residency in hindsight feels largely traumatic. Halfway through the month, I called my husband and told him I was in emotional exile. Poetry made me vulnerable, made me open to grief. I would give it up and go to med school, be a geneticist. Move on. Live instead of dwell.
But then I started to think about DNA as a kind of poem; each chromosomal line, each strand of information—what a form, the helix!—and I fell into a deeper reverie.
(A friend, after reading about my affinity for the helix, wrote: “Poet.”)
Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony begins with Anthony’s doubt about his chosen lot, his exile in the Nitrian desert:
A happy life this indeed!—bending palm-branches in the fire to make shepherds’ crooks fashioning baskets, stitching mats together—and then exchanging these things with the Nomads for bread which breaks one’s teeth! Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!
Of course, this doubt (and what is doubt but questioning?) makes Anthony vulnerable to the numerous temptations with which Lucifer hounds him. The Queen of Sheba, the logic of wise men, wealth, Death and Lust, strange beasts. But Anthony’s greatest grief is the “fountain of mercy” he once felt “pouring from the height of heaven,” this inspiration and charge, “now dried up.”
Unlike Anthony, whose beliefs insist an insular and blind acceptance of doctrine, doubt makes poets; it causes them to engage in one of the most important endeavors of good poetry: the question.
Mary Ruefle writes that “The origins of poems, prayers, and letters all have this in common: urgency.”
But Roethke counters: “raptures are hard to sustain.”
Zbigniew Herbert says that the most pure language is that of “sweet dread.”
And Dickinson: “When I hoped I feared.”
“[T]he sleepy diarrhea of fear,” Alan Dugan calls it.
Neruda: “Is it bad to live without a hell: / aren’t we able to reconstruct it?”
David Ferry: “Somebody’s got to tell me the truth some day. / And if somebody doesn’t tell me the truth I’ll tell it.”
“Though I am everywhere just now there is nobody here but me,” says Apollinaire.
And Ellen Bryant Voigt: “Nothing is learned / by turning away.”
Months after Nick’s death, poetry redeemed itself to me, as it always does, through a W.S. Graham poem that I find still mysterious and coded even as it plays to my own circumstances. “Definition of My Brother” begins:
Each other we meet but live grief rises early
By far the ghost and surest of all the sea
Making way to within me.
And later, with more momentum:
One another I leave into Eden with. I commit
The grave. Poverty takes over where we two meet.
Time talks over the fair boy. His hot heartbeat
Beats joy back over the knellringing till defeat.
Graham, an English poet and fisherman, has a kind of ouroboran syntax here, each unit of the sentence seems to move forward, but then, in a quick turn, it returns to its head, as in later lines where the speakers promises to
ship the mad nights to bright benefits
To that seastrolling voice in waves and states
Not mine but what one another contrary creates.
What one another contrary creates. How a thing creates—or at least implies—its negative. I’m not sure what happens in the poem, not exactly. I’ve spent hours with it, reading and rereading. I sent copies to my family, to friends. I typed it up and hung it beside my desk. Given, however, the unexpectedness of my brother’s death, the unanswered questions, the elliptical Graham poem responds to my questions by causing me to ask more questions. Combat doubt with doubt.
If certainty were poetry’s aim then we should all be called journalists. But the journalists now ask, Is poetry dead?
What is poetry?
When I hoped I feared my abilities are ridiculous. The Muse is depressed, but I’ll ship the mad nights to bright benefits. There were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality, that would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost, and cried out to feel it again. Nothing is learned by turning away. Pure the language of sweet dread. Somebody’s got to tell me the truth some day. Be this my text, my sermon to mine own.
Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and two chapbooks including Bestiary of Gall (Sundress Publications, 2013). She has held fellowships from U.S. Poets in Mexico and Vermont Studio Center; she received the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal and Second Place in Narrative’s 2012 30 Below Contest. Her poetry appears in AGNI, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris-American, and elsewhere. She is an instructor of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, the associate literary editor of Blackbird, a partner with C&R Press, and the prose editor for 32 Poems. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at firstname.lastname@example.org.