When someone starts a conversation, we expect them to have something to say, something interesting, amusing or useful. If they do not and they carry on too long, we walk away, perhaps with a token gesture of courtesy, or a lie of convenience. But sometimes we’re trapped by circumstance – on an airplane, in a meeting – and we endure the presumptuous tedium.
Something comparable occurs when reading most contemporary poetry. The speakers have nothing to say but say it at great length. It’s not conversation, nothing worth listening to, nothing to engage or teach us, nothing beautiful or rich with meaning. It’s not even poetry, but a poem-like gesture. Forget the reader, just blather on in a manner judged “poetic” by one’s poetic subculture of choice.
Gabriel Torretta shares our impatience:
“…not everything that passes itself off as poetry actually offers an encounter with reality, unless we count the poet’s own pretensions and vanity. And as writers of various kinds continue to jettison the search for meaning and beauty in favor of politics and nihilism, `poetry’ can become a code word for `bad prose.’”
Torretta is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order. The discipline of contemplation, he says, helped him hear poetry again, after graduate school:
“Poetry tries to express an inexpressible aspect of reality by packing it into an impossibly small space so that the meaning of the words fold in on themselves, creating a pattern of layers that begins to resemble the contours of the real object in all of its dynamism. Even for unornamented poems, just reading the words is not enough; poetry offers an encounter with a living reality that the reader must open himself to. Contemplation is the habit of being open to this encounter.”
On Friday, the day I read Toretta’s post, I happened upon a contemporary poet new to me, Joseph Harrison, author of Someone Else’s Name (2004) and Identity Theft (2008). In “On Rereading Some Lines of Poetry,” a rare poem about poetry that isn’t navel-gazing, he reminds us of what Michael Oakeshott writes in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”: “It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.” He reminds us why we started reading poetry in the first place:
“I must believe you see these shadowed lines
Lead back to other lines, and understand
The heart that’s faithful to its origins
Sits like an open book, for all to read
Who care to, closely, word by chosen word.
Or do the words choose us? These words chose me
And made me who I am. So let the lines
That speak most deeply to your inmost thoughts
Shine on you like the moon, and shape your soul.”