Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Appropriate End to Poetry Month

Poetry Month is coming to an end. Obviously, every month is Poetry Month in Bethland, but it always makes me a little sad to see the only month that most people pay attention to poetry disappear. Oh well. Anyway, I finished two books this week that were very appropriate for the end of April.

First up, Jay Parini's recent, brief critical look at the importance of the art, Why Poetry Matters. I really enjoyed this book. I sometimes joke that I wish I could hand people a pile of books that would help them understand me better (like Judy Blume's Superfudge because it's a perfect look at life as an oldest child and Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, which I identified with a little too much in high school). This would definitely be one of those books. It's a great look at the art of poetry and perfectly describes what draws both readers and writers to the genre. At times, I was a little frustrated with the fact that Parini basically repeats ideas from the same handful of poets (he's a big fan of Frost, a poet I could easily live without - sorry; but no mention at all of Larkin, one of the most celebrated poets in 20th century English?!?!). In fact, the last chapter is just a critical explanation of why Parini loves T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (again, I think Eliot is an important poet, but he's always gotten under my skin in a bad way for some reason; the misogyny, perhaps?). But the rest of the book - particularly the first chapter, which is simply titled "Defending Poetry" - is a lovely and well-written look at what makes poetry such a pleasure for so many. As a lover of words, it's hard not to give Parini credit for the way he sees poetry as the purest form of engagement with language. That's actually the reason I write poetry; because of my need to be inside language, fully immersed in it. I don't think prose has the ability to do that in quite the same way.

I know lots of people don't like poetry. And to be honest, it took me a long time before I came to appreciate it. It's something you have to spend a lot of time with initially before you can become a casual reader (and I'm definitely just a casual reader of poetry, even though I consider myself a poet). But for those of us who do like it, we can't really imagine life without it. I can't really explain why I love poetry any better than what Parini says in the introduction to this book:
Poets write in the line of prophecy, and their work teaches us how to live. The language of poetry, when properly absorbed, becomes part of our private vocabulary, our way of moving through the world. Poetry matters, and without it we can live only partially, not fully conscious of the possibilities (emotional and intellectual) that life affords.

Throughout Why Poetry Matters, Parini often quotes one of his favorite poets, Wallace Stevens. So it's quite the coincidence that I've been reading Wallace Stevens's first book of poetry, Harmonium, this month. I finally finished it this week. Quite frankly, I was pretty blown away. I used to hate Stevens. I hated the abstraction, the weirdness, my inability to understand it. To be frank, I still don't get it. But holy crap, do I love the way he says it! His work is bizarre, but underneath the startling imagery and language, there's a strange beauty and engagement with the world. More so than any other poet I've been reading lately (Anne Carson, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, etc.), Stevens is a master of the image. The way he connects words with images is really quite amazing. I don't fully understand Stevens all the time, but it hardly matters when he does what he does with such coolness.

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