On Poetry

Some days ago, Susan suggested a book I’ve finally opened, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. “It is always quietly thrilling,” Bryson says in the introduction, “to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” He’s discovered a rooftop vista accessible through a hidden door. The experience causes him to realize that he’s a stranger to his house, an English rectory built roughly 150 years ago. He’s had an epiphany, for he decides that “it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important, too. Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.”

I’d just opened the book, and already I had a bit of an epiphany of my own, for I realized that Bryson’s “quietly thrilling” experience resulting from a new perspective on an old thing is a practical definition of poetry. At least, that is what successful poetry often accomplishes, an image of a familiar thing viewed in a new light, in such a way that we feel a stranger to the thing, as familiar as it might be, and we want to research its origins, its purpose, and to revalue its uses – now that we’ve a new realization of the thing’s importance, as revealed by our newly found perspective; we want to get to know the thing all over again. We want to save it, rescue the thing from the rummage sale, for in poetry we find our own hidden door. Perhaps this revaluing of things, of changing our minds about what we want, is what all successful art accomplishes, and also explains John Cage’s silence as a place to find hidden sounds.

The poet practices legerdemain; he’s a sleight of hand man, as described in Wallace Stevens’s “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”: “…So bluish clouds / Occurred above the empty house and the leaves / Of the rhododendrons raddled their gold, / As if someone lived there….”  And, as Ferlinghetti added, “…and all without mistaking / any thing / for what it may not be.” For, as Stevens goes on, “The wheel survives the myths.” And finally, “It may be,” concludes Stevens, “that the ignorant man, alone, / Has any chance to mate his life with life.”

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