18 September 2005

Great poems make sense because they threaten to make no sense

(I seriously considered titling this one "My Hero"!)

Of James Longenbach and the Whole Human Contraption:
One of the great things that poems do is to give us permission to take pleasure in language we don't yet understand; another word for that kind of pleasure would be wonder. But it wouldn't be quite right, I think, to say that wonder is aroused by the sonic rather than the semantic properties of language--it's an interplay between the two. A poem without any semantic interest could ultimately be as flat as a poem without any sonic play. What matters is the temporal process by which that interest happens to us--the movement of the language of the poem.
I don't think there's a line between clarity and mystery; I think clarity is mystery, as opposed to confusion. Think of the most well known phrase from Marvell: "a green thought in a green shade." There is nothing difficult here, nothing knotty; my nine-year old daughter could read the line easily (and probably she'd have a better answer for this question, too). But the resonance of that clarity is immense, and all the critical ink that's been spilled over it has yet to exhaust the line's capacity for provoking wonder. The immensity of the unsaid is invoked because the line is so very clear about what it does say. I don't think this is a special quality, really; to my way of thinking, all great poetry--or all the poetry that grips me, anyway--partakes of this quality.
On Petrarch:
The sense of a complete human being that I get from this body of work--someone ravaged, kind, haunted, flawed, generous, selfish, seeking--is immense. I don't know of many other writers who managed to get the whole human contraption down on the page so unpretentiously. Also, like Yeats, Petrarch is a poet who works and thinks through contraries, and, in ways large and small, my book is designed around a series of oppositions between self and soul, joy and reason, and so on. I didn't plan this; it just happened. Reading Petrarch, I feel like a small part of something larger even than Petrarch--a way of being in the world that makes a love of language feel like a love of rivers and hills.
On Pound:
[P]art of the great drama of the Cantos is the work we must do in order to discover it over and over again. The poem is a wreck, a calamity, a provocation, but I don't see how any poet can avoid coming to terms with it. That would be like standing at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and trying to will their disappearance.

Which is to say that Pound is hard to like; he is an affront to anyone's taste; he exists to confound. But his place in literature seems to me crucial.
(Via The Reading Experience)

Needless to say, The Resistance to Poetry shot straight to the top of my birthday/Christmas/tooth-fairy list.

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