Sunday, September 1, 2013

Vagrant Philosophers and Poets

By Bonnie Stanard

Perhaps I ask too much of poetry, but I want it to shed light on the big questions like: Who am I? What has meaning? Why are we here? This is not to say I want answers as such, but I’d like to gain some understanding about our existence. We’re not talking religious poems here, rather, ones that provide illumination, or a least ideas to stimulate reflection.

The grand masters of poetry didn’t shy away from the big questions. Their best poems encode concrete images with transcendent meaning. Transcendent meaning as used here embraces much that is unexplainable about poetry. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is one of my favorites. There are many others, but I especially like: Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break;” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall;” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening;” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Song in the Front Yard.” These poems say something profound in a way that seems effortless.

When a poem spells out a message that is too obvious, it runs the risk of becoming simplistic and limited to singular interpretation. From the following excerpt of John Berryman’s “The Ball Poem,” I hope you’ll see what I mean:

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball, 

What, what is he to do?...

No use to say 'O there are other balls… 

Now…He senses first responsibility 

In a world of possessions. People will take balls, 

Balls will be lost always…

Poetry has been trending away from obvious meaning for some time (and obvious form as well, but that’s another subject). It’s as if EB White’s advice, “Be obscure clearly” is being taught in every MFA course on writing poetry. As we’ve become more informed, we resist being spoon-fed somebody else’s version of truth. We want to discover our own truth. Ergo, poets try to engage the reader with carefully ordered images in the hope that meaning will emerge as the reader recognizes or identifies some insight, if not a truth.

You can see from today’s poems that writers are grappling with traditional material (concrete images) to produce meaningful obscurities … at least obscurities that lend themselves to interpretation by a body of readers. This has produced works that range from simple to inscrutable. Understated poems lean heavily on the reader’s imagination. Take a look at “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, which either says a lot on not much at all:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Some poems read like free association, as if we have been given a Rorschach test of written rather than visual images. These poems are more challenging, and there are academics who can provide the logic behind the images. The popular poet John Ashbery provides many such examples. Below is a verse from his poem “Elective Infinities.”

It was all over by morning. The village idiot
was surprised to see us. "...thought you were in Normandy."
Like all pendulums we were surprised,
then slightly miffed at what seemed to be happening
back in the bushes. Keep your ornaments,
if that's what they are. Return to sender, arse.

Lest you think the above lines become more explicit in the context of the poem, see the entire work at

The poet and philosopher John Koethe, describing poetry as an artful form of talking to yourself, said, “I’ve always thought of poetry as a kind of inner soliloquy, reflecting the capacity for self-consciousness that makes us human.” I guess that’s what poets are doing, and as time passes, the configuration of thought changes. We’re motivated to write from stimuli and experiences, and then we hope somebody will help us understand what we’ve said. 

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