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What I Look For In a Poem

(A topic suggested here. Comment there for some topics of your own.)

One of my favorite poems about poetry is by Billy Collins (I'm sure you're shocked), "Introduction to Poetry". He's bemoaning a particular kind of poetry reading, one that sets aside the experience of a poem in favor of its interpretation. I'm a little bit subject to that failing; one thing I frequently like in poetry is that experience of falling through the surface level into what the poem is "really" about, of getting to feel smart and sophisticated and able to see through the superficial stuff to the deep symbolic heart of it that is only available to superior persons like myself. I make fun of myself for this a lot -- when I was in high school, I was once asked what "Stopping By The Woods on a Snowy Evening" was about and I pulled out a calculator and played with it for a while before answering "Suicide" -- but if there wasn't a payoff to it I'd have stopped by now.

So that's one thing.

But in my defense, I also really enjoy the interplay between levels of meaning. One reason I like SbtWoaSE -- actually, one reason I like a lot of Frost -- is that his poetry reliably gives me the experience of floating between levels of meaning. It's hard to describe what that's like... if you're like me, you know. If you're not, well... this is actually a better description of the experience than anything I can come up with right now. Much like parallax, that sort of poetry creates the experience of an entirely different world, one constructed by coaxing my brain into trying to reconcile two very different views of the same subject.

So that's another thing.

Another one of my favorite poems about poetry is by me, "On Writing a Poem". In some ways it speaks to that same experience of using the multiple dimensions of words to construct a multidimensional experience, but more saliently it speaks to the loss of control attendant to that experience, of giving up the way I'm accustomed to patterning my thoughts and allowing aspects of my self to take the wheel that I normally don't show in public at all. There are poems I've written that I could only write when alone, because the experience of writing them required that I first rearrange myself into something extremely vulnerable and raw and disconnected from my normal reality. And every once in a while I find a poem that resonates with me that way, that makes me feel like the writer went through something like that when they wrote it. A lot of T.S.Eliot is like that for me, and a lot of the more lyrical popular music. And Frost, again... Acquainted with the Night does that for me, for example. So does Housman's Stars I Have Seen Them Fall," and rather a lot of Yeats, and Pound's "Study in Aesthetics".

So that's a third thing.

When I look at the poetry I've written that I'm particularly fond of, one thing that jumps out at me is the intricacy of internal structure and tightness of lexical weave. (If I do say so myself.) There are poems I've written almost entirely as an exercise in such structure, and been somewhat surprised by the levels of meaning I found in them. There are others where I started with a meaning in mind and constructed the lexical weave around them, rather like a ship in a bottle in reverse. (Not that a ship outside a bottle is a particularly remarkable thing.)

The most recent poem I added to my index, "Simple Echoes", is like that. So is "Surcease, and "When the Chorus Comes Around", "Strategy", and "Fragments".

So that's a fourth thing. Interestingly, I can't think of a lot of poetry I've read that's like this. Some song lyrics I like have this property... Uncle Bonsai does this a lot, for example... but that's about it.

And then there's the stuff that speaks to me and I have no idea why.


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