A Poem is Not a Puzzle to be Solved, but a Chocolate to be Savored
In the third installment of "The Yawp Barbaric," I discuss Dana Levin's poem, "Moo and Thrall." I've been trying to foreground a discussion of the pleasures of poems rather than their thematic concerns, though the two are, of course, entwined. As the poet John Ciardi wrote long ago in his essay "How a Poem Means": "The human-insight of the poem and the technicalities of the poetic devices are inseparable. Each feeds the other. This interplay is the poem’s meaning, a matter, not of WHAT IT MEANS (nobody can say entirely what a good poem means) but HOW IT MEANS–a process one can come much closer to discussing." At any rate, this is an old-fashioned idea with feet stuck in what some would call the mud of New Critical reading.
In fashionable classrooms these days, we're apt to leap straight to the "social position" of the author, the political context in which the poet authored the poem, and the way the poem circulates in society--how it challenges or supports the power structure. And that's a valid enterprise. Certainly languages are socially constructed and carry the weight of imperialism, occupation, and border negotiations; and the author is partly socially-constructed, either carrying or rejecting (but never stepping entirely outside) historical and cultural circumstances. But this process commodifies the poem, asks What kind of product is this? It's a useful approach if your interests are political, but what if you're interested in everything about the poem?
We may, in fact, at least sometimes, not be bearers or resisters of power. We share most biological traits across cultures, and we have made our various rituals around births, comings of age, marriages, funerals, and our negotiations with the universe. All of this living can, of course, be seen through the lens of power, but as with any single lens, we miss more than we see. A wedding, for example, involves all sorts of powers--a battle between church and state over the right to sanction the wedding, a ritual whose existence might be traced to either patriarchal concerns about womens' independence or the tribe's concerns about the men's commitment to their families or both, etc. etc. But also, within that arena, a man and a woman (or, at last, a man and a man or a woman and a woman) vow to remain together, often in total ignorance of the historical conditions that precede and surround them. And if you asked them whether their kiss was the pope's or the king's... Well, you do want to stay for the reception, don't you?
So I have chosen the lens of pleasure, the lens of the kiss. Depending on who you talk to, the lens of pleasure is a decadent distraction, the only lens (because meaning is illusory), or one among many qualities that make a poem a poem. Which raises another unanswerable question: What is poetry? We humans created and keep recreating poetry, but like the economy, we don't always agree on what it is or how it works. In most ages poetry is marked by an intense interest in life (and, Lorca reminds us, death), in embodying aspects of life and death in language, and in bringing an intense focus to the language we use in this process. Finally it's the intensity of the tradition that distinguishes the poets. As the poet Chuck Calabreze likes to say, "Poets experience life more intensely than the rest of us--and then make us feel bad by writing about it."
Avoidance and Confrontation: Dana Levin takes on women's rights in the age of spectacle