Mairi, one of the contributors over at The Plumbline School, posed this question in response to one of my comments: ” I don’t suppose you’d be willing to share your personal poetics? Or anyone else who possesses such a thing, for that matter? Nothing long and elaborate. Just pith and gist….”
Well, my “pith and gist” proved longer than the 4,096 character limit Blogger imposes on comments. So I posted a partial version and linked back to this post for the complete response….
Mairi, you set me back on my heels a bit with this request. I’ve never attempted to nutshell my poetics, largely because I dislike theories, which tend to degenerate from description to prescription. But you’ve given me an out by asking for my “personal” poetics. That I feel fairly sanguine about offering up.
My whole approach to poetry, as a writer and a reader, is based on pleasure. Except when I feel bound by some professional obligation (one can’t teach a survey of the 18th century without rereading “The Rape of the Lock”) or some practical need (how do I fix that leaky pipe?) to read something I dislike, I believe in reading only for pleasure. With the same caveat I believe in writing poems only for pleasure. My poetics, such as it is, flows from that belief.
There are seven key pleasures I gain from writing or reading poetry, and here they are in order of what matters most to me: imaginal energy, perceptual energy, musicality, openness, lightness, puzzlement, and inventive rhetoric.
Imaginal Energy springs from the psyche’s direct experience of “things invisible to see,” which generates symbolic images. My enjoyment of this energy is why Blake heads up my list of favorite poets, which includes Rumi, Coleridge, Rimbaud, Yeats, Rilke, Eluard, Roethke, Bly, and Merwin. As Eluard once wrote, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” When that world enters a poem it charges it with imaginal energy.
Perceptual Energy flows into a poem through the five senses, and it requires precision from the writing. Great perceptual poets—Bashō, Clare, Williams, Marianne Moore, Cid Corman—deliver the shock of exactitude, which I love.
Musicality may be misleading, because I don’t mean to distinguish between harmonious and discordant effects. I prize Pound’s troubadour dance as much as Creeley’s halting gait or Whitman’s frisky stride. Right music wakes you up to the imaginal and perceptual energies in the poem; wrong music distracts from them.
By Openness I do not mean “lack of closure.” I mean the willingness to let anything in that needs to be in the poem. Sometimes openness results in multiplicity of dimension, sometimes it results in a laser-beam focus that lights up a small area with absolutely clarity. “May I bow to Necessity not / To her hierlings,” Merwin writes in “Wish”—and I share his wish. Which means that for me openness does not mean freedom, but submission of the right kind.
By Lightness I mean what Italo Calvino means in his lecture on that subject, published in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. At the risk of oversimplifying his 26-page essay, let me quote one passage: “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.” Lightness, in other words, is a shift of perspective that lifts us up no matter what the poem at hand is about. (In the midst of slaughter, Homer deploys lightness, usually in the form of gods and goddesses.) Calvino is careful to say that lightness isn’t more valuable than weight, only that he has “has more to say about lightness.” This rhetorical move in itself is an illustration of lightness in action. Obviously, lightness is among the most personal of my aesthetic values, and is the reason I admire but do not care for Celan, for example, or Berryman, or Olsen, or Plath—though all four are magnificent writers. Lightness is one of the main qualities that leads me to reread certain poets and that leads me through the revision of my own poems.
Puzzlement is a puzzling quality. I use it to mean mystery as opposed to obscurity; the former can be plumbed if not encompassed, but the latter is almost always the result of laziness or willful game playing with the reader. I especially enjoy being puzzled by my own work, but I detest the impulse I sometimes feel to “hide the treasure” somehow, as some kind of test for the reader. Mystery is the essence of life on our planet; obscurity is all too often an intellectualoid bid for power over the reader. The works of Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout seem to me full of mystery; the works of Louis Zukofsky and Ron Silliman seem full of obscurity.
Inventive Rhetoric refers to all the formal qualities of a poem that make it interesting as a verbal construct, from diction and syntax to the arrangement of content and the choice and/or creation of forms. Some poets would be rewarding to read for this quality (e. e. cummings leaps to mind) even if they had no other strengths. Inventive rhetoric is one reason I keep returning to poets as diverse as John Donne, Henry Vaughan, A. R. Ammons, Ted Hughes, Denise Levertov, Ronald Johnson, Marianne Moore, Hayden Carruth, and Harryette Mullen.
I’ve gone on too long—something you specifically asked me not to do! And I don’t know if it’s even worth reading! But there you go….
Now that I’m posting this here, I wonder if one could even call my aesthetic values a “poetics.” Probably not. But these values orient me in my own work and the works of other poets.