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Bewildering Stories

Thomas B. White writes about...

The Otherness of Poetry

Depth and mystery of subject matter, not mere metrical craftsmanship, are the heart of poetry. Take Poe’s “The Raven”: what are we to make of this weird, feathered emissary whose “fiery eyes” and haunting refrain “nevermore” appear in the middle of the poet’s sorrow over his deceased beloved Lenore? Do we gain anything more from analyzing the metrics of this poem than the images suggest?

In my poetry, I want my full dose of mystery, not exact technical mastery. Everyday techno-speak is literal and explicit. Poetry rescues us from the robotic. There is a useful analogy with the visual arts. As one critic said of the unsettling paintings of Edward Hopper: “if he had been more the painter, he would have been less the artist.” Do we really care that his human figures — or a poet’s lines — are not crafted perfectly when they exude powerful mystery? Computers can be programmed to generate metrically precise strings of words; only humans can still dive beyond the digital surface to probe the twilight.

This could be why I firmly believe that science fiction and fantasy’s stock in trade, the Strange and Weird, have a home in poetry, not in mere genre storytelling. From the Homeric epics to Dante’s Inferno, from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the extraordinary verse of Charles Simic, John Ashbery and Sylvia Plath, poetry has always been comfortable with Otherness.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines poetry somewhat cryptically, as “a form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.” What was really in his mind is unknown to me. But I will surmise this: poetry, belonging to the twilight and the strange, is a messenger from a land beyond the prosaic world recorded in “normal” magazines. Poetry, like the Raven, is that creepy tapping on our bedroom door that disturbs us from the slumber of our waking life.

Copyright © 2007 by Thomas B. White

Thank you for the manifesto, Tom! It’s always refreshing to remind ourselves that the spirit takes precedence over the letter of the law.

I’m reminded of the famous “battle of Hernani,” at the Théâtre Français on February 20, 1830. Both the Classicists and Romantics filled the theater early to greet the opening of Victor Hugo’s play. The Romantics were the more colorful lot, of course, and their number included poets destined for fame. They came well equipped to hold the fort: bottles of wine as well as sausages, cheese and bread for sandwiches. The place must have reeked of wine garlic. What a picnic.

Everybody knew what was coming, and Victor Hugo, too, was well prepared. The entire first scene of the play consists of one and a half lines:

Serait-ce déjà lui ? C’est bien à la porte
Dérobé. Vite, ouvrons...

Is that him already? He’s at the secret door. Let’s go and see...

When Doña Josefa made the forbidden enjambment with dérobé, the expected riot broke out between the claques of Classicists and Romantics. The show went on, nonetheless, and Romanticism went on to victory.

Robert Frost said that writing poems that had no rhyme or rhythm was like playing tennis with the net down. He was right, of course: arbitrary line breaks do not make poetry out of prose. Frost was keenly aware that poetry has its origins in music, and he was suspicious of making the game too easy.

And yet prose poetry has earned its place. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of nature writing, is France’s Mozart in prose. And one can find prose poetry in quite unexpected places, such as historian Bruce Catton’s “Night Train.”

The poet Stéphane Mallarmé told his friend Edgar Degas, the painter, that poetry is made not with ideas but with words. The principle is the same everywhere. In teaching and learning, the example isn’t the important thing, it’s the only thing. We don’t learn mathematical formulas for their own sake; we remember how they’re applied. Nor do we remember dry ideas; we remember the stories that illustrate them. And stories are what we are and all we have.

In the end, poetry is an invitation to a dance, and it’s up to the poet to call the tune. Mallarmé’s epigram is our official motto, and we stand by it.


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