Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Sensible and the Meaningful

To begin June on my blog, I decided to post some current thoughts on poetry. Lately I’ve thought about Wallace Stevens’ remark that, “a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” It seems to me that a poem should actually succeed in this resistance, but only just. The intelligence should fail but be so consistently close to succeeding that it can’t resist renewing the effort to bring it under its dominion. A poem should be the perfect seduction of the intelligence. I think of a poem like Joseph Brodsky’s “Kalamaki” as a perfect example, at least for me. It is a poem I have felt always on the verge of fully comprehending. I could sense the boundaries of its meaning as I neared its end, just as it slipped away. It’s like someone whose hand is big enough to almost palm a basketball, but not quite. Portions of it leap out at me as I go along; I gather a thread here and a thread there. I’m about to tie them in a neat little bow when, right at the end, it unravels. And I never fail to return to the poem at some point and renew the journey because it is so amazing, so deeply meaningful, although inexplicable. And that is the subtle distinction that has brought me to this idea of how a poem should function.

Though a thesaurus will show them as synonyms, there is a difference between what makes sense and what is meaningful. Of course, the sensible has many definitions. What I mean by sensible here is: that which is of sound judgment or good sense, something that is fitting. But what we typically consider sensible is so only according to our given understanding of the world. However, the realm of possible meaning is much larger than this. That is, what is meaningful is larger than what is sensible. So, while everything that makes sense is meaningful, there are a vast number of things that are meaningful which make no sense. This is the realm poetry should explore. It is where such poets as John Ashbery, Marvin Bell, even Mallarme and sometimes Fernando Pessoa make their homes or pitch a tent.

It recalls another thought I’ve frequently had, a definition of a poem that has recurred to me throughout the years: that a poem is the clearest explanation of something. The consequence of this is that the explanation of a poem is both a movement away from clarity and a redundancy. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should abandon literary criticism, only that, the best literary criticism should, in itself, approach the nature of poetry. It’s why writers like Walter Pater and Edward Dalhberg are preferable to simple critics like Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler: as admirable and interesting as they are. It is in this spirit that I continue to write my own thoughts on poetry and poets and look forward to shortly publishing my thoughts on Walter Pater after having recently reread The Renaissance.

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