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Entrances into Poems and Poetry
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 13, 2013
– edited on blog, Mar. 26, 2013 and Apr. 23, 2014
A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.
"A Road in the Sky" by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers — Verse Daily, 3/23/13
from Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press)
poem found here
It wouldn't be held—
this notion, slipknot
on multiple readings, and entrances into poems
First time I read this poem, my response was PPPPttt. I didn't know what to do with "slipknot spring." And the ending seemed trite sexuality. Second time, PPPPttt again. Perhaps it was because I did not find the day's Poetry Daily offering much to consider, and it had tainted my palette. But instinct said give it another go: "O North / I've never understood" gave me a ring, and pulled me back in for one more go.
And happy therefore, too. For then I saw, clearly, "or lace that ripped / if spoken too soon." And the whole poem came alive.
(OK. Except for "slipknot spring," which I still do not know what to do with; and because of it the lines up to the period.)
It's a wonderful idea in that line, and a nice delivery thereof : what with the three s-sounds, the iambic rhythm, the length of "too soo" to close it off — its all good. But why did that line — of all the lines — open up the poem? It's not exactly a key line ideationally (though, it is very much an important part of the microcosmos of the poem). Somehow, it was my invitation in, my entrance into the workings of the poem.
I have often said that people who do not like or understand poetry most likely have never found an entrance into poetry. And, I tell you, what they teach in high school is usually a piss poor choice for developing appreciation of poetry — no entrance material, only the stuff you are "supposed to be familiar with." Why the hell would you teach E.E. Cummings in high school, especially when you are teaching his more difficult, experimental poems. Teach his earlier stuff — I've had great success opening doors with it. Teach "Who," not "she being Brand / -new." What does it matter that your are teaching Shakespeare's sonnets — which are difficult — when your students do not even a basic appreciation for sound, meter, play of words. Teach "My Last Duchess." or "Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff." Something fun. OR, what I've had the most success with: "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti. Of course, you have to be able to deal with all the wet, dripping sex . . . . but that wonderful, imaginative, sing-songy, supposed-children's poem (wink wink nudge nudge) never failed for me in gathering up some new poetry lovers.
There are parts of this poem I have small issue with. Yes, "slipknot spring." "Buttercups' fevered form" is not my favorite phrase ever. (Really, if face to face, I would simply want to ask "so why did you do it this way?" just to hear the answer, not to critique the choices. Ok, except for "slipknot spring.") In fact, once the poem opened up, the end of the poem took on whole new life. The sexuality got pulled into the poem, lost its life as mere sexuality and became energy within a greater ideation, a greater experience.
But, really, my point with this poem is to give both permission and warning. Permission in that it is normal to come upon a poem and, simply, not 'get it,' as it were, for some reason that has nothing to do with anything but the pointing of the weather vane. Sometimes, you need to find a doorway in; sometimes, the poem has to open itself too you.
And thus, in turn, the warning: give poems a second chance, even a third chance, to speak. Sometimes you aren't in the right place, psychically, to get into the poem. Sometimes, the poem is too sophisticated for you, or sophisticated in a manner you are not, or perhaps you are missing knowledge the work requires. There are many possibilities why a poem is not always immediately accessible. Sometimes, it is, simply, that you just need to find the entrance. (This happened with me recently with Atsuro Riley's collection Romey's Order. The poems were, simply, not working for me. Until I got to "Tablet": for whatever reason, that was the poem that invited me in, brought me to look closely, to read the poems the way they want to be read. For it I was then able to understand Riley's rhythms, and the whole of the book came alive.)
Basic aesthetic philosophy (re Barthes): no text can be read the first time. It has be known before it can be really read, known from first to end before it can be experienced. An aesthetic text, after all, works as a microcosmos, as a unity: the beginning can not be understood without also understanding the end; the middle cannot be experienced without that which comes before and after. (A nomic work, however, basic narrative, conventional genre, an ordinary work meant for consumption, to use Barthes's words in "From Work to Text"[FN]), is linear, which means also surface only, without depth, without resonance. Indeed, without life.) Since the more aesthetic a work is, the more it is a unity, you might be able to see how you have to find an entrance into that world, and that that entrance may not be in the beginning.
[FN] Barthes's essay is readily found on-line: here is but one link. The essay is from Barthes's Image, Music, Text. It is, actually, a rather worthwhile essay to read for anyone interesting in literature. And, near essential for anyone interested in writing literature.
(You know, while typing the sentence about needing to read the whole to understand the part, I was suddenly brought to mind of the story of Sir Richard Burton examining the body of his future (or was it present?) wife Isabel by candlelight in the film Mountains of the Moon. Whether or not it actually did happen — and I have faint thought it might have, but no proof on hand — it is a curious, sudden association.)