The Importance of Poetry

When I was a freshman in college I took my first poetry class, and my father started referring to me as “the poet,” like an epithet.  Even then I had no interest in being a poet — I had a passing interest in writing fiction, mostly as a hobby, and thought I’d minor in creative writing — but it was chemistry that interested me, visions of designing drugs to keep people healthy, researching the origins of life, using organics as fine tools for the first time in human history…  Writing was just a game, an outlet for excess creative energy, as important to my psychological well-being as a diary, maybe, but no more meaningful to the rest of the world than a stack of journals locked in someone’s dresser drawer.

Even as the excitement of the natural sciences evaporated into the tedium of lab work and the rote memorization of randomly assigned terms, it took a long time to allow myself to believe that writing could be important — that art could ever trump intellect, and that a life spent in pursuit of such ephemeral nonsense could be fulfilling.  That life seemed selfish; it was a waste the time and talent.  A poem never helped provide someone with clean drinking water, could never be used as a fuel to replace hydrocarbons or as a vaccine to cure disease.  As much as I preferred my English classes, it took a lot of soul-searching before I was able to accept that I did.

What the hell is the point?

Long before I even knew of Rattle, Alan grew tired of devoting space at the back of each issue for a list of publishing credits.  Maybe these kinds of bios made sense before Al Gore invented the internet (and he really kind of did) — but nowadays if you read a poem you love and want to find more of a poet’s work, all you have to do is Google.  So instead of 10 pages of wasted space, Alan began asking a simple question instead:  Why write poetry?

These contributor notes are a treasure-trove of solutions to my undergraduate conundrum.  What’s probably the most common answer, that writing is a compulsion — “I write because I must!” — doesn’t really help much, unless you have that compulsion, too.  And besides, compulsiveness is no excuse — when people are compelled to violence or addiction we try to cure them.  With so many people writing because they must, maybe we should just start a support group…

Others claim to write for immortality (“So my work will outlive me!”), to get laid, or to change the world — and it was this last one that I latched onto first.  This is still a world of full of suffering.  We have the technology to provide food, shelter, and clothing to every human alive, and yet we don’t.  We’re always at war, we’re always stealing and cheating and dehumanizing each other.  80% of the world is still ensnared in the myths of their ancestors, searching for a meaning to life that is outside of the only life they’ll ever have.

There were two quotes I kept coming back to.  I gave my copy of Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to my brother a couple years ago, so I have to paraphrase, but Robert Pirsig writes something like, “All over the world, scientists are working hard to extend our lives — but none of them bother to ask why.”  And then there’s Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Why is always more important to a consciousness than how, and I began to see science as the how and art as the why.  What value is there in living a longer life, if it’s lived poorly?  If I could dedicate a writing life to the ideals of collectivity and kindness, if I could help illuminate the interdependency of individuals and the moral power of self-created meaning, then I could do more good than the invention of a million pain killers.

It was that grand idea that allowed me to take poetry seriously, and cleared a path which led me here on a Friday afternoon, a stack of books on the editor’s desk to my left, still pondering the importance of poetry.

But over the last 5+ years of working in poetry full-time (and then some), I’ve gradually come to a new understanding:  Poems don’t do doodley-squat.

No matter how naive you want to think I’m being, no matter how hard you resist this fact, it remains a fact.  Everyone points to “Howl” as the most influential poem of the 20th century, talks about how it distilled the sentiment of an entire generation — but the ’60s would have happened without “Howl.”  The world will end not with a bang, but a wimper, and we didn’t really need Eliot to point that out.  Maybe a few of us are a bit more bold because of Frost, more persistent, but “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods…”  are more slogans than a poems.

Moreover, no one even reads poetry.  Rattle has thousands of subscribers, and only a handful of them don’t have at least a few poems in a folder on their computer that they’d like to have us publish.  Our favorite nemesis G. Tod Slone likes to mock lit mags as one big circle-jerk — and he’s right!  We’re only talking to each other here.  No one just reads poetry; we write it, too.  And writing it is mostly what we really care about.  So even if a poem could effect change, who is out there be effected?

If you want to change the world, don’t write a poem, write a chant and stage a protest (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”).  Be a teacher, be a doctor, be a lawyer, build a house.  Volunteer at a nursing home, a homeless shelter, an animal clinic.  The value of any poem, or book of poems, or school of poets, is so overblown — by people like you and me and MFAs and AWPs — as to be delusional.

But that doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t important.  Poems themselves are inconsequential, but poetry — as an activity, as a mindset — is central to all that is important.  The pursuit of poetry is the distillation of that critical Why — it’s what we live for, what can “make us bear any how.”

Poetry isn’t a career, or a passion, or a form of entertainment.  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s an entire doctrineless philosophy that we reconfigure into each of those things.  To engage in poetry, whether reading or writing, is to practice an enriching attentiveness.  To practice poetry is to pluck detail from the surrounding world — to see things more clearly, to recognize beauty, to experience pain, to struggle to connect.  Because the writer uses the reader’s inner voice as a medium, poetry is fundamentally empathetic.  We see through another’s eyes, wear another’s shoes.  Poetry is cathartic.  And who needs a prayer or a trance — poetry has your daily meditation built right in.

The cliche is the tortured poet — the melodramatic outsider with half a head in the oven.  But what I see is a subset of society that’s more alive, that experiences life more fully.  Poets tend to have good marriages, raise bright kids, spend time thinking of and doing things for people other than themselves.  There are exceptions, of course, but I have direct contact with a huge number of poets, and I can say with confidence that we’re more happy and functional and productive than the whole.

And it’s not because some poem taught us how to act.  It’s not because we have any special talents, or more education, or better genes than everyone else.  It’s because our thoughtfulness has been turned on and tuned in.  A better life is simply a function of a more present awareness.

I’m not saying that poetry is the only way to be engaged — we can use science or sports or motorcycle maintenance to the same ends.  But poetry is a great way — maybe the best way — to get there, because it operates on so many levels of consciousness, and because language is so central to the structure of the mind itself.

So over the past few years, I’ve come to see the practice of poetry as a kind of barometer for the health of a society.  I’ve come to see Utopia as a world where everyone writes poetry — I think that in such a world we’d be done with racism and sexism and classism, selfishness and greed.  There would be no torture or war.  How could you torture someone empathetically?  How could you fight with someone whose experiences you’ve shared?

And so I’ve also come to see it as my mission, and a worthy mission, to get as many people writing poetry as possible.  That’s why I encourage everyone to keep writing and submitting, and never tell them to wait three months or close a reading period.  It’s not that the publication matters, but that the lifestyle matters, that there’s an expanding community of poets out there doing what we do and sharing with each other this life-enhancing, collective of concentration.

To me, what you write is inconsequential, or just the frosting on the cake.  Just write it.  That’s the cake.

Koans Rhyme with Poems

Over the summer, the editors of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle approached me, asking if Rattle might help them with a poetry discussion group.  Though we have no direct ties to Buddhism, I thought it might be interesting to participate.  I’m not a practicing Buddhist myself — I’m too much a spiritless materialist to succor the notion of reincarnation or Buddha-nature — but I’ve always had a strong affinity for their philosophical and psychological views, which in the end comprise the bulk of their theology.  I went through a phase where I read a lot of Buddhist texts, and maybe I’m being too honest here, but my hunch has been that the Buddha got it right, but his message was corrupted by the canvas of the Rigveda, and then 4,000 years of the same human ambitions and anthropomorphisms that have dogged every religion since the beginning of time.  I even spun a fantasy that, when the Buddha said “reincarnation,” he meant moment-to-moment — the fact that we’re not the same person we were 10 minutes ago, let alone 10 years ago, and in that time even your bones have been replaced.  The miracle of reincarnation is the constancy of consciousness itself, which is reborn relentlessly, even as the body itself changes.

In any event, Buddhist scholars have been thinking about the nature of our reality, intelligently and unbiasedly, for an awfully long time, and their observations are as insightful as they are fascinating.  And much of it relates to poetry.  I’ve already talked about the poem as mantra (“mind-tool”) — poetry as a spell, a hypnotic string of words that alter your mental state.  In my opinion, that’s the best definition of poetry there is.  But that’s not all eastern religions have to offer.

Poems are also koans.

In the Zen tradition, koans are little stories teachers tell their students to mess with their heads — in a good way.  Koans are often presented as faux-riddles which cannot be resolved rationally.  Pop culture is familiar with many of these: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  “If a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound?”  The teacher will present a question like this, as if there were an answer, and then the student will meditate on his or her failure to find a response. (For more on how this works, see this anecdote by Huston Smith in Shambhala Sun.)  When you fully engage a koan, the effect is a subversion — and thus exposure — of the tired and routine workings of the mind.  You can almost hear the gears grinding up there, as the mind tries to make sense out of the nonsensical, and with that comes the stunning revelation that the mind is not you — it’s something else, something less than yourself, something outside yourself.  If you can sense your mind flailing, who is doing the sensing, who the flailing?

So in the end, the koan has little to do with the koan itself — the koan really lies within the response it triggers. It’s a process, not a product.

But in many respects, koans do have answers.  For every scholarly analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” there’s a Buddhist scholar analyzing Two Hands Clapping.  Koans always seem to invite critical thinking at the same time as they subvert it.  The medium is the message, but that doesn’t mean their aren’t messages in the medium, too.  Here’s an example, a koan in narrative form:

When Bai Zhang consulted his master on his development, Ma Zu stared at a feather duster. Bai Zhang said, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” The master retorted, “If we take your skin from its place, what would become of you?” Apparently ignoring the master’s retort, Bai Zhang held up the feather duster. Ma Zu said, repeating Bai Zhang’s words, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” Bai Zhang then returned the feather duster to its original place. At this instant, Ma Zu gave a shout so loud that Bai Zhang was deaf for three days. Later, when classmates asked him about his temporary deafness, he said, “What deafness? After awakening, I just took a rest.”

If this passage sounds baffling at first, don’t worry.  It’s a story-equivalent of one hand clapping, meant to short-circuit your usual thought process.  But still beneath that, there is meaning.  When the two men speak of the feather duster, it’s a metaphor for the ultimate Oneness of reality — there is only one universe, all things connected, but to use any object within that universe you must first make it an object, which makes you a subject manipulating the object, dividing the ultimate Oneness into finite Multitude (the mind is a knife, carving up reality into discrete units).  When Ma Zu asks about separating him from his skin, he’s asking what would happen if the Oneness were separated from the Multitude, to which Bai Zhang replies, by using the feather duster, that Oneness and the Multitude are actually the same things, interpreted differently.

Ma Zu then tests his student further, with his own words, a kind of “Are you sure?”  In returning the feather duster to its place, Bai Zhang shows that he only understands in theory, not in practice, so Ma Zu shouts his student deaf, where he will be alone in his own mind for three days, receiving no instruction.  It is only then that Bai Zhang understands the lesson lies not within the words alone, and becomes enlightened.

I don’t know if that explanation makes sense without a working knowledge of Buddhism — but the point is that a koan is not just a transformative tool, it’s also a parable, with real metaphysical wisdom locked inside.  A koan is both things simultaneously — if it were just the information, the lesson, then it would not be a koan.  A koan is an instruction that must become an experience to do its job.

And that is what poetry really is.  You can read ten books on “The Waste Land,” exploring all the allusions and symbols and structures, but they will never add up to the experiencing of “The Wast Land,” because a poem is only the confrontation with the poem itself — the transformative, resonant response the poem gives us has nothing to do with the footnotes, and everything to do with the indescribable mystery and music within it.  There are many answers, but none of them are the answer — it’s the process that answers, not the product.

The problem with what we call “hallmark verse” — a category into which the majority of poems submitted to any magazine fall — has nothing to do with sing-songy meter or forced rhyme or mushy subjects.  Bad poetry, fake poetry, hallmark verse is all product, no process.  It’s the Cliffsnotes to the koan, rather than the koan itself — it lacks the magic of mystery, the transformative power of subversion.  So many writers seem to get an idea for a poem, and then merely pass that idea along, as if they’re passing along the answer to a question.  They might as well be writing letters or diary entries.  When you write with a message in mind, the message is lost.

A poem must be more than the message; it must be an experience.  All the novice admonitions — “show don’t tell,” “avoid cliches” — are subsets of this one lesson.  Poems are koans.   That’s why it’s so hard to write real poetry, but so easy to fake it.  Answers are easy; transformations are hard.

Which brings me to this week’s poem in the Tricycle discussion group, Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act,” first published, along with her interview, in Rattle #26.  It’s the best example I know of a what I’ve been talking about:

THOSE WHO CANNOT ACT by Jane Hirshfield

“Those who act will suffer,
suffer into truth”–
What Aeschylus omitted:
those who cannot act will suffer too.

The sister banished into exile.
The unnamed dog
soon killed.

Even the bystanders vanish,
one by one,
peripheral, in pain unnoticed while

© Jane Hirshfield, from the book After, HarperCollins, 2006.

We can talk about this poem for pages and pages, for days:  the poem’s ending into stark silence, the voice of those who have no voice, the implicit responsibility for those who can act.  My favorite part of the poem is that it forces us, the readers, to be among those who cannot act — we’ll never be able to finish the poem, it will only end in frustration.  All of those elements are there, and worth discussing.  But they never add up to the experience of the poem, the haunting, wrenching truth that lies beneath it.

Like a sculptor carving marble blocks, the statue itself what remains, a poem is really the sum of all that isn’t said.  Poems happen within us — what matters is the leap they make us make ourselves.  A new koan:

A student gives the MFA instructor a poem to read overnight.  The next day the student asks, “Was my poem any good?”  The instructor replies, “What poem?  All I see is you.”

Lost Among the Pillars of Grass: The Three Poetries

Turning yesterday’s post on its head less than 24 hours later, I’ve been reading John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath, and am forced to admit, once again, that there isn’t just one poetry.  There are whole swaths of people who get things out of poetry that I don’t care all that much about. And that’s a wonderful thing — I’m firmly opposed to the balkanization of poetry.

Here’s the second poem in the book, “They Dream Only of America”:

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
“This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.”

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily–
The lake a lilac cube.

He holds a key in his right hand.
“Please,” he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before

We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.

Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.

“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.

And I am lost without you.”

You need a decoder ring and a lot of time to figure it out, or maybe just a love for this kind of thing, but I’m pretty sure the poem is a homoerotic lyric, a love poem wrought with the pain of having to keep your love in the closet.  (Ashbery fans, correct me if I’m wrong.)  It took me about a half an hour and a couple dozen reads to come to this conclusion.

Lines like the second, “To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass,” are undeniably brilliant.  Here the most obvious allusion is to Walt Whitman, himself a homosexual poet, but the leaves of grass becoming instead “pillars” at once reveals the first phallic image among many in the poem, and also references Lot’s Wife turning into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom (which, of course, is where the word sodomize comes from).  Being “lost among the thirteen million” expresses the desire to be both hidden and open about one’s sexuality — to be hidden in plain sight — and I also wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that thirteen million is an estimate on the number of gay men in America in 1957, when the poem was written.

All this in one line.

Once you find that key, the rest of the fractured narrative starts to make sense — all the seminal fluids and phallic objects (the honey, the key, the cigar, and so on), the dark barn and the bedroom, dandelions and the lilac cube*, the “Please.”  (“Now he only cared about the signs…” — are all the signs, now, Freudian?)

But “They Dream Only of America” is more than just an occluded love poem. “There is nothing to do/ For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” After oppression, even freedom is a horror. And there it returns to Lot’s Wife — she turned to salt only when she looked back. Ashbery wrote the poem when he was thirty, living in Paris, the city to which he’d fled from the sexual restrictions of America — so Ashbery himself is looking back, turning to salt as he does.  But there’s more to it, even, than that — there’s a hint of Stockholm Syndrome, there’s the thrill of the secret, of impossible love losing its luster in fact, and so on.

This is complicated stuff — and I think there are also references to the French Revolution as well, which I haven’t even mentioned (The Tennis Court Oath itself is the moment where the French people “came out of the closet” to form the National Assembly). Or smaller things that I’m less sure of — is “ash tray” a reference (even visually) to “Ashbery”?

The point is, though, that I don’t care about this stuff.  Or, rather, my enjoyment of this poetry is entirely other than the enjoyment I get from what I consider to be great poems, the poems that work like spells.  The pleasure in Ashbery is the pleasure of a Rubik’s Cube — the text is a puzzle to be solved, which happens to be constructed in the music of language.  It’s more than just a Rubik’s Cube, because even when you come to an interpretation of the poem, there’s an indescribable mystery to it, that pang of unexplained epiphany.  Even the riddle’s answer is more than you can wrap your head around.  This is art.  You can’t argue that it isn’t poetry — but it’s not my poetry.

All this to say — yesterday’s definition was too narrow and personal.  There are really three kinds of poetry, and I can contort their categories enough to call them the Three E’s:

  1. Exclamatory — The artful and didactic expression of preconceived sentiment. This is greeting card and occasional poetry.  The kind your aunt who never reads likes you to send her.  What George Orwell referred to last week as “good bad poetry,” and what Elizabeth Alexander read last month. This is actually by far the most popular, though we wish we could show the masses what they’re missing.
  2. Experiential — The poetry-as-spell I described yesterday. The poem is an incantation, a rhythmic shaping of the breath that uses the body as a medium and so recreates an emotional or mental experience for the reader.  This is my kind of poetry, and I believe the most popular among so-called “poetry users.”
  3. Exegeses — (A hard word to say, even harder to turn into an adjective…exegeian?) The poetry of analysis, poetry-as-puzzle.  This is the poetry of the academics, emphasizing condension, allusion, subversion, lexography, and etymology, among many other tools.  The least popular, but the most critically acclaimed.

A cynic would say that exegesis poetry is only popular, even in academia, because it justifies the position of the professor (or critic) as a conduit to the God of Poetic Truth.  When the dean comes around, you can show how much work you’ve been doing, because the students books are filled with marginalia, all the allusions they wouldn’t have noticed without you.

I’m not so cynical, though.  Breaking down “They Dream Only of America” was fun tonight.  Just not kind of fun I prefer to receive from my poetry.  I want an experience, not a challenge — unless I’m really in the mood for it.

But I think poetry is done a disservice by having only one name for itself.  In high school you’re taught to analyze poems, to look for all the hidden meanings and allusions in your CliffsNotes so you can write an essay about them, as if all poems are about the exegesis.  So you miss the joy of just experiencing the kind of poems that don’t need to be broken down.  On the other end of the spectrum, “Hallmark verse” gets called poetry, too, and so we have to feel embarrassed as poets that “Roses are red” is considered the same art form.  It’s not — these three categories of poetry are entirely different — they operate on different parts of the mind, and they have entirely different goals.  The only thing that unifies them is the superficiality of how they look on the page.

Earlier I said I don’t support the balkanization of poetry, but maybe that’s not true.  I think if we started looking at them as separate entities, it  might be easier to appreciate each one for what it is and is trying to do.


* It’s worth noting that Ashbery was born in Rochester, NY, and grew up in the small town of Sodus, about an hour’s drive to the east.  I was born in the same place, and my first memories are of Sodus, where I lived from ages 2 through 5.  The two flowers mentioned in this poem are of especial interest to locals.  The annual spring celebration in Rochester is called the Lilac Festival, and the University of Rochester was built on a field of dandelions — the yellow weed, I’ve heard, becoming the school mascot for nearly a century, until students started taking exception to the “dandy” image on their chests, and changed the nickname to the much more manly Yellowjacket.  Could Ashbery have been referencing this urban legend?  I have no idea.

What Is Poetry: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

Don’t ask me why it’s taken a poetry editor five years to realize how much fun it can be to listen to podcasted poetry — those are deeper mysteries — but I’ve spent a lot of time this week listening to past episodes of the nicely produced Pacifica Radio program Poet’s Cafe.  M.C. Bruce and Lois P. Jones have interviewed scores of interesting poets on the show, from all levels of fame, and a variety of backgrounds.  The most common question is this: “What is your definition of poetry?”

I’ve listened to about a dozen episodes so far, and when this question is asked, the poets invariably stammer and ponder, backtrack, and then hedge whatever answer they finally come up with against the inevitable subjectivity of artistic experience.  Listen for yourself.  This fact has only reinforced what I’ve already come to believe, having edited dozens of literary interviews: Most poets, even the most talented, those more brilliant than I can ever aspire to be, have little idea what they’re actually doing, or how they do it. Poets talk about poetry like the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant: “It’s long and slender like a snake!” “No, it’s thick and sturdy like the base of a tree!” Even though they’re all talking about the same thing.

And it drives me nuts. Because, though I may just be young and naive and sophomoric, the answer is excruciatingly obvious to me.  It’s self-evident and indisputable:

Poetry is magic.

I don’t mean magic as some grand self-important metaphor, or that poetry will make the table float up off the floor and wow the crowds. I mean poetry is real, honest to god, actual-because-it-works magic.

Last month I started playing a real video game for the first time in about a decade.  I wanted something to become engrossed in, something to play when I’m tired and want to escape from the world. So I looked for a game that had the biggest world to lose yourself in, and Google told me that game was Morrowind. It’s basically Dungeons & Dragons on the computer, with swords and shields and health points and all that– including magic.  If you’re not a wizard and adept at magic, you cast your spells by reading a scroll.  Each scroll has a silly little phrase, like “Woe be upon you”, and presumably your character says the phrase aloud to produce the desired effect.

That’s what a spell is: a string of words you recite to produce some desired effect. And that’s what poetry is: a string of words you recite to produce some desired effect.

Unlike in Morrowind, there are no poems for walking on water or shooting lightning out of our fingertips — but you could easily say that there are poems for healing.  There are poems for laughter, poems for joy, poems for sadness, poems for epiphany, poems for transformation.

Another word for a spell is a mantra, which comes from the Sanskrit “man” (to think) and “-tra” (tool) — literally translated, then, a mantra is a tool for transforming the mind. Mantras have been a key component to meditation in the Vedic tradition for thousands of years, and are taken as seriously as any religion, distilled in the now infamous Om. Buddhism has the Great Compassion Mantra, and the Heart Sutra. Hinduism has mantras for Vishnu and Shanti. Mantra japa are recited in cycles of 108, counted on beaded necklaces called malas, which do more than just remind one of Catholic prayer beads — they’re one in the same.

No matter what tradition they’re working form, people use the sounds and rhythms of language as a nexus of meditation, in an effort to alter their own mental states. That’s all poetry is — a spell, a prayer, a mantra, transcribed by one and recited by another.

Once you see poetry in this way, other aspects of the artform start to make a lot of sense:

  1. Every sound is important.  If you say Abracablahblah instead of Abracadabra, the Count doesn’t turn from a vampire into a cute little bat.  The spell just fails. That’s why a certain word in a poem can feel “off.”  And the rhythm matters, too — that’s why a poet can spend the entire day deciding to delete a comma only to add it back again. If you’re conjuring up the Devil, you don’t want to mispronounce his name.
  2. Every time you cast a spell, it loses some of its effect. Cliches are old spells. They’re little poems that used to work, but we’ve used them so often the papyrus is crumbling and the magic’s worn off.
  3. Conversely, fresh language is a new spell, and new spells are the most powerful.
  4. Performance poets are master magicians, who can use weaker spells to great effect.
  5. Page poets craft brilliant spells that only work when you cast them yourself.
  6. Attention matters.  One of the main tenants of any school of magic is the idea that the focused will is central to execution. If your mind starts to wander, or you lose your suspension of disbelief, the spell fails. You have to have faith in the magic for the magic to work.

Most importantly, the poem-as-spell definition explains the fundamental connection between meditation and composition. It explains my favorite quote, by Elizabeth Bishop: “What we receive from great art is the same thing that’s necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” It explains why so many poets like to write in the woods, why they all have little tricks to get in the right mindset, why it helps to read other poems first to prime the pump of language in their heads.

If what a poet is doing is crafting a mantra — a tool for altering one’s mental state — it’s necessary to be experiencing that desired state at the moment of creation.  A poet’s job is to conjure a magical space, and then record it as a string of language, so that others may follow them there.

It’s as simple as that, and we should be able to say it as sincerely as a Vedic priest: All poetry is magic.

Eureka!: Poetic Discovery and Poe: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

As someone who likes to pretend he used to be a scientist — I majored in biochemistry, had a work study at an mRNA lab, and so on — I can’t help but wonder what life might have been like if I hadn’t jumped-ship for the po-biz. I say “pretend” because it was only three years as an undergraduate; my name appears on the tail-end of a few papers, but only as a glorified proofreader. Still, I had a nice toe-hold on a career path in pharmacology or virology, and my alumni newsletter tells me that the woman who took my place in the lab just received her PhD. What if that were me? What would it be like to come to work in a white coat and goggles instead of my boxers and a cup of coffee? I can’t even imagine…

I still subscribe to science journals and watch shows like Nova, and it has to be more than a coincidence that I find myself on a softball team of molecular biologists. After the games they sit around drinking beer, talking in a jargon I vaguely remember, and I can’t tell if it’s simple nostalgia or something more akin to regret that I feel.

But there’s solace in the fact that not all understanding comes from a lab. Real leaps of discovery is the stuff of poetry. It was Einstein’s thought experiments that changed the world. The structure of DNA came to Watson in a dream. Critical analysis followed for each, but the “aha!” didn’t come from inside a beaker or at a blackboard.

Which brings me to the roundabout point of this post. I was reading Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds a few weeks ago, and came across a story that I’d somehow never heard. Apparently, Edgar Allen Poe’s last work — which he considered to be his greatest — Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first plausible solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called that Dark Sky Night Paradox, Heinrich Olbers described the problem of the relatively-low brightness of the night sky, in 1823. If the universe were infinite and eternal, as was commonly held at the time, then any line of sight would eventually hit the surface of a star — therefore every point in the sky would be bright. In Eureka (1849), Poe explains it like this:

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy –since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

Poe is describing the concept of a bounded observable universe. (Interestingly, another solution, which doesn’t require a finite “big bang” model involves a fractal distribution of stars…)

He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a “primordial particle”:

…one particle — a particle of one kind — of one character — of one nature — of one size — of one form — a particle, therefore, “without form and void” — a particle positively a particle at all points — a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided…

The particle then expands outward by “divine volition,” a repulsive force that’s opposed to gravity. Once matter is expelled outward it begins to clump together due to gravity, forming the stars and galaxies we see today. Eventually, gravity draws all matter together to once again form the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite serious of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. Sound familiar?

Of course, Poe didn’t know about the red shift, about dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation. In fact, he didn’t know much about the details of science at all. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only his famed “ratiocination” — and poetry.