Robert Bly, who’s work I deeply appreciate and enjoy, has been heard to remark with scathing criticism upon the tendency he’s seen in much modern poetry to list, catalog, and otherwise dryly describe the mere things of the world, rather than the more potent essences, which are the honest well-spring of insight and enthusiasm for life.
“In a poem, as in a human body, what is invisible makes all the difference… facts of the outer world push out the imagination and occupy the poem themselves.” -R. Bly, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry.”
I have experienced a similar thing in much modern poetry. Bly, in the referenced article, offers a poem by William Carlos Williams as an example of his view.
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
I want to say that I enjoy many of Williams’s poems, but the above is not one of them that I particularly enjoy, which is not to say it has no meaning or value. I think I might have a clue what he was trying to get after, but, just as Bly has said, he seems to have missed the mark because there is absolutely nothing personal in the poem. There is nothing to which a reader might relate. The poem strikes me as being kind of like a catalog of the contents of a museum case containing nondescript objects of anonymous origin, not related in any meaningful way to the living (or the dead). It’s almost as though Williams’s point is the pointlessness of artifacts drifting beyond any human context. He lays out a collection of objects not related to each other or to any individual, as if they are placed upon a white, brilliantly lit table by a robot who pulled them from a box.
In an effort to revive what I think could be Williams’s intent, I offer the following rewrite of the poem. It is different a bit in style, but it attempts to delve what Williams may have had tucked safely in his pocket, but which he forgot to retrieve in the act of writing it.
of the living
Perhaps the broken green glass represents the absence of the living, that it has been exorcised from the scene. The hospital itself is like a mute but winged machine that can’t fly, that can’t express the human suffering that it hosts. The suffering itself is lost in the endless activity of the machine, and sifts down through the inscrutable stones of time.
As I was contemplating this, to me, rather profound observation of Bly’s, I found myself thinking about my own poetry, especially that which appears in my book Gathered Rain. And I wondered, how would I apply what Bly says, which appears to be a rather universal insight about what “good poetry” is, to my own work? I realized that my work predominantly is descriptive of events and situations in nature. But at the same time, I understood that these poems represent insights and meaningful, at times very difficult to articulate, feelings that are inherent to the experience that’s described. But was I successful in conveying those essential qualities of the experience or does the fact that the poetry of my book is primarily descriptive mean I had succumbed to the impersonal and unrelatable that Bly was criticizing?
Intuitively, I felt certain that the poetry in Gathered Rain, like haiku and other Northeast Asian poetry, does effectively offer a handle on difficult to express feelings and insights that are hidden in the descriptions and in the “subtext” of the poem. Even the rhythms and order of imagery seem to contribute to the conveyance of these inexpressible internal qualities, which are entities that exist only in the consciousness of the individual, in the heart, and which cannot really be discreetly symbolized, or captured, by any language. They cannot be said but must be “caught.” But, this really can’t be discussed without examples.
Here is an example of a poem that appears in Gathered Rain.
in my footprints.
This poem is, of course, descriptive and paints an image that is almost photographic. In fact, as I recall, it describes the details of an actual experience that I had. I was in college at IU in Bloomington, Indiana. One day, I was walking back from classes to my tiny apartment in town. It had snowed the night before and during the day the snow had melted to an extent such that now, because it was later in the day and colder, the accumulation of liquids that naturally occurs in depressions in the snow, such as footprints, was solidifying into ice. The sun was low and as I looked up ahead on the sidewalk, westward toward the setting sun, I noticed the brilliant reflections of red, gold, and green forming in the footprints which I’d made that morning.
Despite its seemingly documentarian nature, however, when you actually entertain the imagery of “rainbows in footprints,” something happens to the poem. It moves from the merely pragmatic and descriptive into the realm of the subjective, imaginative, and meaningful. When you consider this in the context of “returning home,” greater meaning is added. It’s like a string quartet. The four lines of the poem are instruments of the ensemble. The first line is the cello, providing the bass, or foundation for the poem. The second line is the viola, which with its sweet and mellow tones breathes a rich sense of the personal and immediate nature of one’s own experience. The rainbow line is that of the first violin, the melody, that which brings the lyrical nature of the experience into the fore. And of course, the last line, is the second violin, the moving force that fills the melodies of the first violin with the duality, or complimentarity, that is required to perceive with fullness. Nothing is a singular thing. Everything is composed of complimentary structures and essences, things which play off of each other. The first and second violin represent this truth, just as do the third and fourth lines of the poem.
The poem has music and meaning because of the relationship between its images, its lines, its rhythms, sounds, and its explicit words. Together they point, like a musical composition, to deeper inner, subjective states and insights — melodies of meaning.
Although I won’t offer a particular interpretation of the poem (because I would rather the archetypes work their own magic for each person according to his or her own nature), hopefully I’ve shown that, while Bly’s observation is particularly poignant and useful in understanding why a good poem appeals to one, it is not, like most things, so literal as to be a prison for the poet or the avid lover of poetry. Rather, we can find that it is possible through the creative power of any individual in using the vehicle of language, or any other conveyance of intention, to share inner states that otherwise would be inscrutable. Such is the case with the poetry of Gathered Rain, as with poems like those of Wordsworth or Shelley that convey with magnificent detail the subjective textures of incisive observations delivered by ornate but flawless language. In other words, it is possible with very few words (as in a haiku) to express deep and vast insights that are impossible to objectify by discreet language, just as it is possible to do so in the lengthy postulations of an ode, or in the complex and subliminal imagery of subconscious archetypes used by such poets as Bly, or Rilke, or Rimbaud, or Lorca.