The Joy-Importance of Poetry
THOMAS CROFTS teaches medieval literature and classical languages at East Tennessee State University. His poems have appeared in The Texas Observer, Upstart Crow, Born Magazine and the Anthology of Southern Poetry: Tennessee. He lives with Molly, Rex, Augie and Shadow.
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The Joy-Importance of Poetry: Two Scrolls for Seymour
Author’s note: when asked if I would write a short essay on poetry for Seymour, I immediately said yes. Not because I am such an expert but because I say yes to anything Melissa Unger, editrix subtilis, happens to ask. Coiled in that readiness, I was soon in possession of these two scrolls. Key words form the title of each.
SCROLL I. TERMS CHUANG-TSE BLACKBURN COCTEAU
Terms: let them be as provisional as you like, but today let’s agree on the following:
Joy. As distinct from its maladjusted cousin ‘happiness’, joy is a sudden ecstatic awareness or understanding of some kind of perfection: Zen masters experience this all the time. For rest of us it happens, for example, when seeing a flamenco dancer, when unexpectedly kissed, or walking in on your kids dancing to White Stripes.
Importance. Let us just take for granted that joy is important. I think it is true; plus it cuts my job almost in half.
Poetry. Try these: ‘Poetry is memorable speech’ (Auden); ‘Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar’ (Shelley). Or else call it the result of this effect, outlined in Paul Blackburn’s ‘The Art. ->
People, including Auden, will say—and many more of them think it than say it—that poetry is useless; in fact there’s a lot to that idea. Whether it is meant pejoratively or in appreciation, everybody is right. But to really explore the Great Uselessness, let us consult the following 4th-century bce exchange between Taoist philosopher Chuang-tse and his sophistical friend Hui-tse:
Hui-tse said to Chuang-tse, “I have a great tree called ‘The Pride of India.’ Its trunk is so twisted and bulbous, a chalk-line (for marking out lengths of timber) is useless. The branches are so contorted that the compass and set-square can do nothing. It stands at the roadside, but carpenters do not so much as glance at it. In the same way, Sir, your words are big and useless, and people are indifferent to them.
Chuang-tse replied, “Sir, you are grieved at the uselessness of your great tree; why not plant it in the Region of Non-being, the Domain of the infinitely Vast, wander beside it in a state of non-action, slumber peacefully beneath its shade? It would not then be hurt by the axe; nothing could injure it. There being no way to use it, how should it suffer harm?”
You don’t have to guess: the tree, for our purposes, is poetry its very self. Not because it’s such an apt metaphor, but because we are already half in love with it. It may also be a poet: twisted and lonely, ugly and exposed, but with a noble lineage and a beauty visible to a wise few. (That is one kind of poet-mutant, anyway.) The tree is a poem too, speaking to us from the side of the road, quietly drowning out the landowner’s cold appraisal.
More importantly, and much more funnily, Chuang-tse’s response ignores the use to which the tree is put by Hui-tse (as a supposed mirror of Chuang-tse’s philosophy), foregoes any refutations, and looks straight to the tree, not as a metaphor at all, but as a tree. Pretending to understand Hui-tse’s speech as concerning (rather than using) his tree, the philosopher teaches Hui-tse the way to value his tree (which was what Hui-tse, in spite of himself, was asking for when he opened his mouth in the first place). The way to esteem it—to benefit from it, to protect it—is to let it be an index of the Infinitely Vast, or as Buddhists call it, reality.
In other words, poetry as a human practice is not limited to—and is frequently exclusive of—picking up a book or magazine and reading a poem, or writing one either. It is a capability of seeing things according to their raw individuality, their Taoist inutility. In his statement, Jean Cocteau echoes both Shelley and Chuang-tse.
SCROLL II. FUCKING DOUBLE HELIX DR. EVIL COULD USE A BOAT
One of the most important—and usually the funniest—joys of poetry is when it lays bare the charms, or else the force, of our own dear vernacular, the vulgar eloquence of everyday speech. An example is in the first passage of Norman Dubie’s ‘At Sunset.’ ->
Yes, Norman Dubie just used ‘fucking’ as an adverb. Not only does ‘fuck’, in all its forms, merit thanks for its endless gifts to our speech, but it is perhaps at its finest, most cutting, as a modifer not of nouns but verbs. Our mind knew that already, our ears have heard it a thousand times, but the poet wields it like grenade-pin—with a verb in the imperative—and the joys are fucking intoxicating. One doesn’t stop to say, ‘but is it good poetry’—‘do I like it’—‘does it burn with a hard gem-like flame’: it’s too late for that. The poem has already caught us in its weird emergency moment.
Not all poems work so briskly, but it is less a question of finding the right poem than being open to the poetry everywhere: to Hui-tse’s mutant monster tree, to Blackburn’s white butterflies (& his weird-ass punctuation), to Cocteau’s overwhelming dog: seeing it, and letting our habitual logic slide. Another example: one day I suddenly realized that the following Steely Dan lyrics—which I had heard a thousand times—were as poetic as anything I had ever encountered:
Double helix in the sky tonight
Throw out the hardware, let’s do it right
Don’t ask me what they mean, but they send a shiver up my spine and into my brain and make me want a cigarette. I think, though I cannot prove it, that they work some excitement directly on my pineal gland. I keep telling my students that semantic meaning—the much-vaunted ‘content’ we supposedly crave—is usually a mere distraction, but they never believe me.
Sometimes great poetry can spring unexpectedly from otherwise tepid enjoyments, as when Dr. Evil shouts:
‘I’ve got your mojo and I’m taking it with me to the moon!’
Any poet would be proud of that breathless, beautiful line. (Austin Powers seems to get more out of life, but Dr. Evil is the better poet.)
And very often it springs from the smallest of words. In ‘Three Turkish Pictures’ Robert Kelly’s investigator, faced with an obscure woodcut showing a small man in bed receiving a boat from a larger man, reasons with a certain naked logic thus:
The small man must be a child
we can be certain from the lack
of hair on his face
and from the fact of giving.
Only a child is given things,
Only a child could use a boat in bed.
from Kill the Messenger (1979)
The small word I had in mind was ‘use’. The idiom is familiar: ‘I could use a cigarette.’ What use ‘it’ is put to stays unspoken, but this we know: he doesn’t have it, and if he got it he would know what to do with it. The intimacy of ‘use’ in Kelly’s poem, so knowing, so sympathetic, re-opens to our minds the vulnerability of being small, the tedium of being bedridden, and also the odd utilities that make it possible for small humans to fucking remain sane, and larger ones too if they’re lucky.
IN SUMMARY: Sudden ecstatic poetry-importance, twisted bulbous trunk, grenades, butterflies, throw out the hardware, the moon, a boat in bed.
-Thomas Crofts, 2014
Published: February 11th, 2014