Essay: what is poetry? – The New York Times


I am asked from time to time, with astonishment or derision, if such and such a poem is not simply “prose cut into verse”. This idea of ​​the free verse poem as “chopped” prose comes from Ezra Pound via Marjorie Perloff, who quotes Pound in her influential essay “The Linear Fallacy”, published in 1981. The essay encourages a strangely suspicious, even paranoid, reading of most verse as bogus poetry, as costumed prose. The verse, according to Perloff, in these ersatz poems, is a “surface device”, a “gimmick”. She removes all the breaks from a CK Williams poem to argue that a stanza without the intentional carriage returns is just a paragraph.

I find it disconcerting – as if cutting prose has no effect. This has an effect, the way putting more panes in a window changes the view. Architect Christopher Alexander believed that large bay windows were a mistake because “they take us away from the view”: “The smaller the windows, and the smaller the panes, the more the windows help us connect with what is on the other. side. It is an important paradox. To repeat the Forsterian obvious, adding breaks to a paragraph won’t always make an interesting poem – but most poets don’t write that way. They write in line, along with the void. It changes the way you write — and more profoundly, your way of thinking, and even of being, your way of being. When you write in the line, there is always an awareness of mystery, of what is left out. That’s why, I guess, poems can be so confusing. The empty space on the page, this absence of language, provides no clue. But it communicates nothing — rather, it communicates nothing. This speak empty, it telegraphs the mystery.

By “mystery” I don’t mean metaphor or disguise. Poetry does not, or should not, achieve mystery only by hiding the known, or by translating the known into another, less familiar language. Mystery is the unknown, the unknown—as in Jennifer Huang’s “Departure”: “Things I don’t know have remained/In this house. The mystery is the missing mountain in “The Butterflies the Mountain and the Lake” by Shane McCrae:

the / Butterflies monarch butterflies huge swarms they
Migrate and as they migrate south as they
Crossing Lake Superior instead of flying

South straight they fly
South over water then flight east
still above the water then fly south again / And now
biologists believe they turn to avoid a mountain

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