Last summer I edited a forthcoming anthology (April 2014) of poetry called Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words that Move Them, and was struck by several lines of poetry throughout, but one line in particular shattered me: “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day,” in Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”
In all honesty, I cannot say what this line makes me feel; all I know is that it startled me, and still does. Its language conveys a vague image to me, and yet it sets me to rapture nonetheless. It makes me feel, and that, in truth, is the purpose and point of poetry—to make one feel, and feel deeply.
I believe poetry is akin to music in that it comes closest to expressing the experiences of the human spirit most fully and successfully; it captures the intense emotion and feeling that humans experience in various encounters. It brings the soul to life; it wakens it from the sleep of blind, deaf contentment—a lulled ignorance of its true state of being—from which it suffers because of the routine, mundane experiences of everyday life, and the constant push toward programming us to become consumption-centered automatons that the media aids corporations in accomplishing.
I have tried repeatedly to address the subject of poetry, its purpose as a genre, for over a decade now, and realize that its purpose is truly to make one feel, to make one react not just to what is being read, but also to the sensations and emotions that the poem’s language produces in the reader.
Poetry wants us not just to reflect on how and what the speaker (or character) is observing, feeling, or reacting, but wants us, its living readers, to reflect and respond to our own mental and emotional reactions to its language.
Poetry, for me, is about bathing in the waters of emotion inspired and set into motion by the language I read. Fiction would like us to follow the developing plotlines, and twists and turns of a narrative, a story about the lives of characters that unfolds before us to some resolution. We are meant to love, hate, or find ourselves indifferent to the characters we are reading about. We are meant to think about certain themes on a larger scale that are touched upon. Poetry wants us to react in the same way to its speaker (or character) and its themes, but its main focus seems to be on the emotional reaction we have to its language.
Poetry cares not if you comprehend its surface meaning, its narrative. It cares only that you discover your emotions and dwell upon their intensity. When it comes to poetry, it is fundamentally about experiencing, washing in, the emotions ignited by its words and tone.
As with most things, we react first, and then we “naturally,” without realizing it, organize our emotional experience into coherent logical thought and then verbalize it for others and ourselves. This is the sin, the punishment, of civilization and society. We are made to think about, and so deaden, our emotions. Logical thought and verbal expression destroy the intense experience of emotion. As Nietzsche wrote, “That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts.” He is certainly right, in the sense that by the time we express the emotion of the experience in words that emotion has lost its intensity, the purity of how it actually felt; the sensual experience of our feelings is dead before the words we speak (or write) come to our lips or the page. This is the greatest horror of life: to have had civilization and society take from us the most natural part of ourselves, and replace it with the decadence of thought and over-analysis.
This is why I have never really taken kindly to Wordsworth’s notion in his famous Preface to the Lyrical Ballads that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” How can “emotion recollected in tranquility,” which is no doubt tempered, if not completely deadened or erased, by the juggernaut of Time, lead to “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”? Have those feelings not lost their power with Time’s passing? And has not Time naturally altered one’s memory of the events and one’s emotional reaction at first experience, adulterating it to new emotion in response to the memory, and not the event itself, whether misremembered or not?
The language of poetry should tear me open and reveal my insides to me. It should pierce and penetrate me with the arrows of Saint Sebastian and make me bleed and moan. The language of poetry should cut me, stab me deep and repeatedly with its words for daggers and leave me bloody and barely breathing. The language of poetry should make me climax with emotion, with a deeper sensual knowing of who I am as a human being. It should make me hunger and search relentlessly for more of the same. It should crack open my rib cage and ravage my heart. The language of poetry should break me into countless shards and crush me to dust. And finally, it should leave me raw, naked to myself and to the cosmos from which I came and will return.