Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What is a poem?

I wrote about poetry reading generally yesterday, so today I thought I'd write about how my current poetry read is going, Jane Kenyon's Otherwise. I'm liking it, although I don't think I've quite figured it out yet. I've read maybe 40 pages out of 200 or so, so I still have time. I'm not quite sure what I mean when I say I haven't figured it out yet, except that I'm thinking as I read about what it is that makes the poems poetry, what unites them, if anything, what Kenyon's style is, what makes her a great poet, if she is indeed a great poet.

Although I've sort of read poetry for a while, mostly in my capacity as a teacher, I've taken up more serious and steady poetry reading purely for pleasure once again after a long, long break without reading it much. So as I read, I'm figuring out what it is I like in a poem and what kind of poetry draws me. So far I've been very pleased with my choices; I've read Mary Oliver's American Primitive and Jane Hirschfield's Given Sugar, Given Salt and was blown away by them both. I think I loved them both so much because their poems were beautiful and they were wise. Kenyon's are those things too, but I'm still figuring out how.

I'm realizing that poetry may do something substantially different for me than fiction does. I try to be widely read in fiction -- I try to read from different cultures and different time periods and I try to read different novel types. With poetry, I'm less interested in that kind of coverage. I read poetry very slowly -- these days I'm reading only a handful of poems a week so it will take me forever to get through a book -- and so will never read all that widely. And with poetry, I'm more likely to go for what I think will be a comfort read. In fiction I might try an author I'm afraid I won't like; in poetry I wouldn't do that.

Jane Kenyon's Otherwise is made up of "new and selected" poems; it makes me wish I had full, individual volumes of her work instead of selections from the different books, as I wonder how much each book has a central theme, and how much I might be missing reading poems outside the context of the original book. I'm reading selected poems from her book From Room to Room right now, and many of the poems seem to be about visiting or living with her husband's family, about visits to elderly relatives, about funerals and mourning. And I wonder if there's a story behind the book or a theme that runs through the book that I'm not getting. In that case, the poems would be discrete units in and of themselves, but they would also together form a whole as a book.

Here's an example of a poem from the book:

Cleaning the Closet

This must be the suit you wore
to your father's funeral:
the jacket
dusty, after nine years,
and hanger marks on the shoulders,
sloping like the lines
on a woman's stomach, after
having a baby, or like the down-
turned corners
of your mouth, as you watch me
fumble to put the suit
back where it was.

So what makes that a poem? It's got images in it -- the hanger marks slope like lines on a woman’s stomach or like the corners of the man’s, probably her husband’s, mouth. It creates a mood and captures a moment – the husband seems unhappy, frowning at being reminded of his father’s funeral. The dust and hanger marks make the passing time vivid, and yet the emotion is still there. You’ve got the death and life theme, with the reference to having a baby, and cleaning out the closet makes one think of renewal.

The situation is rather complex, really, as the speaker is speaking directly to the man, who seems to frown at what is happening – not liking to be reminded of the funeral or unhappy that the speaker has taken the suit out, and the speaker fumbles to put the suit back, as though she has done something wrong, invaded some space she shouldn’t have. Watching the woman clean out the closet is too painful for the man, I suppose, so the speaker tries to make up for evoking hard memories by returning the suit to its original place, as though she could undo her original action. Maybe she doesn’t even know for sure that that’s the suit her husband wore to the funeral but can gauge it by her husband’s reaction. Cleaning out the closet brings too much into the daylight.

There’s probably more going on there, that I haven’t gotten to?

Okay – one thing I can say about what makes a poem a poem, is that a poem says more in a few words than I can say in a lot of them in prose!