Inside the Mind of Poetry


in Features


One must have a mind of winter.

The greatest lines in poetry are infinitely quotable while having no definite meaning. What is a mind of winter, and why must one have one? It doesn’t matter. Wallace Stevens’ greatness lay in his ability to produce these kinds of anti-aphorisms, seemingly wise but ultimately ungraspable: Thought is false happiness. She sang beyond the genius of the sea. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. And, most pointedly: The poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully. (Or, nay, successfully!)

I believe that to read poetry, one must have a mind of poetry. You must enter a state where you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meaning. It’s quite similar to those Magic Eye posters from the ‘90s: If you haven’t figured out how to look at them, you can’t believe that anyone really sees the dolphin. (This metaphor has its limits, making learned skill seem like an on/off conversion; too, with poetry, even when you’ve mastered “the trick,” not everyone sees the same thing.)

Is this “negative capability”? I’m not sure.

Negative capability, as described by Keats, is rather delightfully poetic in itself, a form of imitative fallacy in criticism, a mental onomatopoeia. It seems clear enough by his own definition: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” But it’s so often badly paraphrased, in conversation and in print; Wikipedia defines it as “the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts” (to their credit this merits a “citation needed”). A concept so frequently muddled must be inherently mysterious and as such, perhaps, a shibboleth; if you don’t understand negative capability you won’t understand poetry.

There are probably people who go through life with a permanent mind of poetry. I am not one of those people. I fall in and out of it, and not at will. As I write this, I am not in it, and have not been for three or four months, which is to say, I have not been able to focus on or become absorbed in any book of poetry. Oddly, I have continued to write poetry. I continue to think about poetry, almost daily. As my Twitter feed reveals, one doesn’t need a mind of poetry to talk about poetry.

But I don’t want to read it. Or – and this is how it feels, when I’ve lost my mind for poetry – poetry doesn’t want me to read it. I can look at the words on the page and feel fairly certain that they represent good poetry, but I remain unmoved and unengaged. It’s like looking at an attractive person when you’re freshly in love with someone else: an empty appreciation that leads nowhere. When I’m in the mood for poetry, it’s not a seduction on my part; it’s more like the poem and I have chemistry.

Actually, let’s follow this metaphor. I have, as it were, been in love with someone else. After going through a period of reader’s block last year, when I was unable to read at length in any genre at all, my appetite for books is perhaps more ravenous than ever. But none of what I’m reading is poetry. I have fallen in love with prose. Novels, essays, memoir, combinations of the three, pop science meets self-help, et cetera: exactly none of it in lines.

So let’s talk about the difference between poetry and prose: a difference so often belabored but rarely to much satisfaction. It’s a go-to move in bad criticism, to balk at a poem’s being “just prose chopped up into lines.” Reader, this statement may sound radical at first, but it couldn’t be more obvious: Poetry is just prose chopped up into lines. I mean this to be final, categorical, and no slight on poetry.

Here’s what I take to be the spirit of the statement: Poetry pays more attention to language; poetry foregrounds, through careful choices, rhythm and music and all those lovely side effects of language and syntax. I don’t disagree with these statements. But when you call a poem “prose chopped up into lines,” you’re ignoring two things: 1) Excellent prose pays as much attention to language as poetry (more so than bad poetry), and 2) One of the ways that poetry foregrounds the “side effects” of language is via its lines, its form on the page. In other words, great prose can do anything great poetry can do – except be in lines! We wouldn’t even need the word “prose” if it weren’t for poetry. Dear God, let’s not downplay the importance of lines, the one thing that by definition makes poetry poetry. Lines don’t only affect the reader but also the poet; they double back and change the way you write the poem. Theoretically, you could write a novel in iambs, and some obsessive probably has. But pentameter requires feet, which require a line to be measured against.

Defining poetry in such a way has repercussions. One is that you lose the category of “prose poetry,” to which I say, whatever – it was always only useful inasmuch as it meant “poets working in short prose forms.” (Poetry prose would be more accurate, since it’s poetry-ish, not prose-ish.) The other repercussion is more scintillating, that we’re forced to reconcile the magical power of lineation. That roomy margins, extra white space on the page somehow reinforce complexity – as though the absence of meaning to the right of the line (seriously, there’s nothing there) creates a void that, in horror vacui, the mind tries and fails to fill. In truth I think it’s more of a Laffer curve, versus a linear relationship, with comprehensibility on one axis and white space on the other – a long work of prose with no paragraph breaks (as in some of Faulkner’s more infuriating books) is as difficult as open field poetry.

How, in any case, to get back to the mind of poetry? Is there some strategy, some “hack” I can use to shift into it, the way I saw the hidden image in those posters by sort of half-crossing my eyes? I tricked myself back into reading by using the library more: due dates as deadlines. I think when you’re in love, it’s easier to change your habits, a spell against complacency. Maybe if I change the way I read prose – more recursively, or with more skipping around, or more second guesses. Maybe if I read prose as though I’m trying to impress it.