April is National Poetry Month. Once again, those of us who are writers and/or readers of poetry try to say something about what poetry means, or doesn't mean, to us, what it is and what it does.
I have noticed over the years that everyone writes poetry. On the sly. Well, almost everyone. Everyone stops to listen if there's a good poem being spoken. "Talk like rain, talk like rain again," tribal people said to the European visitor who recited poems to them, even though they didn't understand a word. They got it.
We talk about the "music" of poems, and there is that. But I would like to suggest that a poem is ultimately about silence.
The wonderful poet Li-Young Lee, who by the way lives nearby in Chicago, says that the silence of a poem "disillusions us of our own small presence in order to reveal the presence of this deeper silence — the pregnant, primal, ancient, contemporary, and immanent silence."
How does a poem do that? It slows us down, for one thing. We are asked to pause at strange places. Sometimes there are no sentences. A poem insists that we quit listening to the surface of things and listen to what there are no words for. Yes, really. We must listen to what can't be said.
Not all poems provide this for us. Some are in love with surfaces, and that's good, too. Some poems tell stories and make us laugh and make us see more clearly. But the most powerful ones do that and also call us to stop and hear what else there is.
Some poems we don't understand very well on a logical surface level. We can think of them as opening our dream-world to us, the one we would recognize in our dreams.
The older I get, the more I am convinced that poetry is crucial to the world. That sounds like tooting my own horn, doesn't it? I assure you, I am only one humble poet in a sea of brilliance.And there is a sea of brilliance if we look for it.
Poetry, the best of it, is not to be read to make us more "cultured." It is not to be read to teach us a lesson. It is not to be read to parse out what it might "mean." It is to be read to dislodge our habitual minds, to disturb the soil around our roots and open it to fresh air. It is to be read to speak to that part of us that has no words.
The part of us that has no words, the sub- or un-conscious mind, rules us. If you don't believe it, look at politics today. We vote with our gut, no matter what sort of clear logic refutes it. Our gut doesn't listen to reason. Our gut listens inside the silence.
A poem forces us to stop at the end of a line. It doubles back on itself, jumps ahead of itself, breaks logic into a million pieces and shows us a different sort of logic, the one we recognize with our deep mind, not our surface one. It makes us pay real attention to words, to stop and wonder at them. And when a poem is finished, after we've heard it, if we listen to the silence at the end instead of instantly clapping, we will hear the real poem that echoes in the silence.
Since I've mentioned Li-Young Lee, I'll give you one of his poems to show you what I mean. Most of us have moved to a different house in our lives. We relate. We remember how it's a bit disorienting. Then the poem expands to larger moves: the feeling is like coming back to the village where we were born. The feeling is like "a memory of heaven." How can we "remember" heaven? And the poem continues to walk us out to the end of the branch of rationality until we fall off. What is that question from which all questions begin? The temptation is to search our minds for a logical answer. But the poem asks us to stop there. Let the question hang in the air. This is what it is to move to a new place: you don't know things, yet. You have to use that part of your mind that doesn't know, the part where all creativity and all wonder comes from.
Fleda Brown is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her new website, go to www.fledabrown.com.