They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “Still” –
Chapter 5 left out one important aspect of the conversation poetry is always having. This part of the conversation is so pervasive and fundamental that it may be part of all poems: poetry itself is always attempting to figure out what it is and what it is doing. One of the oldest ongoing conversations in the world of poetry is the one about poetry. We’ve heard it said that philosophy is understood by many as an endless debate about what philosophy is. Poetry is no less subject to this way of thinking: Poetry is always trying to figure out what it is and what it’s doing. And poets address the question of the nature of poetry in many ways.
- For example, in Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” the question of how to “interpret” winter is closely related to the question of how to interpret poetry. The same is said of the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Walt Whitman.
- In a famous poem we haven’t read yet, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the Romantic poet meditates on the power of poetry to take us out of the world of suffering and death and into the eternal world from which the nightingale’s song emerges. The speaker concludes, rather pessimistically: “The fancy [imagination] cannot cheat as she is famed to do.” Poetry cannot get us there, says Keats, cannot even deceive us into thinking we have gone there. Or so he tells us (though the poem may leave us wondering where we are). No matter what else poetry is about, it’s about art. And art is almost always, at least in part, about itself as form and its process of becoming.
- So what does poetry say about itself? Poems say many things about what it is or does. And poets do not all agree on what poetry is or what it does. Most significantly it never stops asking, whether implicitly and explicitly. Here’s a fragment of another poem that comes right out and tells you what it’s about:
—Adrienne Rich, “The Fact of a Doorframe”
- How do you know when poetry is about itself?
- Aside from the obvious cases in which poetry openly tells you it is about itself (as in Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” and Archibald MacLeish’s or Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica”), you can be pretty sure that poetry about music is also poetry about poetry. The word “song,” in fact, has a secondary meaning of “poem,” particularly in poetry. Poets writing about singing are writing about what they are doing.
- Poets praising other subjects are often also writing about poetry. Poems in praise of women, for example, may also be in praise of poetry because women and poetry are considered (especially by poets of the past), throughout essentially the entire history of Western literature, to represent the highest reaches of human beauty. For example, Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” (“Portrait of a Lady”) is primarily a portrait of poetry. The same is true of poetry about landscape, Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” for example. This poem is explicitly about the creativity of God and the beauty of nature. But the creative principle is the same whether God makes a fish or a poet makes a poem. So whatever the poet intended as the subject, if a poet is writing about the beauty of any created thing, we may legitimately consider the poem as a comment on poetry.
In actual poems, poets meditating on or writing about poetry is a rather complex issue. So what a poem about poetry is saying about poetry may not always be as simple as what you might understand from an essay or a lecture like this. For example, Thomas Wyatt in “My Lute, Awake,” tell us that his music (i.e. poetry) is as useless in moving his beloved’s heart as speaking when there is no one to listen, or like trying to write on hard marble with soft lead.
As to be heard where ear is none,
As lead to grave in marble stone,
My song may pierce her heart as soon;
Should we then sigh or sing or moan?
No, no, my lute, for I have done.
So he’s going to give up music (poetry) altogether. But if he really means that, why would he write the poem to begin with? Isn’t the poet again attempting to win the beloved by saying he’ll stop trying? Or is he perhaps seeking to embarrass his beloved or even get a little symbolic revenge?
To understand the great number of things poets say about poetry in their poems, the best thing to do is read poems about poetry and talk about them. Here is a good place to start.
Spenser, “Sonnet 75” (Links to an external site.) (“One Day I Wrote Her Name upon the Strand”)
Dickinson, “1252 (Links to an external site.) [Tell all the truth, but tell it slant]”