Responding to the Poet as Prophet

Times Book Critic

Poetry may have become something of a tender subject on this page ever since Jack Miles, who owns the page and occasionally asks me to fill it, announced that The Book Review would henceforth publish a poem each week and fewer poetry reviews. This created a small literary scandal which, in the way of such things, expanded and transmogrified until it came to seem that some poets felt that the plan was an insult to their art.

To publish the work of some poets would unquestionably bring poetry into disrepute, but the fact is that if reading poetry is generally somewhat harder than reading prose--and it ought to be--writing about it is unexpectedly easy. "Easy" in our puritanical lexicon is probably a pejorative word, so I should say something like "rewarding" or "liberating" or even "natural." In fact, I mean all four.

Why this should be so is suggested, in different ways, by two reflections about poetry that have come my way in recent weeks. Both are by writers who, besides being fine poets, have the gift to express in prose some of the peculiar quality and ecology of their art. One of these is Josef Brodsky, whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech was published in the New Republic. The other is Donald Hall, who some time ago wrote an article titled "The Way to Say Pleasure ."

Brodsky, exiled from the Soviet Union, was making a case for art as the matrix of human individuality amid the social and political pressures that seek to level it. Most of his examination refers to literature as a whole but, implicitly at first and then explicitly, what he says is applied with particular force to poetry.

For an artist to speak as a public figure is to fall into pomposity; Brodsky, who finds it necessary to be public and impossible to be pompous, uses a touch of comic excess to deflate himself. He tells us that our prospective leaders should be interrogated not about their foreign policy but about their attitudes toward Stendhal, Dickens and Dostoevsky. He grants that some despots have been literate but that "their hit list was longer than their reading list."

This is fun; but less important than Brodsky's vision of the poet exercising prophecy and perpetually redefining individuality through his loyalty to language.

The human task, he writes, "consists first of all in mastering a life that is one's own, not imposed or prescribed from without, no matter how noble its appearance may be." The poet possesses the supreme means of expressing this unique identity.

"The black vertical clot of words on the white sheet of paper presumably reminds him of his own situation in the world, of the ballads between space and his body."

Language, not ideology, gives the poet his prophetic function.

"There are times when, by means of a single word, a single rhyme, the writer of a poem manages to find himself where no one has ever been before him, further, perhaps, than he himself would have wished for."

And the reader of this prophecy, he adds, is no passive spectator but is doomed "to the role of performer only." Poetry is a conversation, "and in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness."

It is some distance from Brodsky's high-tension vision to Hall's more relaxed ramblings. Hall may feel, like the Russian, that he speaks for Poetry, but he manages to suggest that it is something he dug up in the next field, and gets tremendous pleasure from. Never mind; they converge.

They converge in the image of the poet and his reader forging primal values in their complicity of language--one to one, performers both. Hall is particularly interested in the reader's performance. "We watch ballet with our legs," he writes, and if we are doing it properly, we read poetry with our mouth. "It is literature if when you read it aloud it gets better."

The pleasures of allusion, of imagery, of catharsis in poetry "come long after we taste the work's verbal tangible (chewable) body." Until we perform it, we don't have it. Intellectual and formal aspects are all very well, he tells us, and we wait for the "but." "Information gives pleasure but never so much as a head rub."

Real poetry comes from nowhere, Brodsky tells us, or, quoting Anna Akhmatova, "It grows from rubbish." The poet who finds it can never be interchangeable; neither can the reader who finds the poet and performs with him or her. Are there perhaps 50,000 different Brodskys, one for each of 50,000 readers? Are there 15,000 Halls? (Don't hold me to those numbers; they are wild guesses.)

So perhaps it becomes easier to understand the claim that writing about poetry is easy (rewarding, liberating, natural). It is not about its subject but about its self. Above all, it is about its collaboration with its reader. As reader, I already own half of it. Poetry may be difficult, elaborate and knotty, but once reached--if there is truly something to reach--it is very direct. Its reader is its echo. Response is not only easy but unavoidable. And if the reader is using a typewriter, why there you are.

There is also something else. Believe it or not, one of the real difficulties in reviewing is overcoming a native and perennial inhibition. Angry readers may ask: Who are you to say such-and-such about so-and-so? They will never ask it as often and as searchingly as the reviewer will. With poetry, once reached, there is something that needs our response. We are empowered; we are collaborators.

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