by Jenna Resch
I believe every poet has a different relationship with poetry—it’s evident in the way each poet discusses their craft, the way they treat their words, and the way they value certain elements over others. Like all art, poetry is highly subjective. It’s taken a lot of time, thought, and practice writing and revising it to discover my own view on poetry as an art.
Recently, I was looking through a journal I kept as an assignment for one of my poetry classes last year. It was meant to help us interact with the poetry, since, for a lot of people, poetry seems difficult to maneuver. We could be as creative or as analytical as we liked. It just forced us to engage with it in some way, which I thought was a really good idea.
One of the entries in my journal was on Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.” I remember being stunned at the words he chose to describe poetry: “mute,” “dumb,” “silent,” “wordless.” How could a poet possibly insist that a poem be wordless and dumb? Doesn’t that go against everything a poem is and does?
MacLeish’s poem, inspired by Horace’s Ars Poetica, argues that poetry should strive to be tangible. It should not explain itself. It should just exist as a thing. Horace wrote the phrase ut pictura poesis, meaning “as is painting, so is poetry.”
While I agree that a poem shouldn’t attempt to explain itself, I don’t know that eliminating meaning entirely is realistic. There have been attempts at it—namely, in Dadaism, putting letters or words together in a senseless order to try to suck the meaning out of them until they are just sounds to be made but not comprehended. It takes the purpose away from language, which contains the essential building blocks for poetry in even its most basic form.
All throughout history, humans have sought to explain. If we didn’t, scientific research wouldn’t be valued as it is. Origin myths wouldn’t have been so abundant among ancient cultures or religion. I think it’s this human instinct to try to make sense of phenomena that also makes us look at poetry and beg to ask, but what does it mean? We read it with a desire to draw something from it.
In my journal response to “Ars Poetica,” I made an erasure of the poem that read:
A poem should be entangled as the mind in time.
An empty poem should not be.
In class, as we analyzed poems line by line, I thought of reading poetry as a form of exercise for the mind. It’s not always easily deciphered. It demands focus. I think that’s why a lot of people get frustrated with it. It can be hard work. That’s why I hated the poetry unit every year from fourth grade to tenth grade.
It’s also why I didn’t complete my first real poem until I was almost 20, during my senior year of college, when I took two back-to-back poetry writing classes that opened my eyes to what poetry could actually do. I went in to those workshops nervous and already embarrassed, firmly believing that I was solely a fiction writer and would never write poetry seriously. Devoting several hours each week to reading poetry, discussing poetry, and experimenting with language, however, changed everything. It wasn’t all just sonnets and structure like I’d seen in high school. It was the act of tearing into my soul and feeling around for the things I’d never been able to express, furiously filling my journals in unexpected ways. Margaret Atwood said, “Writing poetry is a state of free float.” It was exactly this realization that drew me to poetry that year.
As I continued to write poems, I quickly became a fan of confessional poetry. I was in a place where I needed a coping method, a way to set my mind free. I found that the confessional style fit what was going on in my life and stirred up exactly what I needed to work through while writing it. Through poetry, I was finally able to let everything I was feeling flood the pages until my mind was calm and quiet and content. The act of being a poet is like developing gills and diving into the sea to stay as long as I like, to explore the depths of life and of me.
When I think of the art of writing poetry, I don’t think so much about what a poem is, but rather what it does, what it contains and conveys, and how it is carefully tuned. When I sit down to write, I don’t question whether what I put down on paper is poetry. Like fiction, poetry requires craft, which must be practiced. But the “free float” is what makes it such a daring and fulfilling form of writing for me.