Cate Marvin and Michael Dumanis recently edited an anthology together. This week, they’re trading journal entries about the process.

It's Michael here.

When I was a high school student in Rochester, New York, one of my English teachers told us that the primary function of a poem was to communicate. I took that to mean that, when we read E.A. Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and e.e. cummings’ “the cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” the odious task before us was to translate the poems’ lines into something easy enough to digest, understand, or relate to. It seemed to be our mission to decode what cummings was trying to not-so-straightforwardly tell us in his typographically erratic, lowercase manner about the society women of Cambridge, solve the mystery of where it was Eliot was taking “you and I,” along with his reasons for telling us he planned to “wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach,” and figure out why it was that the envied, “imperially slim” Richard Cory committed suicide after all. I remember feeling incredibly resistant to this notion that the primary function of a poem was the communication of ideas. I just wanted to listen and look at the poem, feel it before thinking about it, spend time with it like with a painting in a museum, like with a favorite song. What interested me most about the poems in the high school class was not what they communicated, but how they were constructed and what effect the choices these poets made had on me as a reader.

I loved how cummings, in “the cambridge ladies” poem, asserted that “in its box of sky grey and cornerless, the sky rattles like a fragment of angry candy.” It gave me tremendous pleasure, I remember, to picture a fragmented moon unhappy with the goings-on on earth, trapped in a paradoxically limitless (“cornerless”) box, making a noise we couldn’t hear, simultaneously cantankerous and sweet. I loved that decades before I saw cumming’s poem, he, a young man then, looked up at the moon in the night sky and thought, “angry candy.” I loved how the image of the moon was precise and ambiguous at the same time, evocative of a multiplicity of things—an angry, but remote God, among others. I could never look at the moon the same again. One more thought about the moon: when I first read, at around the same time, Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” I was interested in the poem not just because it provided a compelling look at violence, corruption, and injustice in El Salvador, but because of how Forche succeeded in making the whole world seem like an interrogation chamber lit with one dim bulb: “the moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.” The powerful resonance of effects like this one made me fall in love with poetry. Words and images, paradoxes and tensions, “communicated” much more to me, on a gut, pre-cognitive level, than somewhat familiar ideas.

Years later, I heard the writer Rodney Jones tell a class that the great thing about the reading and writing of poetry is the poem’s ability to communicate, over distances and time, not between people but between souls, to share the most intimate, sacred, and heretofore private musings and observations between two people who not only will never meet, but may have lived in different periods under different circumstances. This kind of communication interested me far more. When I read a poem, I hope to participate in a conversation between my interiority and yours—the way that, looking at a painting or piece of music, I’m less interested in what the painting is “about,” but how and if the painter moved me. Looking at a sketch by artist Egon Schiele, by example, gives me, for one brief moment, the opportunity to see the sketch through Schiele’s eyes. Looking at a box/diorama by artist Joseph Cornell makes me marvel at the little objects of the world he places inside the box—balls, birds, names of hotels he’d never visited—instead of saying, “I don’t understand. What is this Cornell box about?"

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Originally Published: January 24th, 2006