Follow Harriet on Twitter

About Harriet


Journal, Day Four

By Kay Ryan

Reader Kim (no last name) is curious about my admitted discomfort with using poems to describe what already exists. This came up earlier, when I was thinking about ekphrastic poetry. I said, essentially, that a little outside stuff goes a very long way for me. She thinks maybe I’m missing something. She quotes some ideas about what poetry does or should do. I direct you to her comment.

I think it’s all just pretty constitutional, and should be constitutional, what you think poetry does or should do. Theories keep turning out to be just what some person couldn’t help thinking.

Take me: my theory is a poem should set you free: reading a real poem should leave you feeling less tired and more exquisitely yourself. Aerated. You’ve been speeded up and perhaps somewhat dispersed, your bits enjoying more distance from each other than they had previously. You seem to have been augmented, but not in any one place like a lump; no, just some extra electrons here and there; you could never say where. No; that can’t be right. You couldn’t be heavier if it was a real poem. So maybe it’s more of an electron swap or adjustment; hard to say, because these are very small, fast exchanges. In any case, every poem does some small thing to fit us to the galaxies

Feeling as I do, it was a great satisfaction when I encountered Joseph Brodsky’s thrillingly immense claims for poetry. He believes that composing poetry, thinking in that way, is the greatest mental accelerator, and that acceleration is the nature of poetry—really: its job is to propel us beyond the constraints of space and time. His arguments are of an ecstatic nature, and irresistible to the prepared mind. Here he is, in his magnificent book of essays, Less Than One, describing how when he read, in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Auden’s line, “Time . . . worships language,” he all at once came to understand the true dimensions of poetry. Let me quote:

Auden had indeed said that time (not the time) worships language, and the train of thought that statement set in motion is still trundling to this day. For “worship” is an attitude of the lesser toward the greater. If time worships language, it means that language is greater, or older, than time, which is, in its turn, older and greater than space. That was how I was taught, and I indeed felt that way. So if time—which is synonymous with, nay even absorbs deity—worships language, where then does language come from? For the gift is always smaller than the giver. And then isn’t language a repository of time? And isn’t this why time worships it? And isn’t a song, or a poem, or indeed a speech itself, with its caesuras, pauses, spondees, and so forth, a game language plays to restructure time? And aren’t those by whom language “lives” those by whom time does too?

Brodsky understands language to be the god of time. And who controls language and thus controls time? Brodsky and Akhmatova, Auden, etc: gods equal to God. Sure, it sounds a little over-exhilarated. But Emily Dickinson says much the same—just substituting “brain” for “language”—and surely it was her own brain, and surely it was her own brain as a poet she was taking about. She makes her claims in a poem, rather than prose, however, which is probably a better place.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other contain
With ease—and you—beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Dickinson has the advantage over Brodsky; the kind of heat it takes to weld such propositions into a credible whole are more available when one is in the concentrated condition of writing a poem rather than in the more dilute condition of writing an essay. One has the tool of rhyme, for one thing, which confers upon the mind a boldness. Rhyme leaps to rhyme, over the head of reason, over the head of modesty or meekness, claiming territory far out in front of the settlers.

Some days it’s that big.
Some days it isn’t.


You aren’t swept up whole,
however it feels. You’re
atomized. The wind passes.
You recongeal. It’s
a surprise.


I continue to invite your comments.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, December 7th, 2006 by Kay Ryan.