"What does it take to understand toast?"

By Harriet Staff

You could pause one tv in one room and then resume watching it in another, or you could read as Michael Earl Craig, Certified Journeyman Farrier, Poet, and former Harriet Twitter extraordinaire tells it like it isn't in his interview with John W. Marshall, Co-Owner of  Open Books, located in Seattle, which is also the hometown of Wave Books, who put out Craig's most recent book, Thin Kimono:

What does it take to understand poetry? I know this is a mighty open-ended and mostly goofy question, but it is one that lots of poets have attempted to answer at some point. Care to take it on?

Ah, this is a good question. It reminds me of the question, “What does it take to understand toast?” When we come upon toast, it’s like we have this intuitive understanding of it. But why? We are probably familiar with toast, that’s true. But what does toast mean? And how can we understand it? I’m not trying to be cute here. I am asking, seriously.

I’m glad you used toast as your metaphor. There was period, almost forty years ago now, when I believed I could live off of toasted seven grain bread with peanut butter, honey and banana. That said, let’s move from meaning in poetry (or a poem) to what do you get out of a poem? Eating’s one thing, but reading a poem? Why do that? Let me flesh this out a little —in our bookstore we have literally heard “poetry saved my life” said by people that believe it, metaphorically but ardently. Poetry isn’t for everybody but for some people it works. But what is working, anyway, when it comes to a poem?

I don’t know, John. I honestly don’t know what it is about poetry (some poetry) that “works” for/on people. Everything I might say sounds like a cliché: It speaks to them, etc. But maybe that’s it. We want to be spoken to . . . as I just typed that a few lines from a Stevens poem flashed in my head:

“But he came back as one comes back from the sun
To lie on one’s bed in the dark, close to a face
Without eyes or mouth, that looks at one and speaks.”

It’s the ending of “Yellow Afternoon.” I have always loved this ending, although I can’t say it saved my life, or even helped me in my interpersonal affairs. And it was the image that flashed in my head first, not the lines (I had to go check the lines). The image of the eyeless, mouthless face that “looks at one and speaks.” In the dark!

Anyway, what’s my point here? My favorite poetry (my favorite art in general—film, music, paintings, whatever) trips-up something in my mind; it is always just a few steps out in front, and I am trying to keep up with it. I am asked to make leaps and I don’t always know why. It is slightly confusing but not totally. It functions outside of commercial endeavors, and that is why we let it in, and why it can sometimes “save our lives.”

You can find the whole lovely interview here.

Originally Published: May 20th, 2011