Discussion Guide

Criticizing Criticism

What do we want from poetry, anyway?

What do you expect from poetry — or, for that matter, Poetry? Do you seek a pun to pick apart? A rhythm to rock to? An argument of insidious intent? Or — like a veteran on the dating circuit — do you bring as few expectations to the table as possible?

The October 2013 issue of Poetry features an essay that raises these questions, as well as poems that might help us answer them. In "Reading the Difficult," Peter Quartermain describes his experience of New Criticism, which holds that worthwhile poems — to quote T.S. Eliot — "must be difficult." Perhaps, like Eliot's "The Waste Land," they trail footnotes; perhaps, like Tennyson's "Ulysses," they demand the reader's familiarity with a slew of older texts. Quartermain's mentors impressed him with the notion that such poems "will yield to analysis because their essential riddle can be solved" — and that, conversely, any valuable poem imbeds daunting but decipherable mysteries.

Do you agree with their perspective? Does the process of reading poetry strike you as an intellectual scavenger hunt, bound to yield treasure if you only look under the right stones? Do you imagine such an approach adds or subtracts joy from the experience of reading? Or might it depend on the poem?

As Quartermain notes, not all poems respond to this style of analysis. He cites this anonymous fragment:

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!

Instantly accessible, wrenchingly emotional, the poem makes poor fodder for close reading: no "meta-physical ambiguities and multi-layered symbols and image-patterns," to quote Quartermain, lurk under its surface. Does this lack harm the poem, or might its simplicity and straightforwardness offer their own benefits — greater immediacy, say? Perhaps a perfectly literary response to this stanza is to hear the desperation in the speaker's declarations, and shiver.

For a similarly lucid reading experience, plunge into Heather Christle's "I Can't Swim," which is as playful as a game of Marco Polo:

I can’t swim because I can’t fit
into the water

                         I am
two million feet tall

but thank you for inviting me

I am standing in line
inside my giant shirt

If someone wanted to weaponize me
they would tell me to lie down on New York

and the city I destroyed
would hurt me back

I eat stars
                        It’s a riot

I know
                        my big mouth
full of  their light

This charming poem, tall to match its speaker, generates power not through a complex chain of metaphors or a dense network of allusions but through its humor, its voice, and its gleeful deployment of surprise. The speaker declares she can't swim not because she's terrible, but because she's literally too great. And then, for some reason, she's on line, talking about her shirt; and then she tells us she could easily become a deadly (yet delicate) menace to society; and then — in a bolt from the blue — she's eating stars. It's hard to say why the poem moves precisely as it does, only that its movements bring pleasure and throw captivating images against the screens of our minds. Does such mysteriousness frustrate you? Or does it liberate you to dream, along with the poem, of giant shirts and edible stars?

Now compare that poem with Tom Pickard's "After a Row":

A lapwing somersaults spring
flips over winter and back.

After a fast walk up long hills, my limbs
the engine of  thought, where burn
bubbles into beck and clough to gill,
beneath a sandstone cliff  balanced on a bed of shale
and held from hurtling by Scots pine
that brush a scrubby sky with cloud snow scutters,
I found a place to sit
                 by snapping watta smacking rocks
and wondered — how would it be for you?

And so, alone,
                  un-alone even, in my anger,
bring you here.

If we could float through Christle's poem, Pickard's permits no such easy passage. It starts by referring to a bird we may or may not have heard of, and then peppers us with wordplay. "Somer," a pun for "summer," springs out of the word "somersault"; "spring" alludes at once to the season and to the motion; "flips" to the gesture and to anger. If we were disoriented by "lapwing," we'll surely wonder what "watta" is, to say nothing of a "beck" and "clough." We'd better have a dictionary at our beck and call — though our dictionaries may not include these unfamiliar terms, which hail, as Pickard does, from northern England.

Why does Pickard describe this turning bird with double-sided words? This is a poem about flip sides: the speaker goes from standing to sitting, from alone to "un-alone," and from his perspective to hers ("how would it be for you?"). While he's still angry at the end, he introduces a term of equanimity ("even"). The poem even executes a formal flip, since it's a sonnet — a form traditionally devoted to love — that chiefly describes solitary fury.

Pickard's riddles, then, yield to our prodding; under his stones, we find treasures. But is prodding the only way to approach his poem? What happens if we try to float through it, not pursuing its puzzles but merely observing them as they pass by? Could we experience it as merely a series of startling sounds and vivid images that surprise us in much the same way that Christle's shifts do? Can we treat a "difficult" poem as though it were accessible — or is that notion as strange as fitting a two-million-foot-tall woman in the water?

Originally Published: October 1st, 2013
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In