Much of modern poetry is unintelligible or seems incoherent. That’s not modern poetry’s problem though. The problem with modern poetry is the absence of a general interest reader of poetry. Cautious readers avoid the crafted, arched bridges called poems precariously balanced over esoteric estuaries. But was there ever a general interest reader of poetry? Well, who filled the pit of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre? Who did Walt Whitman write for? Why did Langston Hughes use the Blues? Who did Woody Guthrie sing to? Who listens to Bob Dylan?
A word about craft, to those poets who would sit down to “craft” a poem: One may write a poem, compose a poem, draw a poem, paint a poem, photograph a poem, fingerprint a poem, press a poem, memorize a poem, sing a poem, post a poem, but one crafts a toilet bowl gasket seal, crafts a kitchen cabinet, crafts a chair to sit on to scribble the poem. Let poets work for a living and craft their poems in their sleep. And let them be well rested and sober when they begin to speak.
Why would someone who does not read poetry suddenly start? Where would they begin? Any menu would look strange, even the crafted menu, maybe especially the crafted menu. Why would they taste anything on the table? It would look a strange feast: snake knuckles, chocolate covered roses. Most of the dishes the average reader wouldn’t even recognize as food. There’s little appetite for it, for poetry is strange. Yet here’s a poet craftily writing for an audience with a special hunger, Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” writing for those “Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.”
I packed Rimbaud into my duffle bag a long time ago. “The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, entire…But the soul has to be made monstrous,” Rimbaud wrote in the preface to his Illuminations, where quickly things get “unbearable! and the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire in the earthen pot will never tell us what she knows, and what we don’t know.” What did that mean? I didn’t know, but the “hare,” who “stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider’s web,” I wanted to talk to, and the words curled up on the cold grate of reason and warmed one another, and soon started to glow and illuminate like candles of beeswax.
Yesterday in conversation with a colleague I was asked why I read poetry.
I am thankful for poetry. In the beginning was the word, and the word was posted to a tree, and around the tree gathered listeners and readers who began to talk among one another, even as the word was forgotten and fell to the ground and was buried in the falling leaves, and in the spring a young man out walking found the word now obscured from weather and compost and thought it said wood, or wode. This was the first reader of poetry, and Rimbaud’s Witch.
Arthur Rimbaud. Illuminations and Other Prose Poems. Trans. Louise Varese. Revised Edition. A New Directions Paperbook, 1957, NDP56.