The poem is a shapeshifter animal, a trickster.
One minute, it’s a sailfish. The next, it’s a hook.
One night, it’s an alley cat, urgent to get you outdoors,
get you on the fire escape and screaming. Another, it sleeps.
I remember there was a great migration—
poems soaring home.
And I remember, too, when they used to thunder like trains,
crushing the grass. I watched as the herd turned into crickets…
then rain… then into kids in the backyard, running for the house
before the raindrops turned into hail, and while I watched
I smelled my dinner burning.
“Well, what’s the good in that?” Not much.
“Then what the hell’s it want?” I don’t know—to astonish
like leaves do in autumn. To hope, I guess,
it says one small thing that lasts.
I’d prefer to leave it at that, to add nothing, since going on now means reducing the poem to an epigram, as if prose were really the bigger-stakes work, and I don’t want to concede that. But back in mid-September my friend Joe Roberts wrote me a note that I’ve been thinking about ever since. He said, “I have a question for you. I’ve been struggling to come up with a purpose for poetry as it is, as opposed to prose. What makes poetry’s purpose distinctive?” Thank you, Joe. It’s nice being thought of as a guy who might have an answer.
On the one hand, I’m not sure poems have to have a purpose. I mean, I’d rather have lamps be lamps and let poems be the occasional genie. On the other hand, I know that’s ridiculous. Poems do have purposes, lots of them, and I shouldn’t avoid adding my thoughts about what those purposes are just because doing so takes some work. I know this won’t be my final answer—there will be days ahead when I think of others, then others after that—but here goes….
Joe said he’d been reading Spring and All (William Carlos Williams). He said Williams’ ideas were pretty good. He said, “The definition I pulled from him is that prose is meant to serve the emotions and be representational. Poetry is meant to serve the imagination and create something truly new. It’s not a mirror to hold up to nature; it is an addition to nature, a ‘crystallization of the imagination.’” Now, I love Williams by the acre, the square mile, but I’m going to say I think he’s probably wrong about that one.
Take Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. It’s prose not poetry, and it’s truly new. And that’s just one example. In fact, it’s the first that popped into my head. Here’s another: Pick any of a dozen albums by Bob Dylan; what’s happening seems both true and new to me, and also different than a poem, or even a whole book of poems, since there’s the added interplay of voice and instruments to go along with whatever story or character or philosophical headlock he’s turned into lyrics. No, probably the rightest part of Williams’ idea is the “crystallization” thing. Faulkner gives us whole caves full of stalactites, stalagmites, bats, pooling water old as Original Sin, and also crystals; yet love that as much as you want, you can’t wear it around your neck. Same with Dylan. Sure, he’s bardic, but how long do you think it took the roadies to unload and set up for every concert on, say, his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975? What’s different (distinct) about poems, I think, isn’t fancy. It’s that they’re short.
I said this once to Tony Weller, a bookseller in Salt Lake City. At first he thought I was a spluttering dunce, or just being lazy about the question. But I halfway talked him around to my point of view: Poems are short, even when halfway behaving like narratives, even when sharing a compact story.
I’m saying—and yes, I started this by saying the opposite (“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes”; Walt Whitman)—I’m saying that the distinction of poetry is its ability to be epigrammatic. You can carry a poem inside you like a talisman because you can remember it, completely, start to finish, word for word. And it doesn’t need accompaniment, just you, reciting it for yourself or someone else, all the lines and the rhythms, all its images and meanings, meanings you might start to paraphrase then decide you don’t really need to after all….
The lynx knows all about quiet,
his ears grown long to hear more of it.
He sharpens his claws on the trunk of it,
carries it home. And his paws
ghost over snowdrifts,
and lakes are asleep
under ice sheets,
and the stars seem frozen
like an orchestra, waiting to begin…
has anyone seen the conductor?
Where has she gone in her night tuxedo?
The lynx looks ready to tell us something,
but only in the speech of violins.
Rob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.