Let me tell you a secret. I like being bossed about. By poets.
Take this poem.
If we could love
have what we want.
What is the
blunt of this
I would ask you
like the Sargasso.
It’s by Kay Ryan, the former poet laureate of the United States. It’s all over the net so I hope she won’t mind me quoting it. You can see her reading her work here. You can buy her selected poems here.
I like it because it’s funny – the blunt, instead of the point – great! Ryan is on record saying she likes sayings, clichés, bromides and many of her poems are investigations and elaborations of phrases so common we don’t really hear them any more. She has even said that the purpose of poetry is to ‘save eprigrams’ .
I like Blunt because it’s clever.
I like it also because the language is so plain as to be unassuming. This is a very fashionable approach. There is huge disdain for poetical words. Apparently, out there in cyber space, there are lists of banned words which include ‘gossamer, shard, rainbow, dream’. Words like these have been overused, have carried too much baggage and now can’t carry any more.
It might seem self-conscious and voguey and neither of these are qualities I associate with good poetry. Plus we are always told there are no rules.
Then again, as one tutor explained to me, the best poetry comes from our own words. That makes sense to me although it’s pig difficult to write by.
Another reason I like this poem is that the main sound is ‘nt’ which is a sound you can’t say quickly. The poem itself forces me say it slowly, give it due consideration. When I read it, Ryan is in charge, making me perceive the world through her senses, a rare moment of connection with the inside of someone else’s brain, which is something that so many people, me included, seem to crave.
Sharon Olds does the same trick in her poem The Race. That poem, about a very tense time in the poet’s life, even controls the reader’s breath with lineation and punctuation, to help get us there, where the poet wants us to be.
It’s not new to them. You can see Shakespeare doing the same trick in Sonnet 18 – and many others I’m sure – with ‘Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines’. The stresses in the iambic metre fall on the h’s of hot and heaven, forcing the reader to pant, or simulate panting. Robert Browning goes for the same idea in Home Thoughts from Abroad with the last line of the first stanza ‘In England – now!’ a line which regularly echoes through the halls of my mind because of its pace.
I also like the poem because of its rhymes. Kay Ryan is the mistress of rhyme. She uses a lot of half-rhyme and internal rhyme in ways I can’t begin to analyse because I’m not even nearly well enough read. But I love it. In another poem ‘Coming and Going’ she rhymes ‘fishes’ with ‘conditions’. I’d write a fan letter but my jealousy would froth all over it.
The rhyme I admire most profoundly in Blunt is with a word that is not mentioned anywhere in the poem. But points and blunts? Things ‘weeding up’? I know what I think Ryan is choosing to let us read into her words. On the other hand, I might just be revealing my own preoccupations and my own interest in words we’re told not to say.
Poets. Sometimes they’re just not bossy enough.
What do you think? Do you have a favourite poem? Why do you like it? I’d love to know.