How poets describe the indescribable
I used to be obsessed with John Ashbery’s poetry. In “The Ecclesiast,” a typically ambiguous early poem, the Pulitzer Prize winner begins one stanza with what could be a banal observation or homespun proverb —“For the shoe pinches, even though it fits perfectly” — and ends with a sentimental plea: “My dearest I am as a galleon on salt billows. / Perfume my head with forgetting all about me.” Reading him is at once exasperating and hypnotic, like watching someone flip through TV channels. I can’t recommend it enough.
At the height of my enthusiasm, I made the mistake of picking up a pair of books about Ashbery. I didn’t want to study the significance of his writing. I suppose I was looking to share my bewilderment with someone. But the books, loaded with theory and academic jargon, were more opaque than the poems themselves. I suddenly felt alienated from the work: it seemed I was missing the point entirely.
When it isn’t overcomplicating things, writing about poetry can dispel its pleasures by reading poems for us, instead of with us. There are countless deconstructive essays that approach, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” more as a mechanical toy than as a work of art. Consider Jonathan Sircy’s approach in the aptly titled journal The Explicator : “[Bishop] eradicates — or seeks to eradicate — discrepancies through an exercise of emotional mathematics . . . Bishop even posits a teleological justification for losing not being a disaster, invoking a priori ‘intent’ on the part of the ‘things’ to be lost, thus freeing the object’s loser from culpability.”
All of which is why I began Adam Sol’s How a Poem Moves with apprehension. It’s not the author’s fault — I like Sol. The American-born, Toronto-based poet and educator has published four collections, a couple of which were formative for me when I was starting out as a poet. His new book consists of thirty-five very brief essays, each about a different work he encountered while judging the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, an endeavour that required him to read more than 630 collections in five months.
With each entry, Sol has reproduced a poem in its entirety, or excerpted it if it exceeds thirty lines. After a bit of preamble, he undertakes a sort of reading out loud, but in writing. He has a likeable professor’s skill for outlining complex theories and entire literary movements in a few sentences. It’s not that he doesn’t want readers to know more about who the confessional poets were or what a caesura is. He just argues that knowing these things isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying verse.
Sol has geared his essays toward lay readers, those, he says in his introduction, “who are afraid of poetry.” Reading them is like taking an introductory class, and at times it’s as if the author is trying not to scare us into dropping the course altogether. He advises, “Don’t worry at first about what a poem means. . . . Instead ask, ‘What does the poem do ?’ This allows us to start off with some simple answers. . . . We don’t watch an accomplished dancer and ask ourselves, ‘What does this dance mean?’ ”
Each time a chapter opens with a seemingly impenetrable poem, we wonder how Sol is going to handle this one. But the difficulty only energizes him: he’s like a street juggler picking up sword after flaming sword. For the most part, Sol asks questions and points things out: Does the speaker of this poem sound like she trusts the people in her neighbourhood? Notice how the poem shifts here from really short sentences to longer ones. All these percussive s’s, p’s, and k’s are fun to read out loud. Sometimes he offers answers and explanations. Often he doesn’t. But each question opens a door into the once inaccessible text.
Here, for example, is the somewhat aloof opening of the poem “Flower That Drops Its Petals” by Natalie Toledo (translated from the Spanish by Clare Sullivan): “I will not die from absence. /
A hummingbird pinched the eye of my flower / my heart mourns and shivers / and does not breathe.”
Sol doesn’t immediately decipher the imagery, nor does he spend too much time situating the work within a broader literary tradition. He simply begins with the pleasure of reading it: “One of the things I love about this poem is the mix of the strange and the familiar.” Eventually, he concedes, “I’m not exactly sure what ‘the eye of my flower’ is either, but with ‘my heart’ in the next line, I can make an educated guess. Or to be more exact, I’m comfortable being in the vicinity of knowing what she means.”
“The vicinity of knowing” is where we find ourselves at the end of Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Yellowjackets,” in which a horse-drawn plow strikes a hornet’s nest. After the plowman runs off, the poem closes with the image of the idle horse at dusk, before “the whole / Beautiful, blue-black sky / Fell on his back.” We’re left wondering if the “blue-black sky” describes a deadly swarm or simply the dark of night — that is, whether the horse was killed — but Sol asks, “Can’t we hold both possibilities in our minds simultaneously? Might that even be part of the pleasure of a poem? . . . If we can’t decide, or if we can live with both explanations, then the image is beautiful twice .”
To me, as both a poet and a reader, poetry is an attempt to evoke the indescribable experience of being alive — an attempt destined to fall short. As John Ashbery once put it, “The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.” The vicinity between authorial intention and our experience of the lines is a deeply personal space, the exploration of which is how those lines come to mean different things to different readers. The most generous gesture of How a Poem Moves is its preservation of that distance.
As an occasional facilitator of poetry workshops, I found Sol’s approach instructive. His method of addressing basic questions about the world of the poem before delving into analysis is often overlooked by people teaching the genre outside of academic settings. However, I was at times frustrated by the brevity of Sol’s essays. He intentionally stops short of reading too closely, which left me feeling like the overeager kid in class, jabbing a hand into the air to point out some overlooked allusion.
Others might also criticize this book, and not unfairly so, for a lack of variety in the examples chosen. The majority of these are lyric poems, a genre that tends to dominate North American literary publications and prizes, and that encompasses everything from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Rupi Kaur’s Instagram posts and much of Sol’s own verse.
That being said, it would be an entirely different undertaking to write such brisk and accessible essays about radically experimental poetry. It’s sad but undeniable that, for many, avant-garde poetry operates behind a veil of theory and technical jargon. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball’s 2014 anthology, Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry, reneges on the popular appeal of its title by discussing psychoanalytic theory, the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky, and “Situationist détournement ” in its introduction.
Paradoxically, How a Poem Moves could sell more copies than all of Sol’s poetry collections combined, which reflects the status of poetry today. Despite an unprecedented amount of poetry-adjacent content — the must-read listicles, CBC interviews, retro-filtered social media photos of books beside lattes, a non-fiction book such as this — space for in-depth poetry criticism is shrinking. It makes me wonder how much of this enthusiasm is performative, and I hope more readers channel their enjoyment of poetry into reading actual poems.