Tag Archives: Poems

Why the Most Beautiful Poems Defy Understanding

At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.

I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.

This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.

Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.

A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.

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Poems: Protection From Isolation and Solitary Confinement

Handwritten text of 'The Angel Face,' a short verse by writer Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1848. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At The American Poetry Review, Beth Ann Fennelly suggests that to fully embrace the beauty of poetry, one must memorize it. Once committed to memory — a process that gets easier with practice — a poem forever becomes prophylactic against stressful days and lonely times: “We’ve all known solitary confinement. We’ve all inhabited isolation rooms. But the poems we know by heart can visit us there. They arrive as layer cakes, with files baked in.”

No matter how intense reading a poem in a book can be, memorizing the poem makes it more visceral, more intense. Physically, we’re free of holding the book, turning the pages, and training our eyes along the line. We’ll avoid the minor but inevitable reading errors that impair or delay perfect comprehension. And when the reader has taken the poem so deeply into the body that it’s memorized, the words don’t need to be understood and processed before they can be reacted to; the gap between the words and emotions they elicit disappears.

It’s no strain to recall that reading poetry is an emotional and intellectual experience, but recitation reminds us that poetry, in some ways, is as physical as dancing. Through recitation, the body and soul are synchronized.

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At McSorley’s: Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes, and Psychos

Bar owner Matty Maher, center, gestures while talking over beers with fellow Irishmen Mick Ryan, left, and Tom Nolan at McSorley's bar in New York, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

At Hazlitt, Rafe Bartholomew tells the story of his father, Geoffrey Bartholomew, who felt that his alcohol addiction and his bartending job at famed McSorley’s in New York City had prevented him from achieving the dream of becoming a writer. Bartholomew quit the booze but not the bar, and self-published a volume of poetry: The McSorley Poems: Voices from New York City’s Oldest Pub. In this poignant story of ambition, regrets, fathers, and sons, Rafe recounts how Bartholomew found his voice by mining the humanity of the “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos” who frequented the bar.

The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity.

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Longreads Member Exclusive: The Anthologist (Excerpt), by Nicholson Baker


This week’s Longreads Member pick is Chapter 1 from Nicholson Baker’s 2009 novel, The Anthologistpublished by Simon & Schuster. The excerpt comes recommended by Hilary Armstrong, a literature student at U.C. Santa Barbara and a Longreads intern. She writes:

Someone I love once told me that they don’t understand poetry. It’s all random line breaks and rhythms she can hear aloud, but not read on paper—and what is a poem other than the observer of something beautiful showing off? What is there to condense in a poem that hasn’t been done already? Why is poetry so highfalutin and important?

The Anthologist follows a man who loves poetry but is struggling with it, or, more specifically, struggling to write an introduction to a poem anthology. He talks about poems as song lyrics, as logical progressions, and as the backbeat to all art. He answers the common questions surrounding poetry, and clarifies some of the deeper ones. If you are a writer, reading this book has a similar effect that reading High Fidelity does after a breakup.

In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker accomplishes something amazing and resonant—reading it feels like having one of those really savory conversations with someone else, someone who ‘gets’ you like no one else at the party does.

Read an excerpt here.

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Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Finding Poetry in Illness

A woman recovering from a kidney transplant finds solace in poetry:

I began with C.K. Williams’s ‘Dream’ (‘Mad dreams! Mad love!’) and ended with Kyger’s ‘[He is pruning the privet]’: ‘You are not alone is this world / not a lone a parallel world of reflection / in a window keeps the fire burning.’ In between, I found Swithering by Robin Robertson and through ‘Trysts’ met him on the riverbed. Ada Limón’s ‘Crush’ cut ‘the right branch / and a sort of light / woke up underneath.’ I ached for the current between Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and the ancient liberties taken by Cavafy and Catullus. I luxuriated in the ecstatic poetry of Mirabai and mused on the grand time Jane Hirshfield and Robert Bly must have shared while making their translations. I grabbed onto Kevin Young’s shirttails for a wild ride, and I was no less than razed and rebuilt by Richard Siken’s ‘Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out’: ‘The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell. / Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time.’ Mary Oliver’s West Wind dazzled me with its investigation into longing, and in American Primitive I cherished Oliver’s ‘The Plum Trees,’ with its advice that ‘the only way / to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first, like small / wild plums.’

“Finding Poetry in Illness.” — Jennifer Nix, Poetry Foundation

More from the Poetry Foundation