In the movie The Prince and Me, the two main characters have a conversation (over laundry) in which they discuss Hamlet. After the incognito prince explains a particularly tough passage to our heroine, she complains, “Why can’t he just say what he means?!” The prince replies, “because people rarely say what they mean.”
A couple of weeks ago, I found this quote in a book that I love called The Practice of Poetry:
Poems begin where ordinary conversation leaves off. If we can say something clearly, we don’t need to write a poem about that experience or feeling or idea. Such a poem would be superfluous. Instead, we write poems about what we can’t articulate, but feel pressured to say, which is why poems use language in unusual ways.
Ideas expressed in poetry might be overwhelmingly emotional, ugly, or even shocking if expressed in ordinary language. Sometimes the structure of ordinary conversation cannot contain the depth of an experience. Darkness, longing, and vagueness are transformed; the seed of the poem buried deep within us blossoms into something quite new and unexpected.
Furthermore, I am coming to believe that while we think of ordinary conversation as real and poetry as somehow embellished, quite the opposite is actually true.
Ordinary conversation is often insincere. This isn’t necessarily deceitful, just socially necessary. We cannot go around expressing our deepest emotions to most people and in most places. Even our conversations with our loved ones are filtered through consideration for audience and situation. Rare are the moments indeed when we express some truth about ourselves. Rarer still are the moments in which another person is willing to receive that truth.
Hence, the need for poetry.
Last summer, I heard a lecture at the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture in which Dr. Louis Cowan explained that poetry “produces an insight that penetrates the essence of things” and that it speaks to “the internal world that civilization keeps trying to suppress in us.”
Poetry doesn’t exist to be confusing. Poetry exists to clarify. Poetry doesn’t seek to obfuscate meaning but to strip away barriers to meaning.
Ordinary conversation can describe the exhaustion of a new parent faced with constant feedings, little sleep, and diapers, but it can’t quite contain the experience of mortality that comes with having a child. This is why we have poems like “My Son, My Executioner.” Ordinary conversation can describe and even warn about consumerism, but to know the emotional despair of wanting out of the daily grind of “getting and spending,” we need Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.” Ordinary conversation can give us information about the effects of school desegregation, but to know the complex response of loneliness and pride of a minority student attending a predominantly white school, we need Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B.”
I asked my students to respond to the Susan Mitchell quote, and we had some great conversations about it. As they wrote in their notebooks, I responded in mine as well. This is a sentence I lifted from my response:
“In poetry we write about what we can’t say and also about what we won’t say.”
In other words, poetry is where we say what we mean.
Unless you’re E. E. Cummings. Then nobody knows what you’re trying to say.