Spyglass to the Senseless: Why I Love Poetry
by Josh Cook
Grammar is an agreement. We agree on subjects and objects, tenses and clauses, periods and commas, because those agreements facilitate communication. They give us a place to start, a system that allows strangers to exchange information, ideas, opinions, and emotions. But these agreements create, include, or, at the very least, imply a logic structure. This structure is made explicit in debate and rhetoric but it is always present, inherent in the way we order our sentences, the way we order our paragraphs, the way we order our essays and stories. For much, if not most of life's experiences and communications, this logic structure works pretty well. But humans—while being the language animals--do not operate on one logic system alone. We don't use one method to reach conclusions. Not everything we experience follows the subject/object with supporting clauses logic of the grammar we usually use for communication.
But poetry doesn't use that logic. Poetry doesn't use those systems. Poetry is a different kind of agreement, a fluid agreement, a chaotic agreement, a dismissive agreement. A poem can leverage the grammar of sentences or the constraints of traditional forms or the logic of dreams or the structure of myths and fables or all of them or none of them in its attempt to communicate something. An Emily Dickinson m-dash is not the same symbol as anyone else's m-dash, nor does one of Whitman's lists work the same as anyone else's list, nor does the way Merwin might enjamb a line correspond to an established system of units in a sentence. And then there's Vallejo.
It was the poetry of Cesar Vallejo that put the idea of the relationship between poetry and grammar into my understanding of poetry. The trajectory of Vallejo's poetry often includes a sharp, sudden, even violent perpendicular thematic shift. Momentum is discarded. Sense is disrupted. The intellectual experience is so potent, it practically has a physical manifestation in my intellect. My brain feels blindsided, like it's been struck by an errant throw meant for someone else but, since it has drawn my blood, now meant for me. Vallejo transformed an undercurrent into a riptide dragging me to a new phrasing of my relationship to poetry. And, of course, once you start looking at the relationship between poetry, prose, and thought in terms of systems of grammar, the achievements of Dickinson and Whitman are even more staggering.
I've heard it said that poetry is the closest we get to communicating in words what cannot be communicated in words and I believe it is this freedom of grammar, perhaps even this rejection of grammar, that gives poetry this particular power. Even though you are working in language, you don't have to satisfy the expectations of language as you do with prose and so can lurch towards those aspects of our existence language is unable to contain. Poetry is our semi-sensed spyglass to the senseless. It is the en-languaged familiar of all the wordless, logic-less, symbol-less, system-less demons and angels of human experience. Words for the wordless and we need words for the wordless.
There are phenomena in my life which I have only “understood” by writing poems about them. I put “understand” in quotes in this context because “to understand” is an infinitive of the prose brain that requires an ability to rephrase, restructure in different words, repackage with different images, and, for those phenomena I “understand” through my poems, I can only offer the poems themselves as my “understanding.” And my rational, logical, languaged, prose brain is totally cool with that. Even though the rest of my understanding uses the logic and grammar of prose, even though I spend a lot of my brain space on logical explanations for everything, my logical brain accepts the poem about my trip to Brooklyn or the U2 cover band or the death of a loved one as its own; a self-conscious cuckold knowingly, willingly, lovingly, raising another bird's egg.
In a way, I've badly perverted this exercise. The topic is “Why I love poetry,” and both key terms “love” and “poetry,” inherently demand I assert no explanation is possible, that a why asked of love is always preposterous and doubly so for the love of poetry. But we don't get anywhere turning our backs on impossible tasks and questions. And that's really it, isn't it. Poetry is a roving, violent, joyous, cacophonous impossible task that retains its impossibility even as we persistently achieve it. That sentence makes no sense. That is why I love poetry.
Josh Cook’s poetry and other work has appeared in numerous online and print journals. He is a poetry reviewer for Bookslut.com, who featured his essay, “The Problem with American Poetry,” in Bookslut 100. Other criticism has appeared in The Millions and The Rumpus. He is a blogger, bookseller, and magazine buyer for Porter Square Books in Cambridge, and writes the books and culture blog “In Order of Importance.” His novel An Exaggerated Murder is forthcoming from Melville House in March 2015.