Friday, April 29, 2011

Poem -- 2

Yesterday, I took eight brief lines of the poet William Carlos Williams and used them to make a point. Used, I hope not abused. Williams' poem takes its power by just standing there, on the page, as the red wheelbarrow stands in the yard. It doesn't have to mean anything. It just has to affect us in some powerful, mysterious way. A poem can affect us in the same way a sudden encounter in the street with a stunningly beautiful woman (or man) can make a smile erupt from ear to ear. In an instant, she is gone, but the smile lasts half the day.

And so it was, surely, that you took pleasure in William's poem even without the rhetorical context I built around it. The pleasure you took was undoubtedly conditioned by your love of language, by your capacity for surprise, by your openness to the new and unexpected. Images of red wheelbarrows fall on the retinas of countless eyes, but not everyone sees in a way on which so much depends.

Let me quote now another eight-line poem, by Charles Simic:

All they need
Is one little red dress
To start swaying
In that empty closet

For the rest of them
To nudge each other,
Clicking like knitting needles
Or disapproving tongues.
Wire coat hangers along a rail in an empty closet. What could be more prosaic? More commonplace? Why would a poet even take notice? Aren't poems supposed to be about lofty things? God? Love? Grecian urns?

What I like about poetry is not its capacity to lift us out of the ordinary, but to reveal the extraordinary in the commonplace. Wire hangers. And that little red dress -- in the poet's imagination -- shimmying saucily, and -- listen! -- the biddies with their knitting glancing at each other with raised eyebrows, tut-tutting. What joy to have the poet tickle our prejudices, make us smile, feel young again, and send us back into a world in which wire hangers will never be the same. Nothing is only what it seems, and revelation is everywhere.