Poetry on My Mind

The reason I am drawn to many songs has only a little to do with the tune, though the tune and the way it is delivered can matter. The lyrics matter far more, though. Good song lyrics are, quite simply, poetry put to music. Whether standing alone on a page or accompanied by the sound of an instrument or an orchestra, poetry can extract from my too often hard heart a gentle melancholy that sweeps over me like a wave that deepens with every word.

But “gentle melancholy” is too sweet a phrase to describe the anguish that some music/poetry unleashes in me. A line from The Boxer, by Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon (Simon wrote the lyrics) extracts from me both the gentleness and the anguish of which I speak:

“I have squandered my resistance for a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises.”

Those words tear at my heartstrings the way a hawk’s talons claw at the flesh of a fresh-caught rabbit. That’s an ugly image, isn’t it? And it’s an unfortunate comparison, yes? Imagining oneself in place of a dead or dying rabbit being torn to shreds by a powerful force over which one has no control. A bloody, gruesome, sickening image. But monstrous images erupt, even the most beautiful poetry, when words intersect with emotions and mood at just the right angle. Anguish and melancholy emerge from the very same words at the very same moment, giving rise to a powerful emotion capable of smothering hope and hatred under the same blanket. What’s left, after the last breath is gone, is raw, aching emptiness.

They’re only assemblages of words.

But poems gather words together to form weapons just as capable of savagery as the beasts who cobble syllables together. And poets can weave healing bandages out of syllables, dressing emotional wounds with curative sounds that sooth the soul. This brings to mind the question of what constitutes a good poet and a bad poet. Do bad poets torture with their words? Do good poets use words to offer succor and to console tangled emotions? Good and bad are ambiguous words, just like the rest of the poet’s language arsenal. Good poetry arises from the skillful use of words as paint; words have color and hue and density. Bad poetry? That’s hard to say. Perhaps bad poetry springs from insufficient emotional attachments to the relationship between words and the world in which we live. That is, of course, nonsense but it’s as reasonable as anything else I’ve read. In my present mood, I’d say there is no bad poetry, only poetry whose words do not please my ears or my emotions; that does not mean someone else cannot find pleasure where I find none.

I think “good poetry” is intensely personal; either it means something of profound importance to the reader/listener or it triggers a profound and meaningful thought. Good poetry stretches one’s mind beyond one’s immediate horizon; it takes us out of our isolation and throws us into the wider world where we are not alone. But not always. Good poetry can pour concrete around our self-made bunkers, reinforcing our solitude and plunging us deeper into isolation. So, if poetry can “behave” in such conflicting ways, how can we properly label it? We can’t. Yet there’s obviously a difference between a simple two-stanza rhyming poem and an epic free-verse poem. While poetry can be complex and many of the various forms of poetry certainly are worthy of study, a reader need not be conversant in the complexities of form to understand and appreciate poetry. One of the most well-known villanelle-style poems, Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night, is somewhat complex in form, but any reader can appreciate the poem without understanding the style. For my own record and recollection, here’s what the Poetry Foundation says about villanelle: “A French verse form consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. These two refrain lines form the final couplet in the quatrain.

It’s interesting to me that I emerged from a rather low, grim, somber mood simply by unleashing my inner academic. I started out grey and withdrawn; simply by exploring, intellectually, what poetry does to me emotionally (or, rather, what my emotions draw out of poetry, I suppose), I got a little color in my cheeks. I’m not bursting with enthusiasm and gloriously happy with the day just yet, but at least I’m not quite as forlorn as I was. Though, now that I think on it a bit, there’s a reason I was not especially chipper. I could bounce between depression and moderate contentment if I were to allow it. That would suck all my energy, though, so I’ll try not to bounce back and forth between two competing emotional states.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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