The Planet on the Table

Jeffrey - Farmington, Maine
Entered on October 16, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: creativity

In a world that consistently conspires to deny us any kind of inner life (why exactly do we need a television in the elevator or at the grocery checkout line?), in a world where late-model capitalism demands that we turn everything (including ourselves) into brands that can be properly marketed, poetry exists as a manifestation of something beyond the meager limits of a world defined by profit and loss, by revenue and the return on investment.

And poetry is what I believe in. Poetry is the world writ small, the distilled self, the mind on the page. It is, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “The Planet on the Table.”

Poetry demands your attention and your time. It speaks to you of the poet’s inner life and, thus, about your own. Poetry also demands empathy; it demands that we recognize the humanity of people other than ourselves. It demands that we live in a world that is interconnected and interdependent. Metaphor, so fundamental to the way poems work, sets up a chain of meaning that says, not X is like Y, but X is Y—a radical statement of equality. This is also why poets and writers are always among the first to be arrested in any political system sliding toward totalitarianism.

Conventional wisdom is about making us feel comfortable with ourselves and our place in the world. I believe poetry is about the opposite – thinking in ways radical and complex about the world – thinking that makes us uncomfortable with the world. And then, it is making that discomfort beautiful. Because this is art we are talking about. I don’t mean beautiful in the sense of the pretty or the picturesque alone, but beautiful in the sense of the well-crafted. Beauty comes from the intention of the creator on the material of creation. Not the beautiful thing described, but the thing described beautifully.

I believe neither one of these qualities – complexity or beauty – will carry a poem alone. I believe complexity for its own sake is masturbation and that beauty alone is narcissism. I believe in poems with all the hooks and wires left in them. I believe in surprise and song. I believe in antagonism and opposition. I believe that alienation is good for you and that starting over every time is the only way to move forward. I believe in accident and the accumulation of detail. I believe in the sentence. The metaphor. The word.

I believe in the small and the daily and the quotidian. I believe that the poem must be at once “true” (to the self, to the moment of its inspiration, to the honest assessment of the speaker who brings it into being) and “false” (the poem is not the self or an honest assessment of experience; it is, as Wallace Stevens says, abstract). I believe in the quality of song, the sound of words, the architecture of meaning they make in the ear and the mind of the reader. I believe poems have multiple meanings and that the best poems, like life itself, never, ultimately, give up their mystery.