Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Poetry, Language, Drag Queen Birds' Yawns, and Other Esoterica

So. We're about halfway through National Poetry Month. Yes,

See! It's got a logo and and a FAQ and everything. Very official.

Among the questions answered on this FAQ is...

Why was April chosen for National Poetry Month? 

In coordination with poets, booksellers, librarians, and teachers, the Academy chose a month when poetry could be celebrated with the highest level of participation. Inspired by the successful celebrations of Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March), and on the advice of teachers and librarians, April seemed the best time within the year to turn attention toward the art of poetry—in an ultimate effort to encourage poetry readership year-round. 

Seems my guess that April was selected because of its being the first full month of spring was overthought. Nevertheless, I've found poetry to be as connatural with springtime as magnolia blossoms and hayfever.

After writing nothing but prose for most of autumn and all of winter, in April I get an urge to write poetry. Whether I actually produce anything is (for now) as irrelevant as whether what I produce (or don't produce) is any good; the point is that during those first weeks when I wake up at dawn and can't fall back asleep for all the titmice and robins' caterwauling, when the lawn is lousy with lesser celandine, and when the frogs are wailing for frogs in the afternoon sun, prose suddenly isn't enough.

I don't love winter; not like I used to. I'm not alone in this. Every since five or so years ago, my friends talk about winter like it's not so much a season as some horrible annual affliction. When you can't comfortably or safely step outside without protective clothing; when the only two colors out any window are gray and pallid brown; when the only hours of daylight coincide with all the hours you're at your job -- why wouldn't you shut yourself in with your space heater, Internet connection, and video games? (Although I am an enthusiastic advocate of spending time outside in the cold, for now this is also beside the point.)

But when the world seems to wake back up again in April, I seem to myself to be waking up again. I approach things differently -- maybe with a more open heart, for lack of a better way of putting it -- and when something strikes me as being worth writing about, prose doesn't seem like a suitable vehicle for the idea.

Prose is linear. Prose is explanatory. Though it does stimulate emotion and sensation, prose speaks primarily to the intellect. It is the language of stories, arguments, and explanations. It is inadequate to convey experiences rooted in intuition or the encroachment of the waking life on the sublime. It is relatively tone deaf to the faint music of life. Not that prose is in all cases incapable of touching upon these things; but poetry does it much more efficiently. It is unencumbered by the standards that prose must observe in order to be effective prose.

All experience is essentially indescribable. All things in and of themselves are essentially inconceivable, and all feelings are essentially incommunicable. These facts don't come into play in our everyday lives because we do a very good job of insulating ourselves from our awareness of them.

We put these imponderables and their related (more pragmatical) qualities in a sensible order by way of language. Language is fantastic; language is what separates Homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom. Human culture is inseparable from language. And even though it's probably our most useful tool for making sense of and operating within the world (if for no other reason than our inherited dependence on it), language -- any language -- is also rather clunky. Every human lexicon is rooted in a (paradoxically) unspoken consensus on the commonplace. We understand one another by signaling generalities of quotidian experience, which are impressed upon us by our verbal communities.

(Jargon. That's prose for you.)

When telling an anecdote, flaming someone of another political persuasion on a CNN comments page, or writing a highfalutin blog post about writing, our languages are rich enough. But during those particular instances when something in our subjective reality strikes us in a way for which we have no easy words to explain, we must adopt the language of poetry or otherwise resign ourselves to silence or a simplification that we know is unbefitting of the thing we experienced.

An instance. The other day I was standing and looking idly out a first-story window, and a lady cardinal landed on a rhododendron branch directly outside, three or maybe four feet away from my face. Her eyes pointed towards the window, but she didn't seem to notice me. Or maybe she did:

Male cardinals have such an astute, scholarly look about them, orthodox and earnest, oblivious to their dark-browed absurdity. Females, from a distance, aren't precisely drab, but rather understated and lovely in their modesty. But up close, this one looked like a drag queen -- dull brownish-gray breast and face, painted eyes, lavish red wings, and a thick, vivid orange beak. And she, alighting and holding to the bobbing branch, looked inside, looked towards me, opened her beak and yawned. Then she flew away.

There was something in this. Something clicked. A little padded mallet struck some inaudible chime.

What's the word for that feeling of surprise and subdued joy when you're looking out a window and a (female) cardinal lands on a branch and yawns at you and then flies away?

There's no word for it. If I wanted to convey, in words, the essential experience with any effectiveness (and if the prosaic explanation above conveys anything, it would only be the superficial details), I would have to resort to a different sort of language.

No vocabulary on Earth is commensurate with the interminable range of human perception and human conception. There is more to this existence than we know -- and one reason so much of it lies beyond our awareness is because we don't have the words for everything we experience.

In a reality where so much is fundamentally unknowable, data cannot be omniscient. So much can only be apprehended by intuition, and these things require a more circuitous mode of delineation than the nuts and bolts denotation offered by prose.

Poetry -- particularly in its modern form -- is the art of jury-rigging the lexicon of common experience to hit upon those thoughts, feelings, observations, and stories for which said lexicon ordinarily hasn't the means to express. As Jay Parini says, poetry is a language adequate to our experience. (This is the best definition I've ever heard, though it might be more accurate to call it a language more adequate to our experience.)

And to wring experience through language is important, even if we only do it for ourselves. By putting it in words, we place it in terms the intellect can understand, terms that we can understand. Nothing in the abstract belongs to us unless it can be communicated. If we can't express something, we don't really know it.

Poetry is an effort to apprehend some of the essence of a thing, an effort of a writer to read its meaning. If he shares what he writes, he conveys the experience -- or as much of it as he is able to capture -- to his fellow humans. If he does it effectively, what he passes on is the expansion of his own horizons.

We are social animals. Why should we not understand each other better? Reality is ineffable. Why should we not share our efforts to shed some light on its obscurities?

For the time being, poetry still serves this purpose better than any of our available tools. Perhaps in some future where the human brain goes digital and we can "download" one another's perceptions, down to the subtlest detail, it will become obsolete.

On second thought: I think it's more likely that it will become obsolete when (if) humanity is freed from its reliance on language in its transactions with reality. If you downloaded and played back on your digital brain that feeling of surprise and subdued joy when you're looking out a window and a (female) cardinal lands on a branch and yawns at you and then flies away, you'd still only have the feeling, which would still leave you wishing to scratch at the itch of an unasked question.

(But in the digitized, para-linguistic brains of this future, will puzzles still arise from the sensations of things? Or will sensation be sufficient? Unimportant. . . . .
for the time being.)

But for the time being, even in sprite of audiovisual media's waxing dominance over human communication, poetry remains one of the most effective tools for adhering to the maxim of "show, don't tell" in the expression of our experience.

If you were wondering why I bother will all of this National Poetry Month business, that might be your answer. (It also might help explain why I persist as an apologist of the written word.)

What I'm wondering is why I can't be in these April moods all year round.

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