Editors of poetry have differing standards by which they judge poetry submissions, as do poetry critics. This variety is, in a way, helpful to poets of differing styles, but the wide variety of standards implies a varying degree of uncertainty. Perhaps what is needed is an optional standard that will be helpful to those whose position in society is to evaluate a given poem in a way that will be more convenient.
I am positing that there are two poles to human thought, with a continuum of mixtures between them: type A perceptions, which are near the unconscious and issue from it; and type Z thinking which is conscious, sorted, and verbal. It is seldom that we meet anyone whose day-to-day thinking consists solely of either of these extremes. Now let’s see how this continuum works as an analytical tool with a variety of published poems.
The first example of poetry that fails because written with a strong bias toward either A or Z type are first Ricardo Pau-Llosa’s “Daruma,” the opening lines of which are as follows:
The mind’s open cage awaits its tiger
and no other. Who sets the fire will not
own it. No cure or prayer can break desire.
Go, live by proverbs, then tell hot
about cold and find nothing to say….
This presents simultaneously an example of both type A and type Z thinking without a union of the two. In its epigraph the poet promises references to a variety of Buddhism together with “Hokusai’s sketch of a lost portrait.” But the poem contains no referent to “the fire,” little in the way of a context for “tiger,” and no context at all for “tell hot about cold.” It is presumably erudite (type Z) but also inchoate (type A) for the reader who is primarily interested in poetry.
It has the drawbacks of both extremes, containing both the impenetrable quality of type A and the sorted component of type Z. Without an education in Bodhidharma Buddhism, it is only a series of unrelated phrases and sentences. I agree that the poet has the freedom to write such cryptic verse, but I wonder what the purpose would be in publishing it. To tempt readers to investigate varieties of Buddhism? To dangle tantalizing language poetry before the reader? To fit in with one trend in contemporary poetry to be incomprehensible?
The second example is the first six lines of a poem by Wayne Lee, “In Praise of Formal Poetry”:
Whether it’s ridiculous or sublime,
we need the reassurance of meter,
the familiar recurrence of rhyme.
We yearn for verse that’s fixed in place or time,
lines that march to a regular beat, or
words, whether ridiculous or sublime….
I go no more into detail about self-contradictions in form in this poem, except to say the meter violates its much-vaunted “regular Beat,” and that it struggles for close rhymes. I will say, however, that this piece of verse suffers mostly from its salesman’s pitch in the selling of formal verse. It has neither the intuition of type A nor the type Z articulation required of what is arguably the most difficult kind of writing. It is merely an effort to imitate formal poetry in order to praise meter and rhyme.
It is almost entirely a case of conscious plotting. While there are plenty of examples of fine formal poetry in the Western canon, writing formal verse does not guarantee the successful unification of types A and Z thinking. Anyone who wishes to write successful poetry is more likely to imitate the driver who has been trained to direct the car in two ways, one with hands on the steering wheel, and the other with feet on the accelerator, brake or clutch. Admittedly the simultaneous actions are difficult for most beginners, but plenty of people have learned to do them. Besides, writing real poetry is never easy.
And now for some excellent poems. First, one By Richard Wilbur, “In the Elegy Season”:
Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls’:
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar holes.
Or brewed in gullies, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air….
In these few opening lines, the poet gives us a unison in complexity—the facts of fall evoked as if by the magic in their names to create a verbal and harmonious symphony on the season. The facts often surprise us with our own memories called back to us in this incantation of dormant truths. The “giant absence” moping on the trees is a phrase of type A wed to type Z thinking, as far from the accepted lexicon of the journalist as the poet dares to go without straining the literate reader’s patience.
This is a prime example of that dynamic balance between inspiration (type A thinking) and conscious composing (type Z)—inspiration for the stretched and offset vocabulary (“leaves cast in casual potpourris”) and conscious composing for the readable syntax. “Whisper their scents,” and “steeped in wells”; these tropes and others like them make for an animation of inanimate substances. This is not mere synesthesia. They instill with life what would have been dead phrases like “huge lack,” “careless mixture,” “emit their smells,” and “soaked in water.”
A second example of fine poetry is by William Stafford and is called “Found in a Storm”:
A storm that needed a mountain
met it where we were:
we woke up in a gale
that was reasoning with our tent,
and all the persuaded snow
streaked along, guessing the ground.
We turned from that curtain, down.
But sometime we will turn
back to the curtain and go
by plan through an unplanned storm,
disappearing into the cold,
meanings in search of a world.
This poem has received less notice than many of Stafford’s other poems, perhaps because, on a quick reading of it, the impression is, “Just one more poem about a spoiled camping trip.” But if that were so, the poem would be little better than a bit of journalism with a jagged right margin.
Yet that reading is itself broken into by a close reading of the second stanza, which calls the snowstorm a “curtain” twice, and speaks of “disappearing into the cold.” Curtains separate one from another space, so when we disappear into another space, especially a “cold” space, we might have died. Without speculating at this point on the meaning of the last line, it can readily be seen that the speaker of the poem is probably thinking of what lies beyond death (though without a wish for an immediate death).
This poem has the shape of those that were begun with lines the poet had written before he knew of a way to end it. The product of outlining a poem before beginning to write it is a victim of predominantly type Z thinking. “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering,” said Robert Frost. And this accords with the experience of the publishing poet I know best. It is, in fact, probably the procedure in writing poetry that invites the aid of type A thinking for its spontaneous imagery and other tropes, yet still as an addition to type Z thinking for its comprehensible order.
After all, the first stanza might have been followed by the camping party’s decision to outlast the gale, probably even losing some of the members in the cold. But the party packs up and retreats from that “curtain, down.” It is what the ancients would have called the muse hinting at a direction for closure, but I am calling type A thinking, here fused with type Z in its conscious adherence to the physical options left to the party in danger of freezing to death. They can die if they insist on staying, But if not they must retreat down the mountain and out of the gale, out from behind the “curtain,” out of the “cold,” putting off to the future their discovering a world where the meaning of human life fits the facts of that world.
Often excellent poets like Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Dana Gioia are being recognized by our system of editing and publishing, but equally often it seems there are fine poets like Weldon Kees and, more recently, William Stafford, who are for the most part cast aside unjustly. If I am right in saying so, perhaps this test for quality will save some of our excellent poems from inattention by the reading public.
The two extreme poles of thinking I posit comprise what is probably a simplification of the actual process a poet’s mind preforms while composing, but I present it as a basic part. Others more widely read in psychology and the brain’s functioning may wish to build on it.
I should warn the reader that little of this necessarily applies to light verse. Nor is what I have said a formula that will ensure success for any writer of verse. There is more to poetic excellence than this, but this strikes me as one important way to think about our thinking while composing.