Dispatches | June 24, 2007

As a scribbler of poems, I have often asked myself what is the promise of poetry?  In what consists the peculiar pleasure of the well-crafted poem?  The first answer that comes to mind is obvious:  pleasure.  The poem pleases through a kind of transportation – literally, a carrying across – of the self from the mundane to the visionary by means of language cunningly wrought.  The poem is the room where rhythm and meaning meet,  an ecstatic rendezvous.  But pleasure is only part of the puzzle, and the end of hedonism is always boredom. 

Annie Finch recently articulated another answer:  balance.  She argues, “Poetry offers balance between the logical, verbal left side of the brain and the musical, spatial right side of the brain, combining meaning and rhythm as no other art can do. Poetry uses the same words we all use every day, and so it transmutes the intimate chatter of our lives into something more powerful.”  So the poem both transports and transmutes.  Through an elaborate, cerebral balancing act that harmonizes meaning and rhythm, the poem carries us until, like Wordsworth by the Wye, “Almost suspended, we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul.” [Read the rest of Finch’s essay here.]

This “suspension” is a function of rhythm, and, as Eliot quipped, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”  It is through rhythm and meter that we are either lulled or shaken into receptivity.  Consider Yeats’s conclusion to “Among School Children”:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?


This iambic rhythm lulls the mind into an almost hypnagogic space and, thus, prepares the way for two of the most debated (but undeniably profound) questions in English poetry.  The rhythm rocks us to sleep, while the meaning startles us into thought.  As Finch contends, “poetry transports us in a way that no other art can do, because it brings the conscious and unconscious mind into a new relation.”  This “new relation” can be conceived as a kind of yoga, yoking together the conscious and unconscious – a delicate balance.  It could be said that poetry transcends the apparent binary of conscious/unconscious through a rhythmic opening to the mythic potential of language.  In sum, the poem transports, transmutes, and transcends. 

By “passing beyond” the limits of binary opposition, poetry refreshes the common spring of language.  New linguistic possibilities burst like fervent zinnia buds after rain.  And like the steady patter of rain, rhythm carries us to a place where language is always renewing itself.  Philip Larkin puts it memorably in a poem that I have admired for some time:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.


Is it that they are born again

And we grow old?  No, they die too.

Their yearly trick of looking new

Is written down in rings of grain.


Yet still the unresting castles thresh

In fullgrown thickness every May.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.


– Tim Hayes