The Poetry of Vertigo
TYPE A: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
TYPE B: The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.
These two assertions, though not opposed, place distinctly different emphases on the function of poetry. The first description, Wordsworth’s, suggests that poetry is a means of gaining perspective on primary experience: powerful emotions can be gathered, then dynamically relived, translated, and digested in the controlled laboratory of the poem—by proxy, such a poem also constructs perspective for the reader.
In contrast, Stevens’s description implies that the poem and the reader engage in a sort of muscular struggle with each other—that struggle is how they become intimate, how they really “know” each other. Stevens suggests that a good poem, as part of its process, resists, twists, and enmeshes the reader (and perhaps the poet as well), an engagement in which perspective is challenged, and by no means guaranteed.
These two descriptions, of course, are not mutually exclusive, nor exhaustive on the subject of what poetry does. Even so, the two orientations emphasize two distinct value systems of poetry in a way that seems relevant to our contemporary poetic moment—two different kinds of poetic meaning: Perspective versus Entanglement; the gong of recognition versus the bong of disorientation.
I read this on the bus coming back from Cartago – which made my fellow-passengers nervous. They never read while riding on the bus – and very little anyplace else. This is not a literary society. They knew instinctively that I was different. And like Americans, whom they imitate instinctively, this makes them nervous.
Myself, some of the best prose I read is in Poetry Magazine – and this article is a good example. I would typify it as the contrast between the modern and post-modern world – as revealed by their poetry. The first kind is meant to be understood and to unify experience. The second kind is meant to illustrate the meaningless of the post-modern world.
And I am also listening to a book about Jean-Paul Sartre, where he speaks of the meaningless of human experience, and the resulting vertigo of trying to cope with this.
Reading some of the poetry (of the second type) later in the article, gave me a good feel for that. The result, as Sartre said, does expand one’s consciousness. You end up being more than you were before.