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- Definitions - 30/38 -


I do not mean for an instant to propose that every one should read poetry. The man whose imagination has never taken fire from literature of any kind, whose brain is literal and dislikes any embroidery upon the surface of plain fact, who is deaf to music, unresponsive to ideas, and limited in his emotions--such a man in my opinion is unfortunate, although he is often an excellent citizen, lives happily, makes a good husband, and may save the state. But he should not (no danger that he will) read poetry. And for another class there is nothing in poetry. The emotionally dying or dead; the men who have sunk themselves, their personalities, their hopes, their happiness, in business or scholarship or politics or sport--they, too, are often useful citizens, and usually highly prosperous; but they would waste their time upon literature of any variety, and especially upon poetry.

There are a dozen good arguments, however, to prove that the reading of poetry is good for the right kind of general reader, who is neither defective nor dead in his emotions; and this means, after all, a very large percentage of all readers. If I had space I should use them all, for I realize that the convention we have adopted for poetry makes us skip, in our magazines, as naturally from story to story over the verse between as from stone to stone across the brook. However, I choose only two, which seem to me as convincing for the unpoetical reader (the dead and defective excepted) as the ethical grandeur of poetry, let us say, for the moralist, its beauty for the aesthete, its packed knowledge for the scholar.

The first has often been urged before and far more often overlooked. We everyday folk plod year after year through routine, through fairly good or fairly bad, never quite realizing what we are experiencing, never seeing life as a whole, or any part of it, perhaps, in complete unity. Words, acts, sights, pass through our experience hazily, suggesting meanings which we never fully grasp. Grief and love, the most intense, perhaps, of sensations, we seldom understand except by comparison with what has been said of the grief and love of others. Happiness remains at best a diffused emotion--felt, but not comprehended. Thought, if in some moment of intense clarity it grasps our relationship to the stream of life, in the next shreds into trivialities. Is this true? Test it by any experience that is still fresh in memory. See how dull, by comparison with the vivid colors of the scene itself, are even now your ideas of what it meant to you, how obscure its relations to your later life. The moment you fell in love, the hour after your child had died, the instant when you reached the peak, the quarrel that began a misunderstanding not yet ended, the subtle household strain that pulls apart untiringly though it never sunders two who love each other--all these I challenge you to define, to explain, to lift into the light above the turbid sea of complex currents which is life.

And this, of course, is what good poetry does. It seizes the moment, the situation, the thought; drags it palpitating from life and flings it, quivering with its own rhythmic movement, into expression. The thing cannot be done in mere prose, for there is more than explanation to the process. The words themselves, in their color and suggestiveness, the rhythms that carry them, contribute to the sense, even as overtones help to make the music.

All this may sound a little exalted to the comfortable general reader, who does not often deal in such intense commodities as death and love. And yet I have mentioned nothing that does not at one time or another, and frequently rather than the opposite, come into his life, and need, not constant, certainly, but at least occasional, interpretation. Death and love, and also friendship, jealousy, courage, self-sacrifice, hate--these cannot be avoided. We must experience them. So do the animals, who gain from their experiences blind, instinctive repulsions or unreasoning likes and distrusts. There are many ways of escaping from such a bovine acquiescence, content to have felt, not desirous to grasp and know and relate. Poetry, which clears and intensifies like a glass held upon a distant snowpeak, is one of the best.

But there is another service that poetry, among all writing, best renders to the general reader, _when he needs it_; a service less obvious, but sometimes, I think, more important. Poetry insures an extension of youth.

Men and women vary in their emotional susceptibility. Some go through life always clouded, always dull, like a piece of glass cut in semblance of a gem, that refracts no colors and is empty of light. Others are vivid, impressionable, reacting to every experience. Some of us are most aroused by contact with one another. Interest awakens at the sound of a voice; we are most alive when most with our kind. Others, like Thoreau, respond best in solitude. The very thrush singing dimly in the hemlocks at twilight moves them more powerfully than a cheer. A deep meadow awave with headed grass, a solemn hill shouldering the sky, a clear blue air washing over the pasture slopes and down among the tree-tops of the valley, thrills them more than all the men in all the streets of the world. It makes no difference. To every one, dull and vivid, social and solitary, age brings its changes. We may understand better, but the vividness is less, the emotions are tamer. They do not fully respond, as the bell in the deserted house only half tinkles to our pulling.

Si jeunesse savait, Si vielliesse pouvait.

But to be able comes before to know. We must react to experiences before it is worth while to comprehend them. And after one is well enmeshed in the routine of plodding life, after the freshness of the emotions (and this is a definition of youth) is gone, it is difficult to react. I can travel now, if I wish, to the coral islands or the Spanish Main, but it is too late.

Few willingly part with the fresh impressionability of youth. Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the faculties of sensation become atrophied, if indeed they ever existed. I know no more dismal spectacle than a man talking shop on a moonlit hill in August, a woman gossipping by the rail of a steamer plunging through the sapphire of the Gulf Stream, or a couple perusing advertisements throughout a Beethoven symphony. I will not advance as typical a drummer I once saw read a cheap magazine from cover to cover in the finest stretch of the Canadian Rockies. He was not a man, but a sample-fed, word-emitting machine. These people, emotionally speaking, are senile. They should not try to read poetry.

But most of us--even those who are outwardly commonplace, practical, unenthusiastic, "solid," and not "sensitive"--lose our youthful keenness with regret. And that is why poetry, except for the hopelessly sodden, is a tonic worthy of a great price. For the right poetry at the right time has the indubitable power to stir the emotions that experience is no longer able to arouse. I cannot give satisfactory instances, for the reaction is highly personal. What with me stirs a brain cell long dormant to action will leave another unmoved, and vice versa. However, to make clear my meaning, let us take Romance, the kind that one capitalizes, that belongs to Youth, also capitalized, and dwells in Granada or Sicily or the Spanish Main. The middle-aged gentleman on a winter cruise for his jaded nerves cannot expect a thrill from sights alone. If it is not lost for him utterly, it is only because Keats has kept it, in--

... Magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn, q and Nashe in--

Brightness falls from the air; Queens have died young and fair.

Or consider the joy of travel renewed in Kipling's--

Then home, get her home, where the drunken rollers comb, And the shouting seas drive by, And the engines stamp and ring, and the wet bows reel and swing, And the Southern Cross rides high! Yes, the old lost stars wheel back, dear lass, That blaze in the velvet blue.

Or the multitudinous experiences of vivid life that crowd the pages of men like Shakespeare, or Chaucer, who thanked God that he had known his world as in his time. Even in these shopworn quotations the power still remains.

Somewhere in poetry, and best in poetry because there most concentrated and most penetrative, lies crystallized experience at hand for all who need it. It is not difficult to find, although no one can find it for you. It is not necessarily exalted, romantic, passionate; it may be comfortable, homely, gentle or hearty, vigorous and cheerful; it may be anything but commonplace, for no true emotion is ever commonplace. I have known men of one poet; and yet that poet gave them the satisfaction they required. I know others whose occasional dip into poetry leads to no rapture of beauty, no throbbing vision into eternity; and yet without poetry they would be less alive, their minds would be less young. As children, most of us would have flushed before the beauty of a sunrise on a tropic ocean, felt dimly if profoundly--and forgotten. The poet--like the painter--has caught, has interpreted, has preserved the experience, so that, like music, it may be renewed. And he can perform that miracle for greater things than sunrises. This, perhaps, is the best of all reasons why every one except the emotionally senile should sometimes read poetry.

I know at least one honest Philistine who, unlike many Philistines, has traveled through the Promised Land--and does not like it. When his emotional friends talk sentimentalism and call it literature, or his aesthetic acquaintances erect affectations and call them art, he has the proper word of irony that brings them back to food, money, and other verities. His voice haunts me now, suggesting that, in spite of the reasons I have advanced, the general reader can scarcely be expected to read modern poetry, and that therefore his habit of skipping must continue. He would say that most modern poetry is unreadable, at least by the average man. He would say that if the infinitely complex study of emotional mind-states that lies behind the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, or the eerie otherworldliness of Yeats, or the harsh virility of Sandburg is to be regarded as an intensification and clarification of experience, he begs to be excused. He would say that if the lyrics of subtle and passionate emotion and the drab stories of sex experience that make up so many pages of modern anthologies represent a renewal and extension of youth, it was not _his_ youth. He prefers to be sanely old rather than erotically young. He will stick to the daily paper and flat prose.

Well, it is easy to answer him by ruling out modern poetry from the argument. There was more good poetry, neither complex, nor erotic, nor esoteric, written before our generation than even a


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