What is it about some poetry that makes such an impact on us? Of course there are those who see any and all poetry (or art for that matter) as effete snobbery and foppery, princing and prancing around on slippered tiptoes; in other words, less than useless. This is not for them. They’ve probably already clicked on something else.
Back to the power of poetry. Is it a quality of the poem itself or is it an attribute of the reader? If there are those who are impervious to poetry, then there must be others who allow themselves to be vulnerable to the subtle nuances of particular words. If they are vulnerable, then they can be moved, strengthened or weakened, created or destroyed.
But given that, what is it about a poem that can push us over the edge of our banal comfort zones? Poems are often studied in terms of their rhyme, meter (iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, pyrrhic, and choriamb to name a few), patterns (tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, octameter, etc.) form, device, style, and figures of speech. Although certain of these poetic features can strengthen the punch of a poem, if the punch isn’t there, there’ll be nothing to strengthen; for instance, dactylic hexameter can drive home a powerful message with the galloping of horses’ hooves but the message is the rider.
Sometimes the power of a poem creeps up low and slow behind you and you don’t know what hit you until after you’ve read the last line and sometimes the power of the poem is delivered in just a couple or a few lines, the punch lines as it were.
I asked ten of my friends and relatives to tell me about the poems that had the greatest impact on them. Granted it wasn’t a statistically unbiased sample. Some of my friends are poets and some are philosophers. None of them indicated his or her own works. Here is the question I asked:
What is the most eye or heart opening, gut wrenching, life changing poem you’ve ever read?
I received back 21 powerful (to someone) poems which I analyzed in terms of their punch lines and deliveries, while examining commonalities. Here is what I encountered.
Some of the most powerful poems deliver their punch with irony in the first few lines and then soften it so that you may accept the blow and even bless it, like “On Love” from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet or “On Children” from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Others, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”, deliver a punch that leaves you gasping and continues raining down an onslaught of invective and praises at God, his mother, his other relatives, death, and life, that run together in a confusion of dialectical humanity that leave you reeling. To me Ginsberg’s Kaddish is far more effective in dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one than the traditional Kaddish of Judaism that only praises God and asks for peace for his children without mentioning a word about the deceased or the grief of the survivors. I would venture to say that the real power of Ginsberg’s Kaddish lies in its blasphemy, which we are forbidden to judge, since it was cried out during his mourning. Another example, this time presenting us a view of reality we seldom see, is Ocean Vuong’s “Tell Me Something Good” that starts off in the middle of a minefield and leaps between deaths. In a similar vein, yet more powerful than the previous example, is “Home” by Somali poet Warsan Shire, that pummels you with punch line after punch line about what it’s really like to be a homeless refugee that is guaranteed to wipe that cynical smile of our well-fed comfortable faces.
There are poems that deliver their punch lines at the beginning of each verse, like Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”, for instance his “Why should she give her bounty to the dead? / What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” in his second verse or “Death is the mother of beauty” in his fifth.
Sometimes a poem seems the diametrical opposite of power, as with ee cummings’ “l(a” or “loneliness”. Its delicate vulnerability demands your vulnerability in order to respond to it. It is so small, so quiet, so singular that, if you aren’t paying attention, you miss it altogether. The power is in the unfolding of interpretations, the singularity of loneliness, the loneliness of singularity. Another example of the power of vulnerability is William Carlos Williams’ “Of Asphodel that Greeny Flower”, which begins with the poet searching for his beloved in hell (as Orpheus searched for his beloved Eurydice in the underworld of Hades) and was encouraged to find flowers also in hell, and ends saying that, although it is difficult to get something newsworthy out of poetry, “men die miserably … for what is found there” (in poems).
A poem can be powerful without punch lines, such as “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, when it taps into a sadness or apprehension that we all feel, in this case the trepidation of mortality and the envy of wild things that seem unaware of their own mortality, although maybe that’s wishful thinking as current evidence suggests that many animals sense death’s approach and fear it. Another example, this time of the continuing relationship of the living to the dead and the dead to the living, is “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe. There are no punch lines. The power of the poems is in the sum of the lines. Yet another example is Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” about martyring one’s soul just to be caught up in the moving grace of dancing with a beautiful woman and the greater worth of a moment with her than freedom or eternity. Sometimes the power of a poem comes in the questions posed and answers demanded by the poet of the invisible reader, such as “Scheherazade” by Richard Siken, in his last lines “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These, our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it”.
I think I need a special category just to deal with the poems of Sharon Olds who uses extraordinary means to deal with all too common subject matter, like going back in time to warn her young parents not to get married (Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to May 1937” from The Gold Cell) or to give succor to her abusive father when he was a child abused by his own father (Sharon Olds’ “Late Poem to My Father” from The Gold Cell), traveling forward into the future to glimpse her unborn child pleading to be conceived (Sharon Olds’ “The Unborn”), and staring forlornly at the glittering air of molecules left from her small daughter as though she were beamed down to summer camp (Sharon Olds’ “The Daughter Goes to Camp”).
What else can be said about the summary power of the mystical image at the end of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from The Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time … And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flames are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.”
Finally there are poems like W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, two years before America entered the Second World War, that deliver their powerful punch at the end: “And the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky: / There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone; / Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die”. Auden was Anglo-American.
Poems that Had an Impact on one of the Contributors