A thought on poetry

A conversation with Amal El-Mohtar and Alex Dally MacFarlane on Twitter, which began here, with a link to Sofia Samatar’s poem “Girl Hours”, crystallised for me some of my feelings about poetry.

Samatar’s is a visceral and moving piece of poetry, weaving in and out of history, science, bodies, ways of knowing with intensity, fire, and astonishing image, juxtaposition and rhythm:

You were not the only deaf woman there.
Annie Cannon, too, was hard of hearing.
On the day of your death she wrote: Rainy day pouring at night.

Oh bright rain, brave clouds, oh stars,
oh stars.

Two thousand four hundred fires
and uncharted, unstudied,
the hours, the hours, the hours.

It has the same force and power for me as Seamus Heaney’s “From the Lightnings VIII,”


The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

(Out of the marvellous as he had known it. I will love that poem forever for that line.)

or Pablo Neruda’s “Canto XII: From the Heights of Macchu Picchu,”

And tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.

And give me silence, give me water, hope.

Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.

Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.

Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.

Speak through my speech, and through my blood.

The thing is, I cannot see genre in poetry. Division by forms, yes. But not by genres: even narrative is a form. There is image, and there is rhythm, and there is theme, and there is world changing in an instant – but not genre.

I find it impossible – I mean, how do you say “This is” and “This isn’t”? All the poetry that works in me partakes of the fantastic and the transcendental, but if separated into its constituent elements, how do I say “This is science”? “This is magic”? “This is mimetic”? “This is not”?

This is the immanence of things that know no words, that have no spoken names. This is poetry, in all its intensity, and freight, and emotion, and fire.

Poetry is as close as I get to religious experience, anymore.

Perhaps. If it doesn’t reach the poetic/transcendental for someone, in some sense, then I can’t find it in me to call it poetry. Failed poetry, doggerel, weird prose: but not poetry. The inner light and fire, the special intensity, the power to change, the power to move: these are poetry’s characteristics.

It doesn’t have to work for me. If it only works for one person in ten thousand, then it still works – but the one thing poetry cannot be and remain poetry is universally mundane.

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