#32: On Poetry
Alternative title: I have a degree in poetry and every once in a while I like to flex on it, so please bear with me.
As anyone who knows me well is aware, I’ve always had a deep and abiding love for poetry. That said, often I’ll go months without opening an anthology or chapbook, let alone working on a poem of my own. I will freely admit that from the vantage point of immersion in other creative mediums—photo, film, even prose—it sometimes feels like poetry is impenetrable. Reading it when out of practice feels like the first couple of rusty days acclimating to speaking another language, or following foreign customs, whilst travelling. But I always come home to poetry eventually. Over the past year-and-a-bit (however long it’s been in this strange limbo space since the world became, as Macneice writes, ‘suddener than we fancy it’1) I’ve come to appreciate poetry more than ever as a mechanism for articulating an uncanny world. Arguably more than any other art form or medium, poetry is the orbit around an unsayable core. But when approached humanely it can be far less intimidating or bewildering than it appears: more realpolitik and less abstract, or at least more attuned to the heart in a way that really can cut through the bullshit.
All this to say that awhile back I started keeping a bullet-point list in my phone’s notes app. I call it, not-so-evocatively: ‘Poems that just Get It’.2 I add to the list now and again when I encounter, or remember, a poem which cuts through mental quicksand. I try to be selective. These are not merely poems I enjoy or briefly appreciate, but rather the ones that I return to, time and again, which haunt me in the interim: the poems that make me feel seen, and make me feel like I see a glimmer of something intangible too.
Sometimes, these are poems that evoke or put words to a specific feeling or experience that is so familiar and hard to pin down. Perfect Song by Heather Christle is a great example of this, and a piece to which I’ve been returning often lately. It’s been a solid few years since I’ve tried my hand at a textual analysis of poetry, but here we go as I try to explain why this poem… just Gets It.
Right from the jump, Christle conjures a delightfully self-centred point of view: a voice made subjective by the hazards of time past, or perhaps simply preoccupied in its youth. There’s this underlying tension, which is what I love about the poem: a heightened, stretched-to-breaking distance between the moment itself and the self-aware memory of it. This is such a familiar phenomenon—that reverse déjà-vu sort of awareness, in a brief moment of blissful synchronicity, that one day that moment will be memorialised in memory’s amber. And then conversely: the moment of later coming to understand that the memory is altered or reimagined by virtue of this act of memorialisation.
This notion manifests linguistically at one particularly crucial point, roughly halfway through the poem: ‘I was hungover / young as clean as a piano / I thought’. God, don’t you just love a well-placed enjambment? It’s a tremendously high-risk, high-reward poetic device, IMO. Done carelessly, you get, well, Rupi Kaur. But done well, an intentionally sundered line opens the text up to vast possibilities. ‘I thought’ is tied to the previous sentiment—already a gorgeous image and artful consonance—but the line break offers up space for rumination or dissonance or reconsidering. It’s an opportunity, a midpoint pause to turn things over and allow the poem’s perspective layers to reveal themselves: we have now moved into the space of the recollected memory. How heartbreaking and lovely this tonal and temporal shift is: to be young and buoyant and then, ‘later much later,’ to be less young but in possession of the bittersweet gift that is the clarity of time.
The way Christle harnesses the sonic texture of the poem is notable as well. The echo of the enigmatic ‘perfect song,’ and the search for it, glide throughout the spine of the poem with a light, airy touch of sibilance. And ‘at any moment / someone might fall in love with me I was / that woven…’ is particularly vulnerable and sweet for its open vowels. Open syllables such as those of ‘moment’ and ‘woven’ crack open the heart-space of the text and illustrate the feeling—so difficult to articulate—of becoming implicitly aware of one’s glorious enmeshment with a larger world. Then there are lines that seem to take a perverse, sharp pleasure in undercutting this. ‘The electric / cold bright air’; ‘the joyous concordance of / a moment that would not come again’: in these instances, Christle’s consonance is crisp, almost palpably crunching underfoot like the snow in the speaker’s memory. These various textures seem at times to clamour for the forefront, vying for preeminence or a stake in the memory’s recollection. But that’s precisely the nature of memory, right? Complicated, layered, narrative-driven. Borne out of the drive to freeze time, and never quite able to do so without somehow altering or reframing it. But maybe, Christle seems to be suggesting, that’s the beautiful part.
What is Algorithmic Culture? The Difficulty in ‘Living in Truth’ in a World of AI, by Jerrold McGrath for Ferment AI. Not sure how I came across this—linked in someone else’s newsletter, maybe—and it’s long but fascinating (and a bit bleak if you, like me, are generally wary of what an AI future means for like, the soul of humanity etc etc). Here’s a key takeaway:
Our ideas about what things signify are assembled from experiences. We are not born with the skills to organise the facts of the world but develop them as we interact with others and the broader culture. What happens, then, when we assign more of our decision-making to systems that are optimised for efficiency and have no interest in providing us with a diverse and potentially unsettling set of experiences?
Convenience becomes a trap. Consistent stories, intolerant of other ways of seeing the world, start to shape what we notice and how we experience things. Different moral worlds are marginalised. Moral agency becomes harder to realise. Living life out in the open means that those that might speak out against the dominant narrative avoid doing so for fear of criticism or becoming the next algorithmically selected source of outrage.
Anyone else over the age of like, 17, listen to the new Olivia Rodrigo album and kinda vibe with it despite being Absolutely Not the target demographic? Someone please tell me I’m not the only millennial in the room who thinks it’s a jam…
That’s it for today. Catch you next week and, as always, thanks for reading,
HMU if you want the full (ongoing) list, I will gladly share it. In fact, you’d probably make my day. Bonus points if you suggest additions…