April 12, 2010

The River Wants to Go Straight

The river that snakes and curves is a frustrated thing. Given enough time, the river will amputate the cursive parts of its body, leaving dry beds and oxbow lakes behind, all for the want of the straight path.

The Earth does not want the river to flow like a rail; a straighter river is swifter, stronger, and so draws more soil out to sea. The Earth must slow the river to keep from being roughly gouged down to bedrock.

The idea, the impetus, the sentiment inside a poem often wants to express itself directly, and the poetry in the poem wants to enliven the idea’s expression with turns, to slow its progress, because if the idea comes out too straight, the poem will split open, and we’ll be left with a decree, or lede, or ad.

Many of the poets I admire write poems that contain direct sentiments, and they each have their own poetic way of taming the expression of that sentiment. Ted Kooser will sometimes slow the sentiment with metaphor, Philip Larkin with lyric, Louise Gluck with hyperbole and image. There are, of course, poets who are more wend than intent, and they write in a rambling way, reaching a conclusion or sentiment through the meditative process of creation.

Managing the confluence of idea and poetics is one of the poet’s primary tasks, it seems, and there is room for poetry to be written at either extremity; consider Bukowski and Ashbery. But both poetics and sentiments allow readers the opportunity to follow, ponder, and diverge which strikes me as the point of poetry.

If you’ve ever seen the Mississippi where it flows between Louisiana and its namesake sate, you’ve seen a broad, brown, hurrying river. Often, the Mississippi is so broad and so swift that it appears almost featureless, like an enormous sandlot. But it runs furiously straight; not even the army can turn that horse.

The crooked, rambling river is lovelier, full of twists, drops and froth. But it often babbles, and it takes expertise to navigate its rapids, or conversely, the passivity of a leaf to travel upon its surface.

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