Language under pressure

Language under pressure; risk-taking of highest order, otherwise known as working on the edge; a way of life — these three qualities constitute my personal definition of poetry, even as I’m aware that the sum of these small parts is so much less than the more-than of poetry. A. E. Housman, for instance, stated that he couldn’t define what poetry was, but like a cat sensing the presence of a rat, he knew when he was in the presence of it. Auden’s opinion, on the other hand, was that poetry was the “clear expression of mixed feelings and that it made “nothing happen.” Both of these address the current state of my mind and emotions.

Sometimes, the world’s burdens weigh heavily, too heavily …

Many, many, many poems — far too many — I’m tempted to say an embarrassment of poems — have floated across my computer screen over the last several weeks. Too many only because messages in my inbox make me anxious, and there has been so much to be anxious about. So much … National Poetry Month was the stated reason for this sharing, but there were also chain emails, poems attached, with a covering message asking you to list ten, fifteen, twenty people and send a poem to the first two names on the list you received. I hate chain letters, so I politely decline, thereby breaking the chain. These were clearly being sent in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as I suspect many were in the former category, but from scholars and not necessarily from poets.

Sometimes … all I can do is weep for the earth … for us, for the lost we …

But why the largesse of poetry? And why now? One of poetry’s resources is this capacity mentioned above, to put language under pressure, through various techniques, to make it carry the weight and freight of life and living in all its complicated amplitude. I believe the weight brought to bear on the poem, through its language, structure, organization, and rhythms, becomes a gravitational force capable of anchoring the corresponding weight, which the reader brings to the poem.

We in Canada and elsewhere now live under “lockdown”; in other places, like California, the metaphor is “shelter in place,” a seemingly anodyne description, but one which simultaneously throws into relief that far too many have neither shelter nor place — a place to call their own. I wonder what the corresponding word in different languages is for this activity, which is essentially a nonactivity. Perhaps then the idea of lockdown is a far more honest representation of our experience of being at the mercy of “it” (my unnaming an attempt to suggest its all-encompassing amorphous power), as well as at the mercy of the supposedly benign state. Indeed, some suggest it is akin to house arrest. Whether it be lockdown or shelter in place, like the poem, we too are now “under pressure,” being made to bear the heft, the weight, of this particular and at times seemingly unbearable catastrophe. I believe this to be one of the reasons we, being human, move instinctively towards the fulfillment of the weight-bearing potential that is poetry, and particularly in liminal moments such as birth, death, and love. This pandemic and its aftermath is and will be once such moment, albeit extended.

I reckon  when I count 

At all 

First  Poets  Then the Sun 

Then Summer  Then the 

Heaven of God 

And then  the List is done 


But  looking back  the 

First so seems

To Comprehend the Whole 

The Others look a needless Show 

So I write  Poets  All 


Emily Dickinson