I have had a breakthrough in my thoughts on the nature of poetry. To recap, in the last episode of this blog, I stated that over the past twenty years or so, I had somehow decided that unless I really knew what poetry was, I had no business writing it. Despite having taught more poetry than you can shake a spear at, I didn’t feel I could actually define poetry. It couldn’t be just the use of creative language, because that’s used in the best prose; nor could I say it was in the idea of moving the reader to feel a specific emotion, because that’s the motivation behind all different kinds of prose, too. What was left was simply the form of poetry, which meant that a poem is a poem because the person who created it says it’s a poem and delineates its appearance, using line breaks and stanzas, in such a way to suggest that it is a poem.
That’s fair, of course, but not very satisfying. So I came up with the idea of busting apart the entire idea of genre, and asking if it really matters what we call a piece of writing. Whether it’s prose or poetry, if we feel moved by it, if it elicits a vivid picture or sensation or thought, then it’s good writing. But something in me was left unsatisfied, and so I did what I always do when I have a tricky little intellectual problem: I simply tried to forget about it.
But a few days ago I had an idea about the motivation behind writing poetry. Perhaps, I postulated, that’s what really differentiates a poem from a prose piece: the writer’s motivation. By chance, I was helped along in this line of thinking–about the whole idea of why we write and read poems–from, of all things, a very fine science writer named Ed Yong.
You might remember Yong from his insightful articles on the Covid-19 pandemic, which were published in the Atlantic. I knew Yong to be an excellent writer, so when I saw his book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms around Us (2022), I picked it up and read it.
But how does a book on natural science relate to poetry? Bear with me a few minutes and I’ll explain.
Yong’s book is all about the way in which animals’ perceptions are different, sometimes starkly, from our own. It’s also about how human beings have misunderstood and misrepresented the way animals perceive things for millennia because we’re so immured in our own self-contained perceptive world. In other words, by thinking of animals in purely human terms, we limit our view of them.We also limit our view of the world itself. What we perceive, Yong argues throughout the book, determines in large part what we think and how we feel–and, most important of all for my point here, how we process the world we live in.
Yong uses the term “Umwelt” throughout the book to refer to an animal’s perceptual world, a term that means “environment” in German but has taken on a new flavor thanks to the scientist Jakob von Uexküll, who first used the word in 1909 in this specific sense. A dog’s “umwelt,” then, reflects the way it perceives the world, a world in which different colors are highlighted, scents linger in the air long after their source has moved away, and so on.
So how does this all relate to poetry and why we read and write it? Simply this: I propose that a poem’s primary task is to present an Umwelt for its reader. To do this, the poet creates a piece of writing that closely reflects (if she is lucky) the way she sees the world and presents it to the reader as a gift. If the reader accepts the gift, his reward for reading the poem attentively is being able to glimpse the world afresh through an Umwelt that is different from his own. In other words, the reader gets to see the world, or at least a piece of it, through a different perceptual grid, an experience that can be entertaining, sometimes unsettling, often thought-provoking, and, at its best, revelatory.
Is this different from prose? Perhaps not too much, but I’d argue that the very choice to write a poem instead of an essay, short story, or novel indicates something–I’d say something vitally important– about the writer’s Umwelt. The other forms of writing have messages they want to relay. The poem, however, exists simply to allow its reader to step into its author’s Umwelt for a few moments in order to experience the world differently.
So there you have it. For me, at least for now, discovering why we write poems has given me a new understanding and appreciation of poetry. It means I don’t have to decide whether I like or dislike a poem, nor do I have to justify my reaction to it. Poetry simply is; there’s no more point in arguing whether a poem is good or bad than there is in arguing with my dog Flossie whether her way of experiencing the forest we walk through every morning is better than mine, or whether mine is better than hers. If I got the chance to experience the world through her senses, you can bet I’d take it. Curiosity alone would drive me to it.
At the most basic level, then, I write poetry to demonstrate how I experience the world. I read poetry to discover how other people experience the world. In the end, we read and write poetry to bridge the gap between ourselves and others. It’s about sharing our Umwelten, which, in the end, means it’s all about breaking out of our own little self-contained worlds and joining together to form a bigger, better sense of the world we live in.