In a StatePrint
By William Deresiewicz
August 8, 2011
As artificial as they sometimes seem, the major literary forms are grounded in our everyday experience. The narrative genres–epic, novel, short story–make sense because we all tell stories all the time. What my stupid brother said last night, the funny thing I heard the other day, that time (remember?) when we got in trouble senior year. Drama capitalizes on the fact that life is full of situations–interviewing for a job, putting on a uniform, meeting our girlfriend’s parents for the first time–where we play a role, act out a script, pretend to be a person that we’re not. Writers underscore these connections by putting stories within stories and plays with plays: Odysseus telling his wanderings, Rosalind dressing in drag in As You Like It.
So what about lyric poetry? Nothing could seem more remote from ordinary life than highly wrought forms like sonnets and sestinas. But here’s the key: poetry is language in a state of excitement. In both senses–the language is excited, and we produce it when we are. Poetry makes use of metaphor, alliteration, regularity of rhythm, and so do we, when moved to speak by anger or frustration or desire. I heard a poet talk about this on the radio. He said he’d overheard a couple fighting in a restaurant. Suddenly the young woman jumped up and exclaimed, “You haven’t kissed me since we were engaged!” A striking statement, and also a perfect line of iambic pentameter. Molière’s bourgeois gentleman is thrilled to learn that he’s been speaking prose his whole life, yet he hasn’t been, quite, and neither have we.
But it isn’t just the language line by line. The forms of lyric poetry may be artificial, but the occasions are perfectly human. This struck me when I taught a freshman English course, one of those classes where you read a few short stories, a Shakespeare play, and a bunch of poems. Among the lyrics I’d put on the syllabus were John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person God,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” In other words, I realized, a prayer, a curse, a love letter (or a sex letter, at least, a seduction), and a kind of public address. Other poems are spells or howls or meditations–forms we utter in extremis. It isn’t always, with us, “How are you?” and “Have a nice day,” the dead level of daily discourse. Just as we are all storytellers and actors, so are we all poets, speaking music sometimes from the heart.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.