William Carlos Williams’s famous poetic motto was “no ideas but in things,” but as someone who loves philosophy as well as poetry, I like what Elisa Gabbert recently wrote:
Here’s what I’d like to see more of in submissions: IDEAS. Why don’t poems have more ideas? So many poems I read are essentially just descriptions. So you went outside. It was beautiful. Or not. I don’t care how creatively you describe it, if it didn’t trigger any thoughts beyond “Hells yeah I am going to describe this,” it’s not a poem. It’s just showing off to yourself, or as Matt Rass used to say, “masturbating to language.”
I think that part of what Elisa Gabbert is getting at here echoes the problem of 21st century postmodernism: too much of urban contemporary art rewards the nonrepresentational, focusing on style and medium over substance, and this has infected poetry as well. This is not to say I think that a poem has to always be a vehicle for complicated ideas or narratives. There’s obviously a place, for example, for haiku. What I’m agreeing with Elisa Gabbert about is that, more often than not, a poem should be a vehicle for something going somewhere. It can be as simple—but nevertheless profound—as a childhood rite of passage (the first day of kindergarten for a five year old). It can also be something irresolvable that one nevertheless wrestles with anyway, as in the poem below by Thomas Hardy, in which he recounts the death of a loved one, and his subsequent argument with God over her death. In content and world-weary tone, Hardy’s poem recalls Shakespeare’s, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport”:
I saw him steal the light away
That haunted in her eye:
It went so gently none could say
More than that it was there one day
And missing by-and-by.
I watched her longer, and he stole
Her lily tincts and rose;
All her young sprightliness of soul
Next fell beneath his cold control,
And disappeared like those.
I asked: ‘Why do you serve her so?
Do you, for some glad day,
Hoard these her sweets—?’ He said, ‘O no,
They charm not me; I bid Time throw
Them carelessly away.’
Said I: ‘We call that cruelty—
We, your poor mortal kind.’
He mused. ‘The thought is new to me.
Forsooth, though I men’s master be,
Theirs is the teaching mind!’
The last three lines could be read in two ways, couldn’t they? Is God acknowledging Hardy’s accusation of divine moral callousness, or is He being ironic?
And is Hardy?
The poem appeared, afterall, in Hardy’s 1909 collection of poems that he titled, Time’s Laughingstocks. Who are time’s laughingstocks? In this instance, is the joke on Hardy’s loved one? On Hardy? On God? Who or what, exactly, are the layered ironies in Hardy’s poem properly directed?
However we answer such questions, at least there’s lots to talk about after reading the poem. There are things that linger.
When I think of what Elisa Gabbert wrote, I also think of St. Paul (I Corinthians 13:1, KJV):
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
Religion needs love; poetry needs ideas.