A distressing scene to contemplate was recently recounted (with photos) in Field & Stream:
[T]hree Ohio bucks somehow locked antlers while battling near a small creek. When one deer slid into a shallow pool, it sealed the fate for all three, who drowned together, antlers still locked. Steve Hill talked to the men who found and recovered the deer and their combined 400-inches of antler to bring you the story of this sad, almost poetic scene.
Almost poetic scene. I would drop the “almost”. It is a poetic scene. But what makes it poetic? That’s a tricky question, isn’t it?
I’ll take a stab at it. It’s poetic because:
- Contingency is poetic.
- Binding things together is poetic.
- The struggle for survival and mates is poetic.
- Something with a beginning, a middle, and an end is poetic.
- Energy is poetic.
- Threes are poetic.
- Deer are social animals—they move in herds—and so their interspecies rivalries are familiar and poetic to us, like our wars.
- The body is poetic.
- Antlers are poetic because they are like clubs and swords, and these are poetic.
- Nature is poetic.
- Death is poetic.
- Dying in the prime of life is poetic. (The critic AC Bradley suggests that part of what makes tragedy tragic is the sense of waste, which is poetic.)
- Harmony underlying rivalry is poetic.
- Symmetry is poetic.
- Drowning is poetic.
- Poetry is poetic. (Poetry is charged rhythm and pattern, and the bucks locked together symbolize a charged rhythm and pattern.)
But why are these poetic? Let me try again. Poetic things:
- defamiliarize us;
- they’re uncanny;
- they make us see things in a new way;
- they slow down attention (or arrest it outright, demanding a breath reduced or breath held gaze);
- they connect or contrast desires;
- through metaphor and symbol, they reframe the world and re-link it in novel fashions.
So that’s it: poetry is metaphor—and we have associative minds—and the visual image of three bucks, their antlers interlocked in water—drowned together—evoke metaphorical associations in us. Poetry, like the beginnings of a new religious cult, arrives as revelation: it brings things into a new and surprising perceptual pattern, reframing the world whole. Some are permanently converted by it—changed utterly in their thinking—and this is part of the spell-casting danger and promise of metaphor, of poetry.
So the bucks are the following:
- They are loaded guns: via their presentation as image and language before the eye and imagination of the viewer, they can take the metaphorical head off (as Emily Dickinson sought to do with her own poetry).
- They are charged with association and linked with our desires and aversions; they hover near to consciousness (like names lost to the tongue). They might appear in our dreams. When we chance upon them as we browse through a magazine like Field & Stream (a field and a stream are themselves ever at the ready to function as metaphors), they startle us.
And associations, like deer (and like us), travel in groups. They move about in our minds (metaphorically, of course). They give off specific poetic-emotional “scents” (we sence that nature goes with the struggle for mates and survival, which goes with war, which goes with death, which goes with being underwater, etc).
But to disambiguate a poetic “scent”—its poetic truth—for scientific scrutiny is Wordsworth’s murdering to dissect: we exchange what moved us as a gestalt apprehension—a binding poetic move toward holistic meaning and pattern—for formal and dispassionate critical analysis.
And so we might miss the forest for the trees.
By contrast, poetry prior to analysis (that is, when it first appears; in the shock of arrival) is part of the ontological mystery—a kind of qualie that you just have to experience for yourself: the large and shadowy stranger at your inner door.
Like Jesus in Revelation 3:20.
Poetry is waking up in Southern California, opening your curtains, and discovering, to your surprise, that it has snowed (as happened to me this morning). Poetry is an epiphany. Will it be the bearer of good news—an association that pleases even as it shocks—or will it be the vehicle for some horror? It’s kind of like encountering God. Or first seeing images of the Holocaust. Or three bucks in shallow water, their antlers locked in a shared death.
The bucks stopped there.
Is that a pun or is that poetry? Is a poem a cousin to the joke—a form of joking; a delivery by surprise? I don’t really know what poetry is. Do you?