Poetry, a reminder of what we are, not what we do

When I was five, I once ran toward our barnlike garage between the vegetable gardens. I was a sickly kid, but every step I took was a spring into the air, not a triumph over weakness but somehow as natural as the string beans themselves. Maybe this last assertion about why I was so elated is a screen memory. I don’t know, but it’s been a constant throughout my life. As I was springing along, I told myself I would remember that moment forever. I said the same thing on other occasions, but those occasions I’ve forgotten — except for having said I’d remember them. The first moment, however, I still do remember.

Two or three years later, I was standing around with friends on the quiet road near our house at twilight, hearing all our chatter as an entranced silence. I remember that, too, perpetually, even though at the time I didn’t tell myself I would remember it forever. Just so, I was in the back seat of the car on a country road going to the house of my parents’ friends whom I liked a lot and whose rambling gardens I valued both for their subtle taste (without being especially precocious, I saw a lot of things from a grown-up point of view) and for their resources as a child’s shelter fantasy. Yet I have no memory of the friends either by face or name and no recollection at all of the gardens. Just the scenery passing in the car window.

Every reader of this can remember comparable moments, with all the variables thrown in — moments perhaps in some cases more exciting than these but typically similar. And that’s exactly what Wordsworth was counting on when he wrote the Spots of Time in “The Prelude.” It was long after I’d started reading poetry that I first encountered Boat Stealing, Skating, Hanged Man, Waiting for Horses and all the rest of them. I had gone through the typical young person’s boredom reading Wordsworth — while treasuring other poets — but when I encountered the Spots of Time I knew not only why I had been reading poetry for so long, but why it exists. I’ve been trying to explain why ever since.

We all need to realize that the persistence of poetry from the very beginnings of culture to the present, as strong as ever now and with no sign of abatement, is really quite astonishing from an anthropological point of view. Why poetry? Why that odd way of reciting or writing that goes along in “lines” that end before they get to the right-hand margin? Fiction one understands as a need, as well as drama — together with the likelihood of their passing the baton to film and digitized narrative at some point without losing their function — because fiction and drama allow us to think through the possibilities and mishaps of human agency. Poetry can’t compete on those grounds. Even when it narrates, it’s not really about doing things. The novel in verse has at times succeeded (epics, mock epics and romances, “Don Juan” in a way, Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” the Brownings’ twin efforts, Meredith’s sonnet sequence called “Modern Love,” Vikram Seth’s “Golden Gate”), and of course there are memorable ballads and dramatic monologues, bursting at the seams of being merely verse.

But it’s merely being, or “mere being” as Stevens called it, that I’m talking about. Poetic form is not an expression of agency — except the poet’s, which as a critical topic has become rather boring, however exciting it may be for the poet. Poetic form is a magnificent ruse, a bird leading the predator away from its nest by feigning a broken wing. Poetry is not about form, yet it needs form. Meter, for example, as Wordsworth himself said, regulates our feelings into a state of appropriate attentiveness. So does the whole apparatus of craft when attuned to the right thing, to what poetry has to say and why it exists.

It exists to remind us that we exist. That’s what we forget while busying ourselves, as we must and as we naturally wish to do, with the activities that belong to fiction and drama. Poetry interrupts doing with being. That’s one of the functions of memory as well, not the only one, but certainly the kind that Wordsworth saw as the basis of his education and vocation. “A poet is a man speaking to men,” he said. (Hey, give him some slack. You know he meant Dorothy, too.) And suppose, as Judith Butler might say, his Spots of Time (quite unavoidably) speak to me? We’ve all had them. Hence poetry.

Paul Fry is the William Lampson Professor of English. His new book, “Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are,” is forthcoming May 16.

This column is part of the News’ op-ed page tribute to Poetry Month.

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