Only subscribers may read this in its entirety. What follows is a free preview, truncated midway through.That great aesthete and reader Marilyn Monroe once said: “I read poetry because it saves time.” In the age of Twitter, and other tweet-like utterances from all sorts of birdies, not to mention attention deficit disorder on an epidemic national scale, it’s refreshing to find poetry that both saves time and enlarges it. We teachers tell our students that poetry is characterized by two—seemingly opposed—principles. First, it is language condensed, abbreviated, as hot as volcanic magma, as resistant as marble, Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order.” And second, that it has the supple power of suggestiveness, that its primary resource—figurative language—always implies more than it states, can generate differing interpretations and responses, some complementary, some contradictory. Poems say one thing and mean another thing, or they say several things at once, sometimes contradicting themselves. Even small ones, not just Whitman’s rhapsodic mutterings, contain multitudes. The less said, the more implied. The more implications, the more “meanings” generated, or the more responses from intelligent readers.
We should be happy for the great things that proverbially come in small packages. In literature, we secretly think that size matters although we sometimes pretend that it does not. Just as tragedy seems deeper, or more important than comedy (it is “serious,” after all), so a Big Bow-Wow elicits more attention than a polite utterance made with quiet modesty. This is, needless to say, a Western, especially an American, obsession. The late Grace Paley finally got tired of answering readers’ questions about when she would write her big novel. She wasn’t going to; she preferred stories. Does this signal a lack of ambition or simple self-knowledge, an understanding of what one wants to do and what one does best? In his wonderful poem “Strange Metamorphosis of Poets,” the late, always astute Howard Nemerov put it this way: