See, what happened is, I got to thinking about the nature of poetry. And I vaguely remembered a Plath quote about "glimpses." I recalled it being about a door opening, then closing, and the poet catching a glimpse in between, and that is the essence of a poem. I wasn't far wrong. Frequently the Plath quote appears as follows:
"A door opens, a door shuts. In between you have a glimpse of a garden, a person, a rainstorm, a dragonfly, a heart, a city. So a poem takes place."
But that isn't the whole of it. In 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote an essay on poetry that was later included in The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets.
How I envy the novelist!
I imagine him - better say her, for it is the women I look to for a parallel - I imagine her, the novelist, pruning a rosebush with a large pair of shears, adjusting her spectacles, shuffling about among the teacups, humming, arranging ashtrays or babies, absorbing a slant of light, a fresh edge to the weather and piercing, with a kind of modest, beautiful X-ray vision, the psychic interiors of her neighbors - her neighbors on trains, in the dentist's waiting room, in the corner teashop. To her, this fortunate one, what is there that isn't relevant! Old shoes can be used, doorknobs, airletters, flannel nightgowns, cathedrals, nail varnish, jet planes, rose arbors and budgerigars; little mannerisms - the sucking at a tooth, the tugging at a hemline - any weird or warty or fine or despicable thing. Not to mention emotions, motivations - those rumbling, thunderous shapes. Her business is Time, the way it shoots forward, shunts back, blooms, decays and double exposes itself. Her business is people in Time. And she, it seems to me, has all the time in the world. She can take a century if she likes, a generation, a whole summer.
I can take about a minute.
I'm not talking about epic poems. We all know how long they can take. I'm talking about the smallish, unofficial garden-variety poem. How shall I describe it? - a door opens, a door shuts. In between you have a glimpse: a garden, a person, a rainstorm, a dragonfly, a heart, a city. I think of those round Victorian paperweights which I remember, yet can never find - a far cry from the plastic mass-productions which stud the toy counters in Woolworths. This sort of paperweight is a clear globe, self-complete, very pure, with a forest or village or family group within it. You turn it upside down, then back. It snows. Everything is changed in a minute. It will never be the same in there - not the fir trees, nor the gables, nor the faces.
So a poem takes place.
I love the idea of a poet catching a quick glimpse of something through an open door, then writing about it. About that idea or image or moment in time. And I thought Sylvia was a genius for her explanation, and still do. But I no longer think it was her original idea, because take a look-see at the last line of what Carl Sandburg had to say about poetry in 1928 for a work called Good Morning, America:
Poetry is a projection across silence of cadences arranged to break that silence with definite intentions of echoes, syllables, wave lengths.
Poetry is a journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly the air.
Poetry is a series of explanations of life, fading off into horizons too swift for explanations.
Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.
Poetry is a theorem of a yellow-silk handkerchief knotted with riddles, sealed in a balloon tied to the tail of a kite flying in a white wind against a blue sky in spring.
Poetry is the silence and speech between a wet struggling root of a flower and a sunlit blossom of that flower.
Poetry is the harnessing of the paradox of earth cradling life and then entombing it.
Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.
Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.
Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.
I love his many definitions, each of them perfect, yet perfectly flawed. Because no one phrase can sum up what poetry is, although the question from "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" comes close: "How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand?"
I leave you now to try to catch a glimpse between the opening and closing of the door.