My wife laughs at my daily "revelations" or "epiphanies," but this one feels pretty major. (How many times will I say that on here?) Today I was writing a Petrarchan sonnet, and I re-read some Natasha Trethaway poetry, along with some Montale from Ecco's / Ilya Kaminsky's great anthology, and something suddenly clicked...
When I enter a book of poetry, I find myself unhappy when I apprehend the meaning of each sentence immediately. (I strongly felt apprehend was more appropriate there than comprehend.) And my favorite poets, or the poets I most aspire to write like - Dickinson, Donne, Ashbery, Stevens, Moore, Shakespeare - they are not so readily understood. It reminded me of Pound's dictum that "literature is language charged with meaning," and I can imagine how it does enrich the language, lending new possibilities to words, preventing language from growing stale, two-dimensional.
The revelation, or what-have-you, that changed my writing forever was that poetry has no definition (I tried for at least a year or two to find one), that a poem is an object made of words. Shortly after that I resolved that beauty, or a pleasing object, is one that "captures my imagination." (I realized that when I recounted how I felt after seeing the latest Batman movie.) Now, to recognize that what I like is a combination of words that makes sense but does not have one clear meaning (the way this sentence does) I think it will help me appraise poetry better, using my own subjective taste of course. And I agree with Pound the best ways to go about making meaning are still logopoeia, phanopoeia (which obviously translates best - see Neruda, Lorca, Rilke) and melopoeia (pity the sound and strange effect of logopoeia may some day be lost when / if English dies).
For the record, I'm rereading Pound's ABCs of Reading, and I'm reminded of Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" essay: I can't think of two more common sense and clearly stated pieces of writing explaining the art of poetry that are more in line with my way of thinking. Pity they'd both detest my Jewish half. Going back to Pound's three methods of meaning making, I think another set of categories offered by Tony Hoagland in Real Sofistikashun is also quite useful: Diction, Rhetoric and Imagery - I can see how this would work well for rating poets like Bishop and Merrill, who are strong in all three categories.
Here is an example of some lines "charged with meaning" - that is, you do not automatically comprehend their meaning, and thus they are mysterious (mystery being the source of what's beautiful, per Einstein) and filled with all kinds of possible meanings:
Dickinson, Poem 640 "I cannot live with You"
The last stanza:
So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair – -
Any line of prose would suffice to show the counterpoint. Including that last sentence. (And what does she mean by "white sustenance"?)
I've noticed some poets write all prosaic lines, building up to the last line which is generally a bit more "charged with meaning," almost like the punch line to a joke.
Anyway, these are the types of lines I'm drawn to, and I'm glad I recognize that about myself - I do think it'll help me appraise, as I said earlier. I also recognize others may not share these values. But it does seem a common quality of all immortal poems.