AT some point in the creative process, poets must ask themselves
if what they've written is poetry or prose broken into lines. That
question can be difficult to answer. Poetry makes use of the
language of the age - and few people would describe today's
American English as poetic.
That may be one reason why so many publications are filled with
poems that look like a sea of unbroken text. Visually, there may be
nothing distinctive or appealing about them. But talented poets
know how to keep the poetry in a poem, along with a strong
"For the Explainers," the short opener in Wendell Berry's new
book, "Entries," is a good example:
Spell the spiel of cause and effect,
Ride the long rail of fact after fact;
What curled the plume in the drake's tail
And put the white ring round his neck?
On one level, these four lines are very simple. A reader can
understand the "point" of the poem after just one reading. The
music of the words - "spell the spiel," "ride the long rail,"
"the white ring round his neck" - is also enjoyable from the
first encounter, but not in an obvious way. The poem isn't trying
to sound like something from another century.
But like a good folk song from ages past, the poem defies
explanation. Its melody and direction may be evident, but something
always eludes the reader. Perhaps there is the question of what the
poet knows about those forces larger than "the explainers,"
people who think they know everything. Perhaps the reader feels a
persistent sense of awe. One could even respond to what seems to be
a "still, small voice" in back of the speaker's own knowing
That sense of mystery - combined with rhythm and music - is what
distinguishes the poem from simple prose. As with a good folk song,
the final product is more than the sum of its parts. The poet's
voice - much like a singer's - takes on new shades of meaning
because of the accompaniment.
But not every free-verse poem does so much with sound. When
poets choose flatter, more mundane language, how do they keep their
balance? Berry's "A Difference" offers some insight:
Machines pass on the road, so heavy
that the leaves of the young beech,
spreading in stillness, shake.
But on the river, slow waves
roll under quick waves,
causing the reflections of the trees
to ripple and to sway.
Unlike the previous poem, "A Difference" contains little music
and sounds like everyday speech. There doesn't seem to be any
structure: Even the number of syllables per line varies greatly. …