Poetry is largely a sentimental education, Joseph Brodsky says in his essay “The Keening Muse,” about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and her unique ability to imbue the monuments of Russian history with the empathy of personal emotion and experience. What poetry does to us remains ineffable, and we can only circle around, with our various degrees of description, the essence of poetry’s effect on us. Such an effect, even when most eloquently put, incenses those looking for palpable benefit. But the form of poetry, the multi-variate schematic rhythms, the unceasing demands the poet puts on both language itself and our mind, forges perhaps the only authentically enjoyable pedantic product. We admire the craftsmanship that’s out of reach, while simultaneously experiencing the poem as the culmination of a certain kind of artistic energy, one that can stimulate all the senses while also transcending the mind’s conceptual embrace of them. Not only does its beautiful imagery waft into our mind’s chambers, but, at its best, poetry incites a feeling we can’t quite place, an angle on something that makes for a partial glance at concept or feeling. Met halfway, this semi-ignorance joins with an alchemical smack of something deeply, humanely profound.
John Updike, in the jacket of his Selected Poems, writes that poetry “stood at my elbow, as a standing invitation to the highest kind of verbal exercise.” What this portends is poetry’s elusivity, its relation to prose that is as superior as prose’s relationship is to criticism. Poems stand as punctuations, doubly paeans and elegies for moments in time, snatching at ephemera, sometimes with impossible precision, like capturing a single, lapping wave. Updike expounds on this idea, claiming the attractiveness of poetry lies in “its hope of permanence, in its packaging of flux.”
Why so many, including myself, gloss over or disregard poetry has to do with the level of concentration it requires. Its specificity of feeling and moment demands more than even the astute reader’s impressions of prose. Until one is ready to break out the intellectual and emotional microscope, poetry will remain a hard and impenetrable affront, the higher spirit’s muddled distancing. And even though great poetry qualifies as esoterica of the spirit, once accessed, the esoterica blooms into the universal. Once we realize the poet as the assiduous jotter, we come to see the value in isolating emotional experience. As elusive as this detailing is, those who take the time to do it are inevitably enriched and textured, while we remain mostly cursory. This is the sentimental education Brodsky talks about when reading a poem. The poet’s precision eeks out idiosyncratic moments and structures from the irreducible complexity. By reading poems, we attune to the sentiment of the author and by extension, the sentimental circumstance of ourselves and our specificity in the world. The education comes from making the invisible slightly legible, from tracing the contours of ephemera onto the page and therefore articulating subconscious experience into the conscious mind. Our antennae are sharpened by keying into the poem’s sentimental universe, and our subsequent moments of reality intensify into hyper-acute reflections.
I liken the benefit of poetry to the benefit of audiobooks, which form literate moments from what those which would have otherwise been empty, like car rides or chores. Poetry concretizes micro-impressions that may have been buried in our subconscious, their meaning available but mined only through the effort of the most sensitive spirit. It can help sculpt a kind of beautiful mind, kneading density and awareness into our experience of the world. If anything, poets deserve to be recognized for their remarkable attention, for their impossible task of scooping experience and filtering it through the lens of language. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give them is some attention of our own.