The Inexplicable Math of Good Poetry

I am at no loss for information about you and your family; but I am at a loss where to begin.
— Demosthenes 

By Grace Curtis for Poets’ Quarterly

Recently, an editor of a well-known journal posted a message online from a reader who was praising the latest edition. The reader said she could feel the stake the poets had in their words and content. That got me to thinking about how one can tell when a poet has had a stake in his words and content. We frequently hear these kinds of statements being made in reference to poetry. For instance, we say we can feel the tension in the poem, or the poem surprises us, or it is accessible, or it is coded, or it resonates. These terms are often first used by a writer in a critical essay or, by a book reviewer; then, over time they worm their way into our shared lexicon.  
Our propensity to talk about poetry in these kinds of terms speaks to the difficulty we have identifying, and then articulating in plain-speak, how poems do what they do. Most poets know, for instance, what is meant when a poem is said to be accessible. That we tend to broaden our vocabulary used in our poetic discourse speaks in part to our desire as poets and readers—or at least it should—to understand more clearly what makes a good poem good. Knowing it and knowing how to accurately talk about it using shared vocabulary—often begged, borrowed, or stolen from other usages—develops a kind of basis of understanding, murky as it continues to be.

It is fascinating and enlightening to listen to poets talk about poetry. In fact, one of the best things about the annually released, The Best American Poetry books, edited by a guest editor—including such notables as John Ashbery (1988), Jorie Graham (1990), Adrienne Rich (1996), and Paul Muldoon (2005)—and Series Editor, David Lehman, is the guest editors’ introductions. In these short passages, each editor talks about why he selected the poems for that year’s book. The intros are like keys that unlock the double cast-iron, triple dead-bolt locked doors of understanding, since the guest editor explains, in more or less specific—and usually eloquent—terms, what made the selected poems stand out from among the hundreds considered.

For example, in the 2008 edition, guest editor, Charles Wright tells us, by referencing lines from W. B. Yeats “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” that poetry comes from the heart (the “foul rag-and-bone-shop of the heart”), and also that, as  Keats asserts,  poetry is a matter of soul-making, along with a little math.
It truly is not a matter of arrangement, of performance, of presentation, of rhetorical dazzle or surprise, though all of those matters may be a part of it. It is not the distractions, but the focus…It’s the only time that two plus one makes two—language is half, technique is half, and emotion is half…It’s not a question of paper, of typewriters, of white space or of dark space—it’s a question of what’s in your life, and where you want that life to lead you. You’ve only got one, and you can fill it with whatever you want…But if it is poetry that you want, then don’t look for language games, intellectual rip-offs, or rhetorical sing-alongs. You’ve got to know in your heart of hearts, that Keats is right, that it is about soul-making, that it does matter, and that it can make you or break you as a person.
Wright is suggesting that the poetry that resonated with him that year was the poetry in which he could sense the poet’s make you or break you stake in the game; poetry that was not just from the heart, not just soul-making—but also poetry that was, in this odd equation using poet-math:  half language, half technique, half emotion.
He must have felt that the poems he selected for inclusion came as close as possible to making the math work out. Here is a passage from one of the poems in that edition, “Pentecost” for John Foster West, by R. T. Smith, from Notre Dame Review:
Squint-eyed and cunning, its tongue split
like a wishbone, the canebrake sulls up,
cursive spine and the diamond in spiral
like genetic code,
and Joby frets the Stratocaster, its plastic
the color of a salted ham. A tambourine’s
discs shiver, and Brother Pascal wields the Book’s
hot gospel like a blunt instrument. This is
spirit. This is bliss. The words from Heaven
would almost strangle you. The Holy Ghost
is a rough customer alright, . . .
And, here is another from Susan Mitchell’s “Ritual,” from The American Poetry Review
as one who casts the word bread upon the word waters, testing
as one who not believing something will rise up from
those waters, but not disbelieving either
casts out her voice
as one curious or hungry or filled with longing breaks
off just the crust of a word, throwing
the way she threw as a girl when everyone
told her that was not the way
to throw. . .
In both of these poems, it seems you can indeed feel a kind of “make you or break you stake in the words and content.” It manifests itself as a kind of intensity. In “Pentecost” the rhythm is as pulsing as, well, a Pentecostal church service. The language is lush and startling (or do we call that, surprising), e.g. wielding the Book’s hot gospel like a blunt instrument. In “Ritual” the language seems to twist and turn slightly from what one might expect, e.g. rather than casting the bread upon the waters (from Ecclesiastics 11:1), Mitchell writes of the casting of the word bread upon the word water. Also, there is no capitalization or sentence punctuation in the poem. As you read, you often feel you are coming to the end of a sentence, but instead, the poem takes you off into another idea that plays off the last idea. It’s an intriguing structure—a long run-on—that supports an overarching sense of the personal questioning and rumination that runs throughout the poem.
Finally in Wright’s introduction he says:
Everyone talks about the “great Health” of American poetry nowadays. And it’s hard to fault that. There are very few bad poems being published, very few. On the other hand, there are very few really good ones, either, ones that might make you want to stick your fingers in a Cuisinart, saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.
Indeed, we have all had the experience, upon reading a moving and brilliant poem, like these two for example—there are so many in this series each year—of wanting to stick our fingers into a Cuisinart and say, Take me now, Lord, take me now.  Wright’s equation—half heart, half technique, and half emotion—is his explanation of what makes good poetry good. He is using a far-fetched metaphor to speak to, what often feels like, the far-fetched qualities of a great poem.
Perhaps it is appropriate to express astounding and beautiful poetry as some kind of inexplicable math. And maybe it is also important just to accept some measure of inexplicability in the matter—language inadequacy, if you will—even as we continue to try to pin it down with any possible terms we can beg, borrow, or steal, such as sticking one’s fingers into a Cuisinart and saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.

Grace Curtis’ chapbook, The Surly Bonds of Earth, was selected by Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stephen Dunn as the winner of the Lettre Sauvage 2010 Poetry Contest.  She has had poetry in Scythe Literary Journal, The Chaffin Journal, Waccamaw Literary Journal, among others. Grace received her MFA from Ashland University in 2010. She lives in Dayton, Ohio where she volunteers at The Antioch Review. Grace writes about poetry at