Subpar Poetry

By Skyler Smith

        I read somewhere that children are filled with grace. It’s an overloaded word: “divine sanctification” and “a musical superfluity” are included among its many definitions. But I have a little girl, and I think neither is a fitting description for her. For this creature of squished proportions, this bumbler and thumper, a third designation, “physically elegant,” evokes a chuckle. Even still, grace is the aptest word, and one that comes most frequently to mind when I have observed my crawling child ineffectually clasp wall edges and cupboard knobs to reach the unreachable targets of her fascination: papers or knives or electric cords or pens—all of which I fear I cannot keep from her, since I have also seen her learn, completely independently, the complex movements of crawling, the subtle art of balancing in-place, the finesse of clasping a pea-sized cheese chunk between her index finger and thumb, pinky extended. Raising it to her lips with a mumble I interpret as pleasure. She learns without aide or teacher, and only after hundreds of perfect failures and flops and arms twisted and legs flailing in self-inflicted wrestle-holds, a slow siren beginning in her lungs. She is fuelled by the energetic, relentlessly optimistic, untouchable powers of grace, and she moves like a poem.

Poetry is a gawkish art: a poet stumbles crudely towards elegance; even indescribably, for “What can be explained is not poetry,” as the poet said—although, which poet in particular is uncertain. Some say it was W.B. Yeats, that famous one who poetized “How many loved your moments of glad grace…And loved the sorrows of your changing face,” but he reportedly claimed he was quoting his father, but it wasn’t recorded until 11 years after W.B.’s death, by another poet, Carl Sandburg. Or equally satisfyingly but more dauntingly, we hear Emily Dickinson rhythmically pronounce, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”[1] As a poetry-dabbler myself, Emily scares me. I don’t think my writing induces feelings of partial headlessness, nor has that been my objective (maybe that’s my problem)—but if this essay lets me, I’ll include some of my attempts. I expect you’ll find, as I do, that they have neither sufficient impenetrability for William–John–Carl, nor enough beheadability for Emily.

I mentioned that I dabble in poetry, but that’s a generous thing to say of myself: I have written, in adulthood, only a handful of poems—probably less than a dozen. But I have enjoyed writing them, and I anticipate (although with a measure of self-conscious reserve) the indulgence of, perhaps, including one or two below. What puzzles me, though, and what prompted me to begin, audaciously, to essay on poetry despite being almost a non-poet, is the paradox of poetry—like the paradox of my little girl: to be a captivated spectator to ineffectual attempts of moving with poise, writing with divinity; and fascinated by the frequency of failure. Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy comes to mind, “It is, I say again, not the fault of the art, but that by few men that art can be accomplished,” and as I write, I find myself suddenly persuaded of the obvious extreme: that poetry’s attraction is not at all diminished by, but because of, the abundance of its missteps—that it is sometimes executed with beauty, but so infrequently.

And now here, I think, is where I ought to inject an attempt at poetry of my own: a failed attempt will only increase the esteem of the craft, and a failure is certain, so I am sure including one will be to the glee of successful poets—the satisfaction of proficients at the struggles of a tenderfoot.

Never mind. I would have been pleased to satisfy the good poets with a bit of my own subpar poetry if I had any, but all I can find is worse than that—it’s actually bad. My poems are, at their best, mildly humorous; I don’t feel even fractionally decapitated as I read them, so I must apologize: I would rather defend my own dignity than offer you, a potentially poetry-inclined reader, satisfaction at my expense. I recognize that not doing so may even be ruinous to this essay—an essay that began with grace but which has become, haltingly and awkwardly, flawed. And now as I try to stumble to the end of it, my bold, beautiful, unblushing girl has just reached again for the toilet and the trash can, and my wife calls out and, I presume, stops her for the seventy-times-seventh time, and I am amazed, and I consider with reverence my child’s unashamedness. She makes me wonder if even ugly poetry could be a holy thing, because we are seldom beautiful creatures. We are sloppy, bumbling, inexpert ones, graceful when wobbly.

[1] Emily’s preceptor, Thomas Higginson, recorded this and several other quotes in a letter to his wife shortly after meeting Emily.



EliOrr said…
Very, very nice. I love the vulnerability this emits and encourages. I didn't feel me head coming off but I did experience the fear and pain of exposure, both with you, and for myself, as you put words to some very common, but difficult-to-describe feelings. Beautiful work.
Jacob Withers said…
I feel that, in your manner of expression in this essay, you conveyed what it means to find grace and be graceful even with halting steps that, in my mind, resemble the meaning of the verb “tâtonner” in French. Thank you for your thoughts!

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