Tuesday, April 04, 2006

like the moon needs poetry

A brilliant piece by David Orr on Elizabeth Bishop was recently published in the NYT, and caught my eye on this rainy day. Bishop is one of my favorite poets. One of her poems, One Art, gets to me with such piercing precision that I have to be careful not to read it unless I am up for a good, long wave of melancholy afterwards. Orr has perfectly captured so many of the reasons I find her work so moving. But he also touched on something which got to me separately (emphases mine):
    Difficulty is a beloved concept in the poetry world, because it's the crux of an old but cherished argument: Are poems too obscure? Or not obscure enough? The debate is a canned one, of course, but it lets all parties make their favorite points, and everyone is therefore happy to argue over "difficulty" at the drop of a hat. The reality, though, is that most readers and writers aren't actually made nervous by "difficulty," at least as the term is usually meant. For one thing, difficulty is straightforward — you either figure out what's difficult, or you don't. You might fail, but you aren't going to be misled. (In this sense, and in its implicit endorsement of hard work, difficulty is a concept that has long been central to our shared identity as Americans). Subtlety is different, though. Subtlety wants to be missed by all but the chosen few; it is aloof, withholding and aristocratic — sometimes manipulative and always disguised. It has less to do with theory and technique, which can be learned mechanically, than with style and sensibility, which require intuition. It wants to be looked at but not seen. It's unnerving.

That is some kind of poetry in and of itself. Granted, it was meant to be a tribute to Bishop's subtlety. But, count on me, self-absorbed as I am, to misappropriate it, and apply it to something else entirely.

I think I have a thing for subtlety. Anyone I have ever truly swooned over has not had much of a fan club. But they have not been difficult either, have not had obvious, glaring faults in their character. There is something about a subtle person, and that feeling that comes with being shown something not everyone else gets to see. It's not just being shown that glimpse; it's actually recognizing what you're seeing as well. Where others might hear white noise, you hear hints of a symphony. Just thinking about it makes me wistful about certain exchanges that will never leave me, little glimpses into people I will forever hold dear. And similarly, when I really feel that people get me, which are moments few and far between indeed, my heart squeezes into the tightest ball of excitement.

But then again, subtlety can be a dangerous thing as well. You can trick yourself quite easily. You can believe you know someone with great depth because you've caught a glimpse of their underbelly. But the truth is that you never really know anyone completely. There are the dull facts that make up a person, and you have to know those too. Moreover, that glimpse at what lurks underneath the surface might just be one layer that hides three more underneath. One train may hide another.

Well, look at that- the @*%#@! poetry gets to me one way or another. April really is the cruellest month.

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