The philosopher Hegel said an interesting thing about language: when we say “this” we refer to something very specific—and yet nothing is more vague than the word “this.”
The poet is forever not saying something—which is the agonizing and beautiful aspect of poetry poets either die from, or love, or both.
A playwright can write a character, and that character will never say “this” and be doubted, for there, standing upon the stage, the character can tell the audience where to look.
In a poem, a “this” must remain vague, for a poem is not, like a play, “acted” or “embodied.” The poem will always be the letter read by the actor—and must depend on no body at all.
This contest features Terrance Hayes—who feels an obligation to be exact, swimming mightily upstream against the inexpressible flow of poetry itself, and Chumki Sharma—more satisfied to let poetry take her downward to the immensity of the mysterious sea.
Let us imagine the servant ordered down on all fours.
Hayes, who has recently won a major national award, is a black American who writes in and from this experience—this one, the one of being a black American male.
How much does a line of poetry know its author?
Can a line of poetry invoke a narrative? And what kind?
After every rain I leave the place for something called home.
Sharma, a woman from India, who has two Pushcart nominations, and belongs to the New Wave of Calcutta poetry, writes from what seems a thousand experiences.
We see how much one of her lines can hold, for her language is the experience itself—it is not pointing to “this” rain, or “this” place, or “this” home, and yet we feel, most acutely, rain and place and home. The rain either did not do enough, or it produced a flood; the leaving could be voluntary, or not; the home is “called” home and therefore could be home, or not. Chumki Sharma invokes a great deal by being exact and inexact at once.
The subjective fever becomes ours—we “catch” what she is saying, even if we do not see the rain or the place or the home.
The rhythm of the line is exquisite—trochaic: DA-da, the melancholy rhythm of Edgar Poe: AF-ter/ EVE-ry/ RAIN i/ LEAVE the/ PLACE for/ SOME-thing/ CALLED HOME.
Sharma’s “i” (self) is “obliterated” (rhythmically) by “rain,” and her line, a purely trochaic one, finally resolves in the spondaic “called home,” a delicate double meaning: home is what it is called—and someone is calling her home.
Hayes is doing something completely different; he is inviting the reader to see something specific: “the servant ordered down on all fours.” The Hayes line trades in talk, not song—the Sharma, by comparison, sounds like an aria—although this line of Hayes does have a trochaic character, and also ends with a spondee: “all fours.”
Whoever “ordered” the “servant…down on all fours” is not the poet; a certain objectivity is the goal, even as the poet tells us, “let us imagine…”
It is probably unfair for these two lines to do battle—they are so different, and yet isn’t poetic language capable of existing always as poetic language? Otherwise, how can we even know what a poem is, or discuss poetry?
Should we walk away from this contest?
No. Bring it on.
Which line pleases us more—as poetry?
And can this answer be cruel—or unfair?
Who should we ask, after this rain has fallen, after this tale of the servant has been told?