Here’s another Madness contest which splits our brains—the infinite gulf poets navigate—between imagery and speech, between showing and telling, between photograph and rhetoric, between gazing and sermonizing.
Sarah Howe, a youngster who just won the T.S. Eliot Prize, snaps, snaps, snaps with her camera:
the razory arms of a juniper rattling crazily at the edge of that endless reddening haze
And there the eye goes, to the juniper—with thought hurrying to catch up.
But since the eye can’t really “see” poetry, thought gains, and takes the lead, and universities are founded—where they teach Endless Reddening Haze 101.
Meanwhile, Emily Kendal Frey asks the eye to do nothing, appealing to the Muse in a completely different way:
How can you love people without them feeling accused?
This line goes to the heart of all social and romantic confusion.
And a juniper does not have to be mentioned.
Pictures unite us immediately, for every reader, whether they want to or not, see what the poet has seen, and language is precise enough that we all “see” the “razory arms of a juniper rattling crazily at the edge of that endless reddening haze.”
Showing is something which poetry can do.
If we watch a really good dancer, we might think to ourselves, boy they are good, without enjoying the dance itself. We love what the dancer can do, but we don’t love the dance. And yet, loving what the dancer can do, we will still stand around applauding with others, because of what the dancer is doing, and have a good time, united with the appreciative audience.
Telling is something poetry is.
Thought is less direct in the showing that poetry does, because first the poet has to say, I am going to show the reader this particular thing I see, in order to present a poem which…
Thought is more direct in the telling of poetry, because they are the same. The following is a thought: How can you love people without them feeling accused?
The combination of “love” and “accuse” is what makes the thought startling and interesting.
It is a psychological truth that has a certain original force.
But does Frey’s line “unite” everyone immediately?
No, because some would say: this doesn’t make any sense. To love is not to accuse. Not in my world, anyway.
But the psychologically subtle, the psychologically astute, will understand the truth of this line—it is wise, for it contains a deep understanding of human psychology.
We apologize if all we have said so far is a truism, and nothing about poetry has really been said.
Or, perhaps poetry lives in those places where nothing about poetry can really be said.
The juniper rattles, accusing us, no matter which one of these poets wins.