Loving Poetry with Robert Pinsky’s Singing School

By Caitlin O’Hara

On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.
-Walter Savage Landor, “On Love, on Grief”

Singing School

Recently while driving, I heard Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky on the radio. He was talking, of course, about poetry and said something that changed the way I had always thought about the subject.  The revelation was an idea so simple that I am almost embarrassed to admit it. It was something along the lines of this: when we look at a painting, we don’t expect of ourselves to understand its literal meaning, or any meaning at all, right away.  No, we enjoy art because we like it, and we don’t know why.  We would never berate ourselves for loving a painting simply because.  In fact, we would be inclined to buy that painting, hang it in our living room, and proclaim to guests, proud and gleefully ignorant: “I don’t know why, I just love it!”  The visual countenance of a painting makes this assertion easier to accept — our brains are simply trained that under most circumstances, we are allowed to like the look of something without knowing why.  We generally accept this as aesthetics, a word that even the most ‘un-artsy’ recognize and warmly embrace.

Yet, when words on a page come into play, our brains switch, and we start trying to organize and understand word structure.  If we can’t assign a meaning within the first few lines, then our brains, trained since childhood in the indivisible task of “reading comprehension” (that is, reading should be synonymous with, or lead to, comprehension), may start to panic at our failure.  The information becomes difficult, maybe even unknowable (!) and therefore unappealing.  This can happen to even a great reader, a lover of literature — for poetry is a different animal. However, and as Pinsky pointed out that day, if we can recognize this, let it go, and allow ourselves to read poetry as we would look at a painting, with no expectations of “translation,” then we may decide on a gut level if we like it — or maybe even love it.  Once we fall in love, a true passion is ignited. We want to know more, and it is then that we really begin to learn. Pinsky observes that in love and friendship, we don’t learn everything there is to know about someone before we befriend them or fall in love.  But after we fall in love, or meet a potential new friend, our wonderfully greedy, human brains want to know more and more about that person.  We have all experienced this.  Poetry, perhaps, is the same.  We are hardwired that loving will turn to learning, and it’s time we figure out how to reverse the natural inclination our brains make when it comes to words.

Pinsky’s new book, Singing School, aims to teach that lesson, although it is as far from a typical “how to understand poetry” book as one can get. “There are no rules,” Pinksy begins in Section I on ‘Freedom.’ We are introduced to ideas we can easily understand — “an aspiring poet should read historical poetry partly by feel…not like a tourist with a phrase book.” Get rid of that notion your teachers were always hammering into you, and ditch the dictionary for the time being. Pinsky’s first ‘lesson’ is freedom through change and movement — how a master poet can subtly change the feel of a poem, or manipulate it in a single sentence, using syllable changes, stresses, rhyme, and word choice.  We move through works by Marianne Moore, 16th century anonymous poets, and beats Frank O’Hara and Gregory Corso.  There is no logic to the poems provided, no sectioning off into genre or style or century, and that is the beginning of our lesson in poetic liberation, for how terribly contradictory would an organized section on freedom be?

We are treated to some delights in Section II on ‘Listening,’ including a great tangent on Dizzy Gillespie and the indisputable relation of poetry to jazz.  Both art forms cannot be constrained, and there is quite literally no way to absolutely learn how to put on a great jazz performance, or how to write a perfectly wonderful poem.  But Pinsky stresses the importance, the absolute necessity, of study and practice on the road to achieving this magic.  To come up with the right rhythm, the right play of beats, interlacing of vowels and consonants, one must just innately come to know, from doing, over and over. Pinsky includes Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse,” a beautiful example of rhythm and verse, and the subject of the poem itself, touching in its musings on love, women, and the strife of poets.

Pinsky provides us with notes or instructions before each poem, but usually that is all, and they too require a certain amount of letting go on the part of the reader. Often they read like intimate notes in a margin, vague and presumptuous of some previous knowledge we don’t seem to have. They break traditional grammar rules (rightly so!), and yet other times they read like instructions for a homework assignment. The book jumps right in with these asides and can feel erratic or confusing.  How are we supposed to proceed?  But again this is Pinsky’s lesson — If one lets go of the question “how do I read this book” and simply goes forth, then they are privilege to a wonderful feeling of personal tutelage from Pinsky.

The tutelage really begins to pay off in the section on ‘Form,’ where Pinsky compares perfecting form to the moves that a “leaping dancer” might make. There are body movements that can only manifest themselves perfectly, in an instance, because of years of practice. And practice means many things — doing, listening, hearing. Form also changes and develops over time, due, of course, to the natural order of the way things work. “Any one person will…leap a bit differently each time” (Of course!). Pinsky uses examples from George Peele and Elizabeth Bishop to show us how “the poetic line is a means of performing energy and balance in writing,” and indeed the following lines from Bishop’s “The Weed” do just that:

A few drops fell upon my face
and in my eyes, so I could see
(or, in that black space, thought I saw)
a small, illuminated scene;
the weed-deflecting stream was made
itself of racing images.

The beautiful samples given in this section begin to open up to us naturally after the work and pleasure we undertook in ‘Freedom’ and ‘Listening.’ William Carlos William’s “To a Poor Old Woman,” Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and May Swenson’s “Question,” among others, flow through our ticking brains more quickly now, simultaneously hearing, feeling, and learning from the words and pauses with greater ease and subsequent enjoyment.  In this section too the longer poems are less daunting, and perhaps we as readers are slowly letting go of the need to understand something even before we have read it.

Section IV is joyously titled ‘Dreaming Things Up,’ and draws us with an historical and philosophical discussion of the nature of imagination, fantasy within the rules of reality, and the poet’s responsibility as a conscience think in reality to address both.  Poetry can be full of contradictions that work, but how? The first lines of Bishop’s “The Weed” are:

I dreamed that dead, and meditating,
I lay upon a grave, or bed

We are given examples of bizarre imagination, moving into surrealist mode in our brains: Robert Southwell’s “The Burning Babe,” Wallace Stevens’ almost grotesque “Madame La Fleurie,” the wildness of Sylvia Plath’s “Jabberwocky.” Pinsky pronounces “Transfiguration, in all its forms, is everything.”  He emphasizes the power of dream energy, of the imagination and its power to transform even memory, even as we are unaware.  Any one of us can surely recall a time when a particularly haunting, lucid, emotional dream clouded the rest of the day’s thoughts and energy, and cannot be let go of until after another round of sleep.  And doesn’t that last somewhere in our memories? If we can harness this through awareness, practice, listening, hearing one another — then we can create something beautiful.

Singing School isn’t about learning to love poetry, instead, it teaches us to do the opposite. Love first, and learn later. Quite a universal lesson.

Originally Published in 2013 but updated on Caitlin O’ Hara’s passing in 2016.

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