Poetry as Violence.
Sometimes we need to destroy the ordinary.
About five months ago, I learned stanza means “room” in Italian and it has since turned my life upside down, or rather rightside up again. Is this common knowledge among poets? Does this shape how everyone sees poetry? It’s absolutely conspiratorial that I have not discovered this until now: “Nobody tell Ann.”
There has never been a point in my life I have not been in love with books and language. I couldn’t spend enough time in my hometown library growing up. Once the stacks outgrew the squat stone Carnegie library, the books were carted over the Cedar River bridge to take up residence in the former post office next door to the pale brick Wonderbread Bakery. From then on, bread and words shared a special intimacy for me. They mingled in my memories from story time with the librarian on the short, napped brown carpet of the community meeting room to wandering the library alone as I grew—season after season the bread’s fragrance drawn by breezes through the library’s sliding glass doors. There was a book or two of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry on the upper floor that especially mystified me as a teenager: such clarity, such economy of language, such control. The mystification was enough to pull me to her grave in a small village outside of St. Petersburg, Russia as an undergrad studying Russian language. I laid tiger lillies at her simple headstone.
On I went to graduate studies with a Russian émigré professor. He shared his encyclopedic knowledge with an equally vast love for the subject matter he taught. It was in one of his classes on Russian literature that I took down the sentence he was about to lecture on in black ink on blue lined notebook paper:
Poetry is organized violence committed against ordinary language. –Roman Jakobson.
It actually took my breath away.
Weekends and long summers working on my grandparents’ farm sharpened my grasping at the inner workings of things. On the farm this often happens out of necessity: the bailer breaks down during haying season and you go waist-deep into its machinations looking for the source of malfunction; the blue chevy truck is nursed through aches and fits to live an unnaturally prolonged life; disease among livestock necessitates necropsies during which slit bellies reveal the cause of death. I wanted to carry the nuance of revival and autopsy into my studies. But how does one do this with literature?
As I reflected over Jakobson’s quote I realized that Roman Jakobson, along with the Russian Formalists circles, gifted me the toolbox I needed. That sentence from Jakobson would be my way. The boldness of his assertion—Poetry is organized violence committed against ordinary language—became the wrench working loose bolts of all I studied and the scalpel under which I’d part language’s dermis and spill its secrets. This violence was essential to my understanding of literature and language.
What did Jakobson mean by his statement, and what do I mean? Why is his quote worth caring about now? What does violence on language have to do with the mingling of word and bread? Jakobson’s statement—and mine here as well—is about making perceptible that which is otherwise lost to us in ordinariness. Poetry roughens the textures of words, forcing us to slow down and linger over what we might otherwise glide past, giving language a strangeness that awakens our perception and creates friction and heat as we relate to the work of verse. There is nothing more ordinary than language and no better way to reawaken our awareness of it than the manipulation it goes through in poetry.
This spring when we were cut off from the library, I called our local bookstore for a recommendation of a book on poetic form. Knowing my attention span would be shortened by having our whole family, all seven of us, home together all day every day under the uncertainty of a pandemic, I wanted the comfort of exercising old skills but something new and condensed to work over, building up muscle I’d let go slack. A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry by former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Haas was pulled from the shelf and left curbside for me to pick up.
The book is, in fact, not little. It is, however, full of forms I’d never encountered. I had not intended my reading to become an escape, but it did. Exploring form with Robert Haas, I worked in turn with Mark Strand and Eavan Boland in their book The Making of a Poem: a Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Each escapade was reminiscent of my summers spent in Russia exploring museums—my poetic version of walking into the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery, or cathedrals such as Our Lady of Kazan and St. Basil’s. I wandered through those pages and poems in the same way I wandered through the treasure of Russia. From room to room, stanza to stanza, sanctuary to sanctuary, ghazal to pantoum, I encountered in these poetic forms from around the world—layers of culture and depth of beauty that paid tribute not only to the laws of a particular form, but also to the artists’ generosity. Each poet wrote out of desire, not simply meeting the seemingly arbitrary rules of verse, and what they created with language was not born from suffering constricting demands.
Rhyme, rhythm, and meter became a matter of structure and design for me to climb like a trellis or seek shelter under when I felt too knocked around by the world outside. The design of organized violence on language looked like the promises found in salvation history, starting as the tree of life and ultimately becoming the wood of the cross by which we were redeemed. It was reminiscent of the violence that brings forth the transformation of wheat to bread, allowing the seed that dies to bring forth new life that yields one hundred fold. How a promise, how the Word, becomes bread.
What I discovered was beyond the effectiveness of violence on our ordinary use of language. I’m learning how to hope in a new way.
Hope makes requirements on us to anticipate with joy, even. But we have relied heavily on hope so long it has taken on an ordinariness. Many of us have grown weary of hoping and it can be hard to muster hope after our expectations go long unfulfilled. One waits only brief moments for the fulfillment of hope created by the rhyme scheme of a sonnet, the revelation of different nuances in the same line carried through the stanzas of a villanelle. Poetry provides a new experience of hope, an organized violence worked on hope in the sense that it is wrenched out of our common understanding and encountered in a fresh realization. Rhythm and meter well wrought are not meant to constrict flow of language but are a pulse themselves, a lifeblood coursing through a poem that ensures vitality, oxygen to nourish the body of the work so it, and we, can breathe. They can jumpstart a heart tired of hoping, in danger of losing its own rhythm to despair.
Reading formal poetry makes the practice of hope more intentional for me and in turn strengthens the faith with which I reach out to Christ. My anticipation, my assurance of beauty through form, leads to a strength I rely on to guide me when perhaps my head is too clouded by the state of the world. My heart remembers, line by line through poetry, how to hope in my God. The rest of my being follows my heart in faith.
Stanzas are rooms where I practice waiting in joyful hope for the coming of my savior.
Cover image by M!1k¥ D43M*N.