6 min read

The beauty of poetry

The beauty of poetry
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood: https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-cup-on-saucer-2662180/

What draws someone to become a poet? And what makes a poem beautiful? I recently had a chance to interview the poet, critic, and scholar Dr. James Matthew Wilson, who is also Foundation Chair in English Literature and the Founding Director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. We talked about what drew him to poetry in the first place and what he considers the criteria for a beautiful poem.

Interview with Dr. James Matthew Wilson on the beauty of poetry

What drew you to poetry in the first place? What attracted you to it?

I started writing short stories and eventually novels, and I was fascinated by storytelling and the formal techniques of story writing. But a couple things happened.

First, I had sort of placed so much weight on the practice of fiction as what I was going to do for a living that that actually began to, it began slowly to feel like a professional gesture. And as I stopped and thought about that, I realized that when I was encountering literature for pure joy, what I was reading in my spare time was all poetry. And I thought, "I want to participate in that."

So that was a long process coming. But it had its origin in a moment, years before I really made the jump, in a classroom. And I was already writing short stories, I was already thinking about the art of fiction very seriously. The professor tried to explain iambic pentameter, which is the meter in which Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth wrote. It's the paradigmatic meter in English poetry. And I just thought, "What is he talking about?" And I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to write a single line. And it took an embarrassing amount of time to write a sonnet every day for five long years. I went home that night, and I wrote 13 more lines rhyming in the appropriate fashion, and I had a Shakespearean sonnet, an English sonnet, it took me hours. The next night I came home and spent five hours writing another one, the next night, and the night after that, and by the end of the week, I had five sonnets telling a story in poetry. And I thought, "There is a mystery here." And I didn't know what that mystery was.

It was years of mulling it, indeed, before I could actually articulate it. And now I think I understand. Storytelling is about perceiving the form of human actions and seeing those forms whole, so that even though the reader encountering a story on the page doesn't know what's going on as it's unfolding. When he gets to the end, the reader will look back as if to look back on a path that he's just tread, and he'll see all his footsteps, and he'll suddenly realize that each of those footsteps led inevitably to the place where he now stands, but he didn't know that while it was in process.

When I sit down to write a line of verse, I know that there are footsteps, there is a form already present, or rather that's coming into being. And it seems to be a form that's deeper down in the essential stuff of being, of reality, even farther down, I mean, than storytelling. Everything's a form. And so storytelling is a form.

Verse meter allows poetry to be an art form where every syllable itself is expressive of form, expressive of the order of things. I know it's kind of weird hearing this word form said over and over again. But what I mean about that is this: The ancients told us that when we know the truth, we see it. And we say the same thing. We say, "I see what you mean." The idea of form is the idea that the truth appears. And so when you see the form of a story and you say this story is believable, what you're doing is you're seeing that a story and it conforms to reality.

From Plato onwards, poetry has always thought to somehow get even deeper down into the bedrock of reality because its use of number of measure and weight, as the Book of Wisdom says, is somehow tapped into the fundamental structures that cause being to be the way it is. And so once I realized that poetry was a kind of primordial metaphysics, where by just setting words chiming in a certain way, I was actually exploring the sort of secrets of the world. There was just no looking back.

Fantastic. Could you tell me what do you find beautiful in a poem that you create? Or what is a beautiful poem to you? What are its ingredients?

It's a great question. So I think we have to start with what is beauty. And I've argued many times that oftentimes when people are suspicious of beauty, it's because they think of beauty as akin to a kind of sentimental prettiness. But beauty, as the ancients knew it, was one of the fundamental properties of being. That which was real, gives itself away. And beauty is that generosity of being, so much so that I would want to define beauty as the capacity of existing form to disclose itself or to share itself with another. Being, of course, shares itself in many ways. It shares itself under the notion of True with our reason and our knowledge. It shares itself under the notion of Good with our appetites and our desires.

But beauty is a little bit more fundamental than truth and goodness. It's the way in which reality justifies its very existence by being a source of light, a source of radiance. So in a poem, writing a good poem is a little bit like learning according to Plato in the "Meno."

If you remember that dialogue, this is the famous one where Plato says that everybody must be remembering truth rather than learning it. And he shows that even a slave boy can learn to solve a geometrical problem if you just pose the questions to him the right way. And it's because he's somehow through his, he's somehow recalling his soul's previous knowledge of being. Well, we don't have to go along with Plato's idea of anamnesis to actually say that the fundamental point that Plato was trying to make in that dialogue is right. And what's the fundamental point? It's that, if we trust being to reveal itself to us, that something, that it will give itself, it will disclose itself to us, and it will enrich us, in a poem, I think that's something the same way. I trust verse, I trust meter and rhyme to lead my reason to make sense of things.

And oftentimes when I sit down to write a poem, I have nothing more than a kind of sound or rhythm in my head. Yeats has this great line in "The Song of Wandering Aengus"

I went out to the hazel wood / Because a fire was in my head / And cut and peeled a hazel wand / And hooked a berry to a thread / And when white moths were on the wing / And moth-like stars were flickering out / I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout.

And that's a poem actually about poetry. That you have a fire in your head and it leads you where you don't know where you're going to go and you don't know what you're going to catch. He, in this case, catches a fish that turns into a gigantic girl, into a fairy. So when I try to write a poem, I'm trying to trust that the form is going to lead me to create something that conforms, that's obedient to some true observation about reality.

When I encounter a good poem, I think I'm perceiving that somehow the laws that cause this particular poem, or this particular work of art to be what it is, are laws that we find compelling precisely because they irradiate out or they speak of the laws of human experience, the laws of reality as such.

And so one term that a lot of people will use in the tradition to think about these things is that what we find is a kind of resonance: that this particular thing here resonates with the broader patterns of reality as such. And when we encounter that, we're encountering beauty. And when we encounter that kind of beauty, we say, "Yes, this is how things are."

Do you have a poem or line of poetry that you find especially beautiful? I'd love to know – especially why you found it beautiful.

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