step back

Listening to the London Review of Books podcast, I came across the idea that a fundamental characteristic of American, as opposed to British, poetry, is an interest in the poem as an unfinished work - the poem as an endless pursuit, forever extending, never polished, never done. British poetry concerns itself with the ornament, the finely wrought object. British poetry aims to be self-contained, nominally complete. There's an attractive simplicity to this distinction, broad as it is. I was surprised I'd never really encountered it before, or thought about it. If I had, I can't remember the idea having resonated.

The podcast discussion was about Emily Dickinson. It had me thinking, like always, about the muddy purpose of poetry. Why do we bother? I suspect one reason is to try to answer that very question. We do it because it doesn't quite make sense. Perhaps by doing it more, we'll come closer to learning why it feels necessary.

If not, then what have we set our sights on? What motes are we looking to take down in the passing gloam, our narrow stitch of firmament and fog? Are we trying to have a conversation? Is all expression a form of communicating with someone else, even if we tell ourselves we're talking to ourselves? Do such conversations ever truly end? Do they constitute one long speech, heading in a single direction? Do the line breaks, and the paragraphs, and the pages, really divide anything?

There is so much interruption. I keep wanting to take the dog for a walk, but the weather today doesn't know itself. Hail turns to rain turns to harder hail. Out in Wyoming, I hear cars get dented by the sky. Occasionally, you see them driving through town with their pockmarked bonnets, lunar landscapes too expensive to fix. Large hailstones are always compared to golf balls. No one ever seems to compare them to anything else. If a hailstone is smaller than a golf ball, no one describes it. You just hear about the broken windshields, the insurance claims.

In the breaks between hail I do other things, incapable, as always, of doing nothing. But when the dog and I are once again ready to go out, the weather turns and turns. Rain then hail then rain. A brief clearing. Then more of the same. A cycle that keeps all living things indoors or under shelter, and God forbid you have nowhere to go.

On the podcast, they rarely interrupt each other. I wonder if they have hand signals to show when they're done talking, to let the other begin. Do they pass the conch? When life takes place outside a recording studio, everyone speaks at once. It's never ending. One mouth flows into the next, swallows its neighbour. Countless voices hammering down. One might say the work is never done.

Fort Collins 010424