Among its many pleasures, poetry provides a furlough from narrative, from the causal basis of stories. 2017 was the year of the story: we’ve all been pinned to our screens waiting for the key predicates of various kinds of stories to be, at last, revealed. We’re living in some kind of kingdom of effects, dismal, paranoid, suspicious; we’re waiting to learn what roads brought us here. It’s a disorienting way of existing in time, waking every morning to a reality that feels distinctly like a scheme. It is like finding the last third of a novel and having the missing bits filled in, a few pages at a time, out of order. Or like the amnesia plots of old movies, when a woman wakes from sleep without a firm grasp of who she is, trusting others to tell her how she got here.
But a poem grabs us with only a voice, often the voice of a stranger, telling us very little about itself. Poems needn’t tell a story, and their relationship to linear cause and effect is at best blasé. Instead we get the testimony of the senses, the power of words in new and arresting combinations, and an unwavering belief in what Keats called the “holiness of the heart’s affections.” I am so grateful to the vivid individuals I met on the page this year, proof of hope and life in a very crushing time.
I’m also grateful for poets’ sacrifices. It’s great that poetry can be written without money. It’s awful that it so often brings none in return. This was a year when I thought seriously about the improvised economies of the poetry world, and felt grateful for social media and the incredibly supportive way many poets use it. The economics of poetry were stark from the beginning—Hermes had to steal Apollo’s cattle in order to wrest from him the gift of the lyre. (Odd word for something taken: gift.) But the lyre then played back, as compensation for its own theft, the songs that made mortal life bearable. I suspect every poet understands intuitively that writing poems is a kind of theft in its essence and sometimes in the actual circumstances of its production. I’m stealing time to finish my next book from activities that might benefit me or my family or my students. Writing poetry is a form of confiscation, its returns always speculative. Usually its returns are paid to others, when the author is long dead.
A few weeks ago, that cunning, quintessential poem of daily life, William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say,” blew up on Twitter. People from all around the world were posting their altered versions, often subbing in for its plums and iceboxes and coy sorry-not-sorry apologies the dynamics of our distrustful public sphere as they infect the ordinary actions of a household. (The poem was gutted and rewired for our moment, but its insinuatingly creepy gender politics were first exposed by Kenneth Koch, whose “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” is now often taught alongside it.) I have always read the Williams poem to be a sly assertion of art’s power to compensate: it’s not just an apology that the rightful plum owner, almost always imagined as a woman, gets—it is a poem, a poem still read and taught all over the world. A very good deal for that plum owner, I always thought, and always taught. Ah, but not a deal she ever agreed to. This rough justice doled out affectionately for Williams’s poem was, well, “just,” indeed.
This was a year when the institutions that support the arts were undermined by abusive men within them, and by abusive men and their enablers in the White House. Luckily, poetry has always sat so uneasily within institutions that its readers and practitioners have a conscious bias against them. The hierarchies of taste are overturned in an instant by a new book by an unknown talent, and everyone applauds. Meanwhile, established poets and classic poems are heard in a new way, in the changed acoustics of the moment.