Pleasure in poetry, like speech itself, is both intellectual and bodily. Spoken language, an elaborate code of articulated grunts, provides a satisfaction central to life, with all the immediacy of our senses. Th ough complex, the pleasure is not arcane. We learn it as we learn to speak: informally and avidly. A small child who enjoys the anonymous, traditional sentence,
Moses supposes his toeses are roses,
But Moses supposes erroneously
feels a tickle of gratification, conceptual and sensory, as the sounds perform their combat dance with the meanings, joining and parting. In this example, that intricate choreography involves teasing forms of the plural. The sounds are similar and the meanings vary: body and mind, in an experience that is essential to the art of poetry.
Poetry in American Sign Language, a language that intricately formalizes bodily gestures, also demonstrates this fundamental principle, coordinating body and mind in the creation of meaning. The appetite for that dual action is tremendous; poetry is its concentrated form.
A few examples can begin to demonstrate variety. The interplay of physical sounds and forms of meaning, a fancy-work of pleasure and aggression, animates the final line of the following passage, from "Corinna's Going A-Maying" (p. 365) by Robert Herrick. In a custom older than Christianity, people are celebrating the season of rebirth by hanging branches in blossom all over town. This playful May-ing tradition is giddy—as is the poet, and so are the sounds of the words. Note the third-from-last line of this quotation:
Come, my Corinna, come; and, coming mark
How each field turns a street, each street a park
Made green and trimmed with trees; see how
Devotion gives each house a bough
Or branch: each porch, each door ere this,
An Ark, a tabernacle is,
Made up of whitethorn neatly enterwove,
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
Can such delights be in the street
And open fields, and we not see 't?
Come, we'll abroad; and let's obey
The proclamation made for May, And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But, my Corinna, come, let's go a-Maying.
"The proclamation made for May": the line has an immediately attractive lilt, an artful effect perceptible before analysis. On reflection, a reader may (or may not) note that the single sound may recurs three times with three different meanings, and in three different forms.
Hearing that kind of vocal gesture, we respond to it almost as intuitively as we respond to a lifted hand or a raised voice. Wallace Stevens in "The Snow Man" (p. 415) writes about the likelihood of hearing misery
in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
The three repetitions of "sound" and the two repetitions of "wind" communicate their emotional effect, felt before any reader counts the repetitions or notes the same consonant sound at the end of both "sound" and "wind," with that same sound repeated at the end of "land." Analysis can reﬁne and enrich understanding of the feeling and the ideas, but the fact of the actual words is primary and essential: you can hear it. The words create something like an actual voice. In an interesting psychological process, that voice is in a way the reader's and in a way the poet’s. Maybe it should be thought of as many voices, since it speaks each time anyone reads the poem—even if the reading is silent, even if the sounds are imagined only faintly. In any case, the sounds of the words and sentences and lines of "The Snow Man" make their audible gesture to anyone thinking about the possibility of hearing such a January wind without hearing misery in it, as if that wind too were a voice.
Here is another example, by Gwendolyn Brooks (p. 12):
WE REAL COOL
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
There is a lot to be said about "We Real Cool": its experience, its voices and the implicit voice that quotes them, the significance of the word that ends every line but one and begins only one line. But before such useful analysis or information is formulated, something primary and significant has been heard and felt.
Analysis and understanding heighten appreciation. Sometimes, however, they obtrude: trying to force knowledge before pleasure has a chance. Pointing this out is not sentimental or anti-intellectual; on the contrary, the goal should be to encourage intellectual precision by putting it in a stringent, fitting relation to the actual experience of the poem. Well-meaning teaching can muddle that process by leaving out the experience.
The audible, vocal element in "The Snow Man" and in "Corinna's Going A-Maying" calls on something more ancient, involuntary, and profound even than a "tradition." The child's response to the interplay of mind and sound in the anonymous rhyme about Moses and his toes, or in nursery rhymes, or in Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham," reaches back thousands of years, through Seuss's predecessors (and models) Edward Lear and Robert Louis Stevenson, and back through the poets they read, Wordsworth and Horace and Homer, and further back to the origins of humankind. The same relation to an all-but-infinite past characterizes poems by Robert Herrick and Wallace Stevens and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Like the arts of dancing, singing, miming, drawing, the art of poetry involves an essential appetite. The sounds of words in an infinitely varying relation to their meanings—an organism of vowels and consonants and cadences flirting with an organism of meanings, playing with it, agreeing with it, arguing with it, converging, departing, twisting, energizing, goofing, weeping, punctuating, ironizing—embody an essential, pleasurable action.
I have chosen and organized the poems in this anthology by trying to make that essential action—the course of pleasure in hearing a poem—as clear as possible. Guided by tradition as well as my own taste, I have tried to present enticing examples, arranged to demonstrate principles. Th e first two sections concentrate on the nature of the poetic line, starting with short lines because the shorter the lines are, the more often you can hear the ways different lines begin and end. "We Real Cool" is an example. For another, here are the opening stanzas of Robert Frost's "To Earthward" (p. 24):
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?
To my hearing, the energy of the sentence reaches hard across the rhyme of "I lived on air" in a gesture of yearning. In contrast, the sentence and line agree on a pause after "I could bear." The full stop after "dusk" on a question makes an interesting counterpoint to the questioning hesitation where the sentence spills past "was it musk." It is nearly impossible to describe these nuances of movement and pause, tracing the dance between meaning and form—but reading Frost's sentence aloud, listening to the rhymes as they mark hesitation or eagerness: that is the idea.
The second section of the anthology presents examples of a quite different kind of line, the extended, compendious or fountain energy of a line like that of Walt Whitman or Christopher Smart, or Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" (p. 70):
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I
walked down the streets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
The moon, the self-consciousness, the streets and trees charge through the capacious, unifying rhythm of the line with a hard-driving purpose as well as abundance. These extremes in kind of line demonstrate the varying nature of lines—that each one is different—and the fluent nature of poetry itself.
Because the term "ballad" suggests both a kind of line and a kind of subject matter or tone, the third section makes a transition from formal ways of thinking and hearing to a more thematic approach. The ballad stanza is associated with actual musical patterns and with certain kinds of material: sensational narratives, elliptically presented, often with dialogue and rapid shifts of scene. Because ballads are songs or songlike, and often involve refrains, this section includes regular, audible repetition: sometimes abbreviated with an "etc." in printed books, but vital in the hearing of the poem.
The subsequent, more thematic sections—love poems, stories, and such—I intend to be casual and loose groupings. Most poems could fit into more than one of the headings, which are meant to be interesting, not absolute. For example, William Cowper's "Epitaph on a Hare" (p. 130) is a ballad and a love poem and a celebration that tells a story. It is also funny. The organization into parts tries to celebrate the variety and depth of poetry, with a structure that is informal but thoughtful.
I have worked to make a collection of poems attractive for the reader to say aloud, or to imagine saying aloud. Th e book is not a selection of my favorite poems, and certainly not an attempt to construct and fortify a "canon." Time punishes rigid, would-be-authoritative lists of that kind—not that all anthologies do not, sooner or later, become dated. Humbled by that fact, an anthologist (the root of the word has to do with gathering flowers) can gladly include familiar perennials such as "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." I have also worked hard to come up with good poems that will be new to most readers. My one strict rule is that everything here—even if it is also a visually shaped poem, or a prose poem—conveys the vocal feeling of poetry: an art as urgent and various as the human voice itself, encompassing all that a voice can express.
Excerpted from Essential Pleasures edited by Robert Pinsky Copyright © 2009 by Robert Pinsky with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.