Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #14

The Seven Pleasures of Poetry

(Joe Hutchison)

Some months back a fellow blogger asked, in response to some critical remarks I’d made about the current fascination with poetic theory, what my poetics might be. It’s easier to be the gadfly than the horse, as I found when Bob King asked if he could use some form of my response in this newsletter. I told him I wanted to “clean it up” a bit, but as I reread it I began to wonder if there was any real value in it. My views are completely personal, uninformed by certain popular trends (if any trends in literature can said to be “popular” in the U.S.): French and Russian literary theory, the sober self-regard of the Language crowd, the goof-culture antics of Conceptualism and Flarf, or the breathless reductionism of neuroscience. But since Bob thinks there is something in it, let me offer my notions more in the spirit of a pub conversation than of a literary conference lecture.

My whole approach to poetry, as a writer and a reader, is based on pleasure. Except when I feel bound by some professional obligation (one can't teach an 18th century survey class without rereading “The Rape of the Lock”) or some practical need (how do I fix that leaky pipe?) to read something I dislike, I believe in reading only for pleasure. With the same caveat I believe in writing poems only for pleasure. My poetics, such as it is, flows from that belief.

Poetry offers seven key pleasures that make me want to read and write it: imaginal energy, perceptual energy, musicality, openness, lightness, puzzlement, and formal invention.

Imaginal Energy springs from the psyche's direct experience of "things invisible to see." This experience generates symbolic images. My enjoyment of this energy is why Blake heads up my list of favorite poets—a group that includes Coleridge, Rimbaud, Rilke, Yeats, Paul Eluard, A. R. Ammons, Robert Bly, and Jane Hirschfield. As Eluard once wrote, "There is another world, but it is in this one." When that world enters a poem it charges it with imaginal energy.

I believe in writing poems only for pleasure. My poetics, such as it is, flows from that belief.


Perceptual Energy flows into a poem through the five senses, and it requires precision from the writing. Great perceptual poets—Bashō, Clare, Williams, Cid Corman, Bob Arnold—deliver the varied and subtle pleasures of exactitude.
Musicality may be misleading, because I don't mean to distinguish between harmonious and discordant effects. I prize Pound's troubadour dance as much as Creeley's halting gait or Thomas McGrath’s loping stride. Right music alerts us to the imaginal and perceptual energies in the poem; wrong music distracts from them.

By Openness I do not mean "lack of closure." I mean the willingness to let anything in that needs to be in the poem. Sometimes openness results in multiplicity of dimension, sometimes it results in a focus that lights up a small, previously overlooked area with absolutely clarity. Ammons, a devotee of openness himself, states it beautifully in his poem “Poetics”: “

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility […]

not so much looking for the shape

as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

I think this kind of openness does not mean freedom (thus my belief that there is no such thing as “free verse”), but submission of the right kind.

By Lightness I mean what Italo Calvino means in his lecture on that subject, published in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. At the risk of oversimplifying his 26-page essay, let me quote one passage: "Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don't mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification." Lightness, in other words, is a shift of perspective that lifts us up no matter what the poem at hand is about. (Homer, for example, in describing slaughter, deploys lightness, usually in the form of gods and goddesses.) Calvino is careful to say that lightness isn't more valuable than heaviness, only that he has "has more to say about lightness." This rhetorical move in itself is an illustration of lightness in action. Lightness is among the most personal of my aesthetic pleasures, and it’s the reason I admire but do not care for Celan, for example, or Berryman, or Olsen, or —though all four are magnificent writers. Lightness is one of the main qualities that leads me to reread certain poets and that leads me through the revision of my own poems.

Puzzlement is a puzzling pleasure. I use the word to mean the effect mystery has on us, as opposed to the way obscurity affects us. The former can be plumbed if not encompassed, but the latter is almost always the result of laziness or willful game playing with the reader. I enjoy being puzzled by my own work, but I detest the impulse I sometimes feel to "hide the treasure” (an impulse that springs from distrust of the treasure’s value). Puzzlement is the inescapable side effect of mortality; obscurity is simply an intellectualoid bid for power over the reader. The works of Emily Dickinson and Lorine Niedecker puzzle me; the obscure works of Louis Zukofsky and Geoffrey Hill merely annoy me.

Formal Invention refers to all the formal qualities of a poem that make it pleasing as a verbal construct, from diction and syntax to the ordering of content, the placement of lines on a page, and the choice and/or creation of poetic forms. Some poets would be rewarding to read for this quality alone, even if they had no other strengths. Formal invention is one reason I keep returning to poets as diverse as e. e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, Robert Duncan, Hayden Carruth, Denise Levertov, Ronald Johnson, and Adrienne Rich.

In the end, I have to admit that I’m unsure what a poetics is good for, except to help poets orient themselves in the dark. It’s important to know who we are and where we stand. But if we think that having a poetics validates our work, we’d do well to keep this poem by Richard Wilbur in mind:

To the Etruscan Poets

Dream fluently, still brothers, who when
Took with your mother's milk the
           mother tongue,

In which pure matrix, joining world and
You strove to leave some line of verse

Like still fresh tracks across a field of
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.
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(Note: Joe Hutchison’s daily blog is
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Ultimately, poems are like batteries: they store imaginative energy and release it in moments of illumination.
(Joe Hutchison)