Poetic theory, as any poor twisted soul (
all English students) will tell you, is difficult enough to get your head around without Derrida throwing in his two cents as well.
Recently I was faced with the fascinating yet illusive text, Jacques Derrida’s Che cos’e la poesia? This roughly translates to “What is that thing poetry?” which I think has a nice ring to it. It approaches poetry (or the poetic, as Derrida prefers to call it) as if it were a surly creature, something wild yet deeply vulnerable that runs straight into the motorway with no fear of becoming pavement pizza. More specifically, he states confidently that “yes, you know what? Poetry…is not just any animal. Poetry is a hedgehog.”
For one thing, poems are often prickly. Their shields are up, they don’t want to offer themselves up willingly. But if you start your inspection from afar, the hedgehog eventually uncoils itself. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t get pricked! On the contrary, Derrida is keen to stress the hedgehog’s inherent nature to wound. It lures us in with humility and its apparent nonchalance (“I don’t care if you read me or not”) while secretly hoping to be read, to be solved.
And this, to make an educated guess, is where many people give up (the hedgehog risks being rejected; metaphorically run over). They sense that the poem requires more attention than say, an article in the local paper, or a post on Buzzfeed, and they don’t want that stress. Which is fair enough! But for those of us who are willing to work with the poetic, to let it change shape before our very eyes, not only are we liable to be wounded but, according to Monsieur Derrida, the poem itself is revealed to be an open wound.
If we take, for example, Charles Bukowski’s Bluebird (1992):
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
The poem is vulnerable in the sense that Bukowski is expressing something highly personal, a melancholia that he tries hard to suppress. It asks us to consider exactly what the poet means by ‘bluebird’ and once this inspection occurs, we see the open wound. Next is the poem’s ability to wound:
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
and we sleep together like
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
In addressing us directly, we are encouraged, nay obliged to turn our previous inspection of Bukowski inwards, and examine our own vulnerabilities. “Do I show my sadness, my sensitivity on the outside? Do I?”
This is also the kind of poem that stays with its reader, claims them as its own. Even if they do not think of Bluebird for weeks, or even months on end, it will return to them in the future. Derrida claims that we are vessels for the poetic, we devour poems and then carry them within us. They appeal to our hearts, but not only in the anatomical sense. We learn them by heart, even if we are not aware of it. In fact, we learn them in an unconscious state, the way that infants learn their first words or adults learn clichéd phrases to drop into their everyday speech.
But surely not every poem is to be transported within us? Some works are so overblown, so overused that they merely grate on us (I’m looking at you Rudyard Kipling). But then again, even those poems we pledge not to like, to find so incredibly tedious are ingrained in us. If by Rudyard Kipling does not have substantial meaning for me after hearing it several thousand times, not to mention Jerusalem by William Blake which makes a grab for me every Sunday when I flick through the TV channels and catch a quick snippet of Songs of Praise, but I will not deny the fact that I can recite most of their lines.
I cannot for the life of me remember every single poem I have ever read. I doubt any of us can. But that doesn’t mean to say that they are not inside us somewhere. Perhaps they are curled up tightly, bricked against each other, their pricked spines arched into place. Unstable and ever-evolving. Waiting for us to pay attention to them.