Widgets Magazine


On poetic truth

I read a lot of Mary Ruefle whenever I feel like the sky has become numb. “The sky” as in “my coursework,” “the sky” as in “the passing weeks of the quarter.” As in “I notice how my little world at Stanford has shrunken too close around me and how long it’s been since I’ve looked elsewhere, outside of the hundreds of pages of reading and writing assignments I have to complete for the next week.” In the first Mary Ruefle poem I ever read, “Peridot,” she writes that “The sky was the color of a cut lime / that had sat in the refrigerator / in a plastic container / for 32 days.” Even though I don’t really know what a 32-day-old refrigerated lime looks like, I feel this to be true. I look at the sky anew.

In her essay “I Remember, I Remember,” Mary recounts several of her experiences with loving and touching and not understanding literature, of feeling the unknowable that language carves into the heart. In it, she writes about reading “Ode to a Nightingale” to cows in a Swiss field and weeping because “it was that beautiful to me, and I loved poetry that much. I was 18.” A couple of years ago, when I was in Iowa City reading and writing poetry and stories and essays, my workshop instructor took us to a wonderfully cramped used bookstore whose aisles were roamed by the owners’ cats. I found Mary Ruefle’s “Trances of the Blast” on a top shelf and sat on the hardwood floor reading it long after everyone else had left. I am allergic to cats, so my eyes had filled up with itchy tears, but I didn’t care that I was crying because I had found this beautiful collection that I knew I could not leave behind. It sits on the bench beside me now, under the cloudless sky of my dorm’s courtyard. The cats were my cows and Mary was my Keats that summer in Iowa City, and I love all of it still.

In a different poetry workshop, I wrote an ode to California, and in it I had written a line about starless nights, and my instructor spent several minutes talking about how starless nights really only exist in the city because of its pollution and that in the real, natural California the night skies are really very starry, and if I truly wanted to be genuine to the subject I should take that inaccuracy into consideration. I was so embarrassed for writing something that turned out to be untrue.

The more poetry I read, though, the less I think about objective truth. It is certainly important to have it, but what makes me feel exhilarated and full-stomached and out of breath when I read poems I love are the lines that are approximate, that capture a nameless feeling without necessarily meaning something certain. I think my favorite line of Mary’s poetry is “We are a sad people, without hats.” When I read lines like these, I feel that they are true for me regardless of their objective truth, that they encapsulate something I can conjure and make me look at the world differently, even though I often don’t really understand them.

I guess this column is about why I love poetry and think everyone should read it. People often tell me that they are hesitant to read poetry because they don’t understand it. But I don’t think one needs to understand a poem to be touched by it. In my creative nonfiction class, we talk about situation, the context and events that a piece describes, and story, its emotional truth, what the essay is really trying to say. In poetry, I don’t think one needs a complete understanding of the situation in order to find resonance with the story. Which isn’t to say that the situation isn’t important, and that spending enough time with a poem, being open to misunderstanding so long as something is touched at all, won’t inevitably lead to a dissolving of this kind of discomfort.

Which also isn’t to say that we can ever expect to fully understand a poem anyway. But we can hope that it will touch us, offering us a glimpse of the world through the language of somebody else. To read poetry is to be constantly surprised by what language can express. To remember how many ways there are to look at the sky and how full-fledged and easy it is to love it. I wish I could experience that beauty and love all the time, but I wonder if that too would become predictable. What I know is what I have, and I am grateful for it. A few days ago I was reading former Stegner Fellow Kimberly Grey’s collection “The Opposite of Light,” and its opening poem, “Invention,” ends with the lines “built your wild wild, your sprout / and gasp! your beautiful undid me done.” I gasped. I felt undid and done.

Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.