AT some point in the creative process, poets must ask themselves if what they've written is poetry or prose broken into lines. That question can be difficult to answer. Poetry makes use of the language of the age - and few people would describe today's American English as poetic.
That may be one reason why so many publications are filled with poems that look like a sea of unbroken text. Visually, there may be nothing distinctive or appealing about them. But talented poets know how to keep the poetry in a poem, along with a strong narrative element.
``For the Explainers,'' the short opener in Wendell Berry's new book, ``Entries,'' is a good example:
Spell the spiel of cause and effect,
Ride the long rail of fact after fact;
What curled the plume in the drake's tail
And put the white ring round his neck?
On one level, these four lines are very simple. A reader can understand the ``point'' of the poem after just one reading. The music of the words - ``spell the spiel,'' ``ride the long rail,'' ``the white ring round his neck'' - is also enjoyable from the first encounter, but not in an obvious way. The poem isn't trying to sound like something from another century.
But like a good folk song from ages past, the poem defies explanation. Its melody and direction may be evident, but something always eludes the reader. Perhaps there is the question of what the poet knows about those forces larger than ``the explainers,'' people who think they know everything. Perhaps the reader feels a persistent sense of awe. One could even respond to what seems to be a ``still, small voice'' in back of the speaker's own knowing question.
That sense of mystery - combined with rhythm and music - is what distinguishes the poem from simple prose. As with a good folk song, the final product is more than the sum of its parts. The poet's voice - much like a singer's - takes on new shades of meaning because of the accompaniment.
But not every free-verse poem does so much with sound. When poets choose flatter, more mundane language, how do they keep their balance? Berry's ``A Difference'' offers some insight:
Machines pass on the road, so heavy
that the leaves of the young beech,
spreading in stillness, shake.
But on the river, slow waves
roll under quick waves,
causing the reflections of the trees
to ripple and to sway.
Unlike the previous poem, ``A Difference'' contains little music and sounds like everyday speech. There doesn't seem to be any structure: Even the number of syllables per line varies greatly. In order to make this poem work, Berry must rely on another element - the poem's title.
Usually, a title functions almost the way a line does - adding another dimension to the poem or providing information that is unavailable elsewhere. But in ``A Difference,'' the title pulls a lot more weight. Essentially, it pushes the poem out of the realm of prose and justifies the poet's effort.
Had the piece been called ``Reflections,'' for example, it would have failed completely. The speaker's observations would seem simplistic. The poem would have neither tension nor depth, and instead of forcing a reader to consider mankind's impact on the natural world, it would be reduced to a sentimental statement.
But despite the very different way in which this poem works, it does share some common ground with ``For the Explainers.'' Both poems are engaging enough to invite second, third, or fourth readings. Both reveal a vision that is shaped by a strong value system - and both seem to command a quiet authority.
Still, the questions may remain: Can't other genres do the same things? What is the essence of poetry?
There has never been a perfect definition, but poems, no matter how long, must be concentrated. Every word must count. Every line must add to the momentum - a new dimension of a self-contained world.
Or better yet, every poem must shine like a star - dazzling in ways that are both familiar and hard to describe. The poem must speak to readers on the most primitive level.
If much of what is being published today does not satisfy, it may be because writers have forgotten to apply the most basic litmus test: If a poem can be explained in fewer words than it can be written, its author needs to work harder. Likewise, if a poem can be read the same way a paragraph can, the poet hasn't reached the point where the ordinary and the extraordinary intersect.
But no matter how long one writes, poetry remains a challenge. Even veteran Wendell Berry must always rethink his role in the creative process. Yet what he offers his contemporaries is a fine example of how poetry can make use of prose-like language without losing its own identity. Berry's small poems reaffirm that speaking to and for an age does not mean compromising one's standards or falling prey to current literary trends.
Poetry reprinted with permission of the publisher: `Entries'
by Wendell Berry Pantheon Books 80 pp., $20 (Copyright c. 1994
by Wendell Berry)