Why I read poetry

A few months ago, I posted a light-hearted look at mondegreens and malchichés. Clichés are useful to some extent because we believe we know what those phrases mean, and they serve the purpose of general communication. To confess “I’m feeling blue” can elicit compassion from a good friend, or help us to state a mood so that we might, possibly, move on from it. Popular song lyrics employ such figures of speech often, and often to good effect.

But clichés also leave something to be desired, don’t give a full enough account of the human situation. In the poem “Madame la Fleurie,” Wallace Stevens describes a man who looks into a mirror and believes what he sees depicts his actual life. But it is only a reflection; the image is “a page he found in the handbook of heartbreak.” A page in the handbook of heartbreak: that begins to express a more complex and specific feeling.

Poems can express every subtle shade of blue a person might feel. There is Emily Dickinson’s Hour of Lead and Elizabeth Bishop’s art of losing, Langston Hughes’ Weary Blues and Theodore Roethke’s desolation in immaculate places.  For thousands of years, poets have understood, and been able to convey, the vivid and expansive range of human emotions that our lively and energetic brains and souls experience—from unbearable grief to listless ennui, from a moment of surprising cheerfulness to the uplifting embrace of romantic or spiritual love. How poets accomplish this subtle connection between people, this empathy, amazes me. Especially as this mutual exchange of feelings takes place through the abstract medium of words.

This is why I read poetry. When a friend’s child died, I consoled myself with Ben Jonson’s words, “farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy” and nothing else seemed as apropos, even though the poem was composed almost 400 years ago. When life gets tough, Andrew Marvel’s lines about how feeble hope has tinsel wings in the face of magnanimous Despair just about sum up my feelings. Such poems may offer little cheer, yet they can comfort. Through gorgeous language and imagery that is honest if sometimes fanciful, good poems remind us that we are not alone in our circumstances.

Poems identify feelings, places, situations, and allusions to which another human being—perhaps hundreds of years or thousands of miles away—can relate. That relationship has a wonderful effect, for poetry offers a way to connect the rich and complicated scope of our humanity with the lives and sympathies of others, especially during troubled times. I know that my own heart begins rebounding from stress and gloom when I read Neruda’s lines: “through me, freedom and the sea/will bring solace to my downcast heart.” As we navigate through political and economic and personal hassles, we might want to open a poetry anthology now and then, or call up a website such as A Poem a Day or Verse Daily for a fix of shared humanity in an increasingly virtual world. After all, “What the heart longs for,” says Gregory Orr, “the poem accomplishes.”

One person who has taken this poetry inspiration into the wider world is Nicelle Davis. Check out her year-long poetry project at The Bees Knees.

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Mondegreens and malclichés

According to Merriam-Webster, a mondegreen is:
a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung [“very close veins” is a mondegreen for “varicose veins”]

A similar slip of the ear resulting in a mishap of the pen (or, more likely, keyboard) has been called “malcliché.” My teaching experience leads me to ascribe the uptick in these peculiar forms of malapropism to AutoCorrect and to a more aurally-based society. We have moved from ancient oral communication to text and back again to what we hear/see rather than what we read. As our media becomes a place where diversity abounds, the conventional structures of English–idioms and phrasings in particular–fall apart a bit as we speak with different speeds, different accents, and under different cultural, regional, rhetorical, and other authorities.

I have been collecting a few from student papers and from conversations I overhear. Yes, I eavesdrop–I’m a writer!

I supply a few here for your amusement and puzzlement, and as inspiration. A few of these phrases are potentially rich in imagery that’s strangely appropriate, such as “burning your britches,” “poor self of steam,” “rake him into the coals,” and “beg to defer.” I have successfully used mondegreens as poem prompts. I do not recommend using them in English comp papers, however, as they result in coffee spills produced by professorial giggles and rampant use of the red pen admonishing “sp” and “clarify!”

armed to the feet
above bored
stuck to me like a leash
all intensive purposes
board to death
buy the same token
queen of the crop
caught me on guard
don’t count your eggs before they hatch
a fool and his money are soon apart
give it a swirl
dead wait
leaving like flies
go out on a tree
grin and bare it
taking his name in vein
one fell sweep
in the nickel of time
hair-brained
last ditch effect
pearls before swans
unnecessary evil
no holds bard
on a role
past the buck
the past of least resistance
sharp as attack
he got just his desserts
what goes around must come down
on tender hooks
preaching to the chair
no ifs, ands, or butts
free rain