What Makes a Fully Realized Poem?

How the dialectical, the dialogical, and the dramatic create an openness that allows art to flourish

I will stir no controversy in saying that poetry, as one of the fine arts, is its own end. Arts are called “fine” not just because they have been exhaustively crafted, for that is often the case with the servile arts as well, but because they have been refined for the sake of their own prefect realization of existence. Even Horace’s platitude that the aim of poetry is to delight and instruct, for all its appearance of directing us to some further goods (pleasure and morality) is really just an attempt to explain why poetry should already seem to be good in itself.

When something exists as good in itself, however, one has to beware. It is in the nature of goods to be self-diffusive. Goodness begets goodness, and sometimes the next goodness in the chain may be a wayward one. Good things give themselves away—sometimes in embarrassing ways.

When I first published a long poem called “Verse Letter to My Father,” much to my consternation, I received a note from an acquaintance offering a commentary of sorts on some of its lines. The first part of the poem describes a mammoth desk my father built for me, when I was a child. It was large, but also the drawers moved in and out, not on a metal slide, but resting right on the wooden frame of the desk itself. In the poem I wrote,

    Though everyone said it was beautiful,
Though you rubbed soap along the drawers, I could
Never get them to open without yanking,

My acquaintance wrote to share the news that she and her husband had been struggling to refurbish an antique dresser. Thanks to the practical advice gained from my poem, they had used soap to wax the drawers. It worked like a charm! We cannot always know the ends to which our work will be put, and even though we affirm the fine arts as ends in themselves, they may find out still further uses.

Precisely because a poem is an end itself, we may sometimes view those further uses to which it is put as a kind of violation, as if it had been pried open and deconstructed for spare parts. And yet, as Horace’s apology for poetry suggests, we do recognize that there ought to be some kind of openness to the poem, even if the most common answers—to give pleasure, or to teach, or both—seem also to be a kind of bowdlerization of the poem’s integrity.

What poetry is good for came to seem a more pressing question in the last century or so. In part, this was because poetry had ceased to be used for many of the instrumental purposes that it had once served. Novels crowded out narrative verse; plays came to be written in prose not verse; popular music became all the more popular when it stopped borrowing its lyrics from the poets, as it had in the age of ayres and madrigals. We should not be surprised to see that a modern poet such as T.S. Eliot should give an entire series of lectures inquiring into The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933). Nor should we be surprised that, far from offering the answer required by the title, he concludes by stating that “Poetry is of course not to be defined by its uses,” and stares, in final silence, at the ghost of Coleridge in the shadows.

Because the poem is an end in itself that nonetheless stretches beyond itself in ways not only Eliot but all of us will fail to tabulate exhaustively (who could have seen carpentry advice coming?), we often relocate that openness as internal to the poem itself. When I first began reading poetry, I came across an article in a writer’s magazine that discussed two “kinds” of poetry. What the author really meant was to define good poetry and bad poetry. Good poetry, this author opined, were poems whose forms were exploratory, that is, such poems where, in the how of the writing, we could sense the author discovering something that hadn’t been known before. Been known by whom? For all poetry is a kind of revelation to everyone on the first reading. No, said this author, not the reader but the writer was the subject in the exploration.

Then, to define poetry that was closed off from exploration, the author quoted the entirety of a poem in half meter by a contemporary poet. As it happened, I was glancing at the article as I strolled across a college campus and, when I began to read that balladic poem, I stopped and stood. It was a beautiful poem. Almost a perfect poem. The kind of poem that I would want to write. I immediately left behind all thought of exploration, for I had found a poem that was good in itself.

The author of that essay was not without his point. The poem with which I fell in love was well crafted; its meter and rhyme were attractive. You would have to know what you were doing to form such a poem. But, further, the poem rose from the drama it narrated (a brief, unexpected encounter between a young man and a woman) to reflection on what it had meant. The author understood the experience described well enough to be capable of at least gesturing toward definition. This convinced me that perhaps a formless exploratory mode was not something to be sought after. The poem became an exploration for the reader precisely because the poet had done a good job, not of exploring, but of crafting the work of art.

Decades earlier, a similar episode occurred in the life of the California poet, Yvor Winters (1900-1968). Winters had begun his career writing mostly short-lined free verse, with Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D. and Wallace Stevens for models. Though one would hardly call them “exploratory” in nature, his early poems linger in image, sensation, and suggestion and, generally, avoid all signs of the conclusive. One poem, “Quod Tegit Omnia” risks defining the work of the poet as equivalent to liquid experience becoming solid in the image:

Adventurer in
living fact, the poet
mounts into the spring,
upon his tongue the taste of
air becoming body, is
embedded in this crystalline
precipitate of Time.

Most of his work however avoids even this modest emergence from the “precipitates” into abstract generalization. It sometimes suggests unexplained moods, in imitation of Poe (as in “Death Goes Before Me” and “The Wizard”), but, for the most part, the early Winters stuck with the “things” Williams had approved for poetry. “The Precincts of February,” for instance, begins,

Steely shadows,
Floating the jay.
A man,
Heavy and ironblack,
Alone in sun, 
Threading the grass.

In his late twenties, however, Winters became dissatisfied with such work. He saw that the poems that “moved” him most, such as those of Thomas Hardy and E.A. Robinson, were those written in the traditional meters and stanzas. Further, he saw that such poets were moving because their poetry moved beyond image and suggestion and attained to definition, a closure and completion of form. He abandoned his early imagiste poetry in favor of one that followed in such poets’ footsteps and indeed continued to develop a theory of poetry as definition for the next three decades and more.

According to Winters, a poem was “a statement in words about a human experience.” Meter and rhyme enabled that statement at once to speak clearly by way of denotation about the motive—the occasion or dramatic scenario—while also becoming a sensitive instrument of connotation—conveying implication and feeling about the occasion. The purpose of the poem was to realize an appropriate measuring of feeling to motive, the sum of which could be described as good order, understanding, judgment, or even wisdom.

Letters Winters exchanged with Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the little magazine Hound and Horn, where Winters published much of his work, shows the difficult reception such poetry of definition sometimes met. We do not have Kirstein’s side of the correspondence, but Winters concludes one letter by explicitly affirming the poem as an end in itself that has nothing to do with the kind of “exploratory” theory we discussed above. Winters writes, “Your remarks about poetry are proof of the fact: you come to poetry, I suspect, for something other than poetry.”

In context, again, it is clear Kirstein has been defending something along the lines of a poetry of openness and exploration. By this Kirstein means a poetry of new discovery rather than comprehension or understanding of what we know. For, in the next letter, Winters borrows a word from Kirstein and asserts that, to the contrary, “All the best poetry is largely corroborative.” Citing the new humanist Irving Babbitt, he continues, “all the most intelligent experience is corroborative of Christ and Aristotle.”

For Winters, poetry does not merely give us an image of experience, it comprehends, defines, and judges it. Poetry does not discover new feelings, new perceptions, but inevitably seeks to grasp by representing and understanding those the human race has long experienced. Human experience is a rather ancient and cumulative thing. Among them, of course, is the experience of the transcendent, that glimpsing and stuttering perception of what lies beyond the veil, or in the Underworld, or in the Heavens, but here we are speaking of the eternal rather than the “new.” These things lie among the experiences human beings must try to understand.

We should not expect poetry often to represent what is per se new, and, because most new experiences are in form akin to old ones, we should generally expect the understanding of poetry to corroborate in a new way wisdom that is ancient. All this is so clearly the case that both Charles Baudelaire and Eliot spoke of poetry as a manifestation of common places; it gives fresh expression to what we all already knew. In this Eliot also agreed with Alexander Pope:

True wit is nature to advantage dress’d
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d

Winters’s poetry remained vivid of image and subtle of meaning, the act of definition occurring within the connotations of the verses rather than by way of discursive conclusion. But, often, the expression of final judgment is fully evident and directly stated. “Before Disaster” depicts the modern age as one of technology, wherein one can sense the disasters our constant inventions will beget even as one somehow continues begetting children in hope of the future. Its last lines run,

Nowhere may I turn to flee:
Action is security.
Treading change with savage heel,
We must live or die by steel.

As Winters continued to develop his thinking on poetry as “statement” of definition, he came increasingly to prize those poems that reduced to a minimum the mere portrayal of experience and attained a maximum of final definition. He came to prefer poems that were epigrammatic, aphoristic, and discursive, and judged harshly those poems that seemed to refuse all understanding or to linger in the sensation of experience. Thus, he began to champion the sixteenth-century English lyric poets of the native plain style, and increasingly to disparage those poets of leaping wit who kept the reader stranded in the experience of ambivalence and ambiguity. Barnabe Googe began to rival John Donne and Andrew Marvell, in his estimations, on the strength of lines such as these:

Behold this fleeting world, how all things fade,
How every thing doth pass and wear away;
Each state of life, by common course and trade,
Abides no time, but hath a passing day.

One is delighted and instructed. Googe’s observations are of more intrinsic utility than many lines recommending the use of soap to unstick one’s dresser drawers. The clarity of the verse seems also a distillation of wisdom.

Winters’s poetry of judgment and definition, with its aversion to powerful feeling, is often said to favor a kind of “stoic” humanism, and indeed that is how he himself described his mature view, in a letter to Allen Tate, where be complains,

What this generation needs is to be fished by somebody’s boathook out of the marsh of Eliot and steeped in the good bitter stoicism of Hardy and Emily Dickinson. They are dynamic stoics, who accept tragedy, and grow to the last gasp.

Why that word “dynamic”? I think Winters was still somewhat uncomfortable with where his thinking was leading him. It was indeed leading him toward a morality of stoicism and stoicism was the morality of the poetry he advocated. Stoicism, ancient or modern, has always been a narrow ethos, and Winters perhaps felt the limiting constraint buried within the power of moral discipline.

What is more significant, however, is that his poetry was moving away from all those aspects of literature that some might mistakenly call “exploratory,” but which really must be understood as something else: the representation of sensation and experience as it unfolds in time, rather than as it may be summed up and understood by way of crystalized or summary exposition. Winters came to deprecate poetry that advocated the indulgence of feelings for their own sake, that is, the romanticism of the previous century and the perspectival modernism of his own. But, along the way, he was rooting out a quality that has been present in the poetry of every age and without which it really cannot be: the dramatic representation of experience.

In one of his greatest poems, “A View of Pasadena from the Hills,” Winters gives us a long, slow-rolling poem of description and meditation that ends without any clear, single judgment to be harvested. Late in life, he professed still to admire the poem but to wish he had made it shorter. To do so would have stripped the poem of drama and left only its sententious clarity of thought. By the very end of his life, he was a bitter stoic indeed. Dying of mouth cancer, struggling to finish his marvelous, encyclopedic study of the lyric, Forms of Discovery (1969), Winters’s reflections sometimes leave one wondering why he had ever liked poetry in the first place. His poetics had contracted from a poetry of definition to a taste for definition itself.

And thus, by negative example, we arrive at the essential element of poetry that allows it to be an end in itself, a made thing, closed and complete of form, and yet still maintain a suitable openness interior to that form. It is not that the author explores anything in the act of writing, though this often will be the case simply because the act of writing clarifies and deepens thought. It is rather that the author has to give final form to experience, and experience often feels formless and flowing as it unfolds, even though every properly human experience becomes an experience only once it has been enclosed in form and, to that extent at least, known and understood. All literature, even the short or lyric poem, will at least suggest and summarize an experience, but most of it will also represent the experience in its unfolding.

Poetry often ends in definition, but, much like philosophy, it has to unfold dialectically, moving from partial vision to partial vision, from point of view to point of view, from episode to episode. It is dialogical, moving from voice to voice, often contradicting itself on the way to truth. Insofar as it is dialectical and dialogical, and insofar as it is rooted in experience, it will be intrinsically dramatic, even when the narrative unfolding in its drama is an interior one of thought and idea rather than character and event. More often than not, especially in the lyric poem, the individual poem will be but one voice in the unfolding of a larger drama. It will express itself partially and without apparent comprehension—and therefore without the kind of fullness of definition and closure of judgment that Winters came to demand. It can do so because the drama of experience is more foundational to the poem even than the act of judgment in which it inevitably culminates.

The dialectical, dialogical, and dramatic are what give to the fully realized poem, closed end-in-itself that it is, the appearance of openness without which it cannot survive. Winters, seeing that so much literature irresponsibly savored the powerful feelings of experience without understanding and judging them, became fixated on understanding and judgment. In doing so, he lost an essential dimension of the poetic. But those who celebrate the work of art itself as “open” and “exploratory” are even more misguided. They interpret the dramatic openness that is interior to the work of art as if it were a “process” tied to the poem’s making. In doing so, they not only refuse the kind of wisdom that Winters rightly valued; they confuse the experience of the reader with that of the author and so misunderstand the good of poetry altogether.

James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University.  Wilson is a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in various magazines and journals and he has published nine books, including The Hanging God (Angelico, 2018). Wilson is the Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine, the series editor of Colosseum Books, of the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press, and is director of the Colosseum Institute for writers