'We Begin In Gladness' Brings A Message Of Poetry's Importance In Today's World
Life in today's world can be frenetic and anxious; we are often too distracted to appreciate each other and our universe. Poetry demands that we pause and listen.
"A poem is something that can't otherwise be said addressed to someone who can't otherwise hear it. By this definition, poetry is deeply impractical and deeply necessary," writes Craig Morgan Teicher in his new book We Begin in Gladness. Teicher's message is spot on; our age requires poetry.
Teicher's book comes on the heels of Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry? published last year, and Christian Wiman's just-published He Held Radical Light. All three authors are acclaimed poets, each bringing an infectious passion to their subject.
Zapruder aims to dispel the myth of poetry's inaccessibility with a beginner's primer; Wiman wrestles his own spiritual journey alongside poets whom he celebrates. Teicher's way into poetry is to focus on the arc of a poet's career.
"As long as people communicate, there will always be poets," Teicher tell us. He examines why people begin as poets, and what they gain from poetry. His answer: Poets are people "who, for any number of reasons, cannot, or at one point, could not, speak." Teicher cites himself as an example: He found poetry in the wake of his mother's death when he was 14. He writes:
"Silence was certainly what got me started. I was an only child, paralyzingly attached to my mother.... Poetry was almost an instant reaction, as if a symptom of her death.... Poetry was, it is now obvious to me, my response to the shock of suddenly having no one to address everything to."
Teicher uses Ars Poetica — poems about the art itself — as "origin stories." He takes us back to Greek poet journalist Constantine Cavafy, who wrote of the beginning poet (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn): "To have got this far is no small thing;/ what you have done is a glorious honor." Teicher gives us Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet and Czeslaw Milosz's "Ars Poetica," commenting, "I like to think of poetry as a pasture ... where demons can graze, can move around freely, within bounds, munching on grass, making mischief and meaning, in a safer place than the streets of my life." That wonderful definition of the poet's playground no doubt describes the locus of a number of creative pursuits.
Teicher considers Sylvia Plath's "surges" and the "breakthroughs" of John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, James Wright, and Brenda Hillman. A prose book on poetry has no choice but to proceed in shorthand; to include only fragments of poems, without the leisure and space to display full works. Still, taking the time to define terms such as "caesura," "volta," and "enjambing" would have helped this reader better follow Teicher as he reasons his way through arguments.
In a section on "Middles and Mirrors," Teicher describes a kind of group maturation — a phenomenon in which poets build on one another's work. The relationship between John Ashbery and Susan Wheeler's poetry shows us that "poetic development does not begin and end with one poet's career."
Poets "develop toward masterpieces," Teicher asserts, defining a masterpiece as a work in which "nothing is wanting; the poem is fully achieved; no words could be deleted, and we are arrested in reading it." Masterpieces can "occur at any time in a poet's writing life." For example, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Hayden each reached an early apex, whereas William Yeats came to his at the end of his life.
In a final chapter, Teicher writes about "endings." Poets are "obsessed" with them, he says. Lucille Clifton writes "lumpectomy eve," on the loss of her breast from cancer, and sings of her own impending death: "I asked how to be brave... and the thunder answered,/ 'Stand. Accept.'"
We Begin in Gladness is well worth reading for its celebration of the art, and for placing poetry as a necessity in today's frenzied society — where dystopian fiction sells well, and too few people take time to read. Teicher's examination of poets' artistic maturation is an engaging topic. If his conclusions are informed by his own taste, we can appreciate him as a generous guide through his chosen profession. Similarly, Zapruder and Wiman offer up valuable lessons from their poetic journeys.
There may be readers who would prefer to have had more background threaded through Teicher's thoughtful examination of the poetic life. The presumption that poetry is a language of common parlance would be welcome if true.
But alas, it is not.