What is the very first message it conveys? For it seems you're somehow already in touch with it, even before you've read a word, before you can begin to identify just what sort of species it is.
I'm tempted to say the initial message of any poem is Pay attention. Yet this isn't a particularly distinctive or interesting message. Pay attention is what the distant flashing sign on the expressway tells you at the outset, while you're racing toward it but cannot yet decipher its content. Pay attention barks the yapping little watchdog in the picture window; Pay attention cries the skimpy electric-blue bikini on the tan torso down at the other end of the beach; Pay attention warns the blind man's tapping white cane.
A poem begins with something weightier. It first says, Slow down. You understand this about a poem even if it's written in an unfamiliar language. You stare at a brief lyric composed in Finnish or Hungarian, and you don't know a word of Finnish or Hungarian. Even so, you grasp that the poet wishes to have the words assessed one by one. The poet wants to see language absorbed more leisurely and thoughtfully than usual.
We live in a world where words seem to be spinning through a centrifuge. They whirl past you over vast public address systems, over little hidden speakers in the dash of your car, over unseen satellites, over saloon televisions whose screens are so colossal the patrons look like hunched supplicants--wherever you go, you push against a rushing tide of words.
The poem--any serious poem--works against this tide. It seeks to establish a different tempo, one in which words can be savored both singly and collectively.
Poetry is all about velocity. A poem might be defined as a verbal attempt to establish a different time signature. My subject today is deceleration. Tomorrow, I'll talk about acceleration. They are of course aspects of the same impulse: a desire to set apart, by means of pace, a small cluster of words, to remove them from the turbid verbal tide that surrounds them, that surrounds us.
This notion of poetic velocity is clearly connected to the topics of my two previous blogs: inefficiency and efficiency. But it's separable, I think. A poem's efficiency, its concision, is intimately tied to its content. If you went to hear a Finnish poet read, you couldn't comment on his poetry's concision if you didn't know Finnish. But you could speak about its rapidity or slowness.
How do poems decelerate language? Perhaps the most heartening example arises when you begin to read a poem silently and then, mysteriously caught up in its cadences, start to read aloud. You have acceded to the poet's wish. You have temporarily selected a slower medium, whose echoes are outsize and require more space.
Poets decelerate language by aggregating phrases that resist any sort of rapid enunciation. Yeats's "Yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves" or Tennyson's "To watch the long bright river drawing slowly" or Coleridge's "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion"--these are phrases that insist upon their own unhurried momentum. Word links with word to create a sort of retarding mesh--like the bedsheet, you might say, that is held out as safety net below a fire-blazing building. Makeshirt though this net appears, it may be strong enough to break a killing fall--to save a life.
Sometimes poets decelerate by the use of a meter that insists on imposing slowing stresses where we would normally, hurtling forward, collapse or elide syllables. A special sort of grace and grandeur are possible where a meter requires that each syllable receive its ringing due, as in the last three lines of e. e. cummings's "i sing of Olaf glad and big":
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.
This is perfect, unvaried iambic tetrameter. We have that big cold word "statistics," and that even bigger, colder word "preponderatingly," which moves minutely and sprawls consumingly, like a glacier. But both words are in service, as the last line reveals, to something noble and spare and fair.