Reading The Life and Death of Poetry, Kelly Cherry’s ninth full-length collection of poetry, I was reminded of Edmund Spenser’s sonnet titled “Amoretti LXXV: One Day I Wrote her Name.” In Spenser’s sonnet, the poet-speaker tells his lover: “My verse your vertues rare shall eternize, / And in the heavens write your glorious name.” In other words, he promises her that she’ll live forever through his poem. However, in making this promise, his poem has to achieve immortality, which according to the OED online, is “the condition of being celebrated through all time; enduring fame or remembrance.”
Yet, Cherry wants to write about the poem’s mortality, which she thinks has to be achieved first. She considers what the death of poetry means from a craft perspective in the title poem. I think she has all students of poetry in mind when she states that the poem must die before a reader can resurrect it:
The poem must dieTo the poet, it must be deadTo the poet’s ego, go outOf the poet’s self, cleaving
To time’s cross, stretched and nailed,Forgotten, to be rebornIn the human heart,The poem as mustard seed,The poem as a work of artThat will gloriously live.Or not….
In “The Life and Death of Poetry,” it’s easy to think that the personification (that the poem dies on a cross) and metaphor (that the poem is Christlike) are too much. But Cherry is being dramatic on purpose. She wants our attention and gets it by building tension, piling up figurative language in run-on sentences. This tension peaks, but then it’s quickly extinguished, like a balloon that’s suddenly deflated. “Or not” is what happens when a poem dies without being resurrected: “Perhaps the world / Pays no serious attention. / It does not matter.” A true poet will write anyway.
But sometimes it does matter; what if that poem contained valuable information? In the poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Cherry, too, thinks that poems contain news, and in the first section, “Learning the Language,” that news is our imperfection. Poetry strains toward perfect music, but it’s made from language, which—we can’t forget—we use to communicate our basic needs. In “Night Vowels,” Cherry wants the reader to hear, especially by speaking aloud, exactly how two vowels sound animalistic in their repetition:
Breath of wind that clouds the moon.Shriek of eagle, cry of loon
threading through fog.The throaty frog.
Death-scream of a mousethe roaming cat returns with and profferson the stoop.
And is that you I hear, weepingwhile the rest are sleeping?
O, O, O, O, O,u, u, u.
It is not lost on a reader that the ending of “Night Vowels” creates a seamless transition to the next poem, “The First Word”:
Someone said it. Maybea child calling for his mother.Maybe a lover, inventingthe word you. Maybea hunter giving his clanthe signal to kill.
The transition between these two poems asks us to hear the second person pronoun “u” before we read it as an “invented” word, underscoring, on another level, the exact point that Cherry wants to make.
Throughout the book, Cherry seems to be arguing that words have an origin we can practically pinpoint. Poets should try, she seems to say, to be as clear as possible, since the poem “instructs us / in responsibility.” Moreover, this kind of teaching is specific to poetry. In “Underwriting the Words,” there’s a difference between the news we get from poetry and other, more imprecise, modes of delivery:
None of us understands anymore.Commentators baffle, wordsreinvent their meaning, every voicecontradicts another. In a cityof deserted streets, where people hidelike turtles, in their houses,silence is the one common denominator.