BU Today: In this age of hyperfast technology, multimedia, and instantaneous information, where does poetry fit in? It almost seems an arcane pursuit for a young person today.Nick Laird: Yeah, I sometimes think people half expect it to have gone the way of clog dancing and badger baiting. Poetry, though, is not old-fashioned. It rejuvenates not just the language, but challenges our received notions and preconceptions. Using any means at its disposal, poetry aims at creating something equal to the moment, and in that to salvage something real. It tries to bring back the extravagant strangeness of existence, to recover, in the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s phrase, the sensation of life. But what does this actually mean? Take a scenario familiar from a thousand TV medical dramas — patient in hospital bed — and watch poetry defamiliarize it. This is the second stanza of “Tulips” by Sylvia Plath:They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuffLike an eye between two white lids that will not shut.Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,So it is impossible to tell how many there are.The first jolt is the simile, with its overtones of cruelty, of being forced to look — at others and at one’s self. The “stupid pupil” — both the imagined eye and her — hints at self-hate. In her ambition she “has to take everything in,” notice, manage, succeed at everything.The phrase “they are no trouble” has echoes of the nurses’ speech. Is the speaker — deliriously? sarcastically? — repeating the phrase back to them? The repetitions of “pass” evoke the nurses swishing continually by. Plath deliberately mixes up the simile of the gulls, jumping back to the nurses after mentioning the birds — and we get the vague, confused impression of gulls with hands. I could go on and on. And we haven’t even touched on how the whole thing sounds. Some of the effects happen at the level of consciousness and some below it, but all make the stanza immediate and astonishing, and exist in a kind of 3-D. How long would it take to achieve something similar in prose? It couldn’t be done at all on TV.
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