On Intellectual Substance

"Tell me where is fancy bred?
In the heart or in the head?"

--William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Substance is the weight of a poem in your memory, it is the impact of a poem on your entire being while reading it. It is the heft and vividness and power and gravity of the work, "the unbearable lightness of being" all at once. It's what, in Robert Heinlein's words, you "grok" from the poem.

Poems can hit you above or below the belt, square in the gray matter or right in the four-chambered pump. Robert Creeley said "form is an extension of substance" and I agree. However, without adeptness at form, it is unlikely one's substance could be communicated with any felicity.

Substance is what you have to say; form is how you say it. There's really not much left to say for poets that hasn't been said before (though technology provides many new props), but if Shakespeare and Neruda could both write freshly about love, that tells us something about poetry, doesn't it? Subjectivity colors form and the approach of these two masters makes the old penny shine-- and love and death are the oldest pennies in poetry.

Allow me a few definitions, limiting in their way, but useful:

Sense or denotation: The matter of the poem. In Frost's "Acquainted with the Night," for instance, a man goes for a walk alone at night.

Meaning or connotation: The implications of the poem, both intellectual and emotional, depending on second-order interpretation. In Frost's poem, again, the sense of isolation, expectation, fear, wonder and grief combined.

Substance: The meat of the poem, the central impact on both mind and heart, as meaning and feeling are inextricably linked.

For pedagogical purposes I divide the discussion of substance into two parts: mind and heart, or intellectual and emotional substance. This essay concerns the former.

First I want to say without reservation that you do not need to be an intellectual genius to write great poetry. You must be a good observer, one who feels deeply and has a facility for language, but you needn't be a rocket scientist. Above all you must be curious, love language, and be willing to explore the heights and depths of yourself and the world you inhabit. No room for cowards; no room for those who hold back. You must be a risk-taker with a need to incarnate your experience in words so well-wrought others will derive a similar, if not exact, experience from your effort.

Still, substance without good form is not enough, else every adolescent cry of angst would qualify as a poetic jewel. Substance must find the right form, the right lines, the exact words to transmit an experience in such a way that the readers cannot escape it: it doesn't matter if they don’t like it, only that they can't turn away until reading it through, so that you "held your audience."

A good poem attempts to trap others’ attention so completely that they see what you see, feel what you feel, grok what you grok, and experience their own entirely subjective variant thereof. Prose has no limits on expostulation, so you can spend paragraphs in a letter telling your best friend how the death of your cat affected you, but you have no such luxury in poetry. You have one chance: the poem.

Many poems fail to achieve "language distilled into its most powerful form" because the writer fails to pare away the extraneous sufficiently to achieve the greatest impact. Thus good self-editing can give birth to unity, and unity is the backbone of form and substance. I urge you to be merciless with yourself.

Think of a great poem as a example of great architecture, in which, if you removed a single part, the entire structure would be damaged. That's how good good must be; in Eliot's terms (from “Little Gidding V"):

"And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the hold and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem is an epitaph."

Imagine if you chiseled your words on stone instead of typing them on a keyboard or scribbling in a notebook. How much more would they be valued, how economical, even epigrammatic your writing might become! Eliot says the ultimate thing about verse here, in a rather prosaic fashion (though that is by design and in contrast to the previous section of the poem): "Every poem is an epitaph."

In other words, what would you say about a subject if it were your last chance to comment, carving out a headstone that would stand after your death? Or do you prefer to toss off flyers for your next production? Do you want substance in spades (forgive the gallows pun)? Then you must treat your work as important enough to stand the test of time. Fluff won't do. The subject doesn't matter; it's the treatment. Does your treatment leave nothing to be added or taken away? This is the ideal toward which I urge you to strive.

Using my minor reputation as an example of one rarely accused of a lack of substance, I confess that most of my rough drafts are four or five times longer than my finished poem. That's my method. I like to slash and burn to find the poem amidst the jungle of irrelevancies.

I know other fine poets who make up lines in their head and repeat them until all is just right and then finally commit them to paper. The method doesn't matter, only the result.

Good substance relies upon good diction, arresting and economic, employing all the devices of sound appropriate to the subject in the right proportion. Strict form forces economy of phrasing, which is one reason I believe the study of form should precede a discussion of substance. I have no doubt we all have something terribly important to say, but we must say it well before anyone will take notice.

Now for some examples of intellectual substance. Here's a short poem by Richard Wilbur comprised of two pentameter couplets:



Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.


We milk the cow of the world, and as we do,
We whisper in her ear, "You are not true."

You don't need to have read Boswell's Biography of Samuel Johnson or Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, the English Empiricists, to appreciate this poem. Although the title is a big word, you can always look it up (the theory of knowledge). But the second couplet explains all, even to the uneducated.

I could say something like, "In this poem Wilbur raises our intrinsic doubts about the reliability of empiric experience," but that doesn't begin to convey the "substance" of the poem. That is the message, perhaps, or one message. But the substance works upon us like a Zen Koan; "Do we trust ourselves? What's he talking about? Oh, I see. Then what did Samuel Johnson do?" (Johnson, by the way, told Boswell he could disprove the empirical philosophers by "knocking my sconce against it" (a rock).)

The tone of the poem is serious but at the same time mocking. The poet assumes our part with the use of "we" in the second couplet, and shares his ultimate doubts about reality with us in such a homely trope we can't evade it: Are we using the world to our advantage while at the same time doubting its reality? As you see, one could write paragraphs on the substance of these four lines, which tells you much about what good substance entails.

Bukowski and others like him give you their sense and substance in one lump. The details readily illustrate the affect or thought. Fine. But if you read Buke's poems again, there's not much more there. They are substance-heavy in their autobiographical formulation, or at least sense-heavy. I don't think many would consider him a master of form, but his substance does not hold the weight of, for instance, Wordsworth’s "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" (which exegetes a thought as old as Plato), Keats´ “Ode on Melancholy,” or Frost's "The Bear."

I chose "The Bear" as a second example of intellectual substance because I thought its substance, though deep, rather easily assimilated. Besides his music and colloquial diction, this is Frost's great gift. He is smart enough to obscure what he wishes to say, but exercises an even greater intelligence in rendering it accessible to the reader.

Here's an excerpt from "The Bear:"

"The world has room to make a bear feel free;
The universe seems cramped to you and me.
Man acts more like the poor bear in a cage
That all day fights a nervous inward rage,
His mood rejecting all his mind suggests.
He paces back and forth and never rests
The toenail click and shuffle of his feet,
The telescope at one end of his beat,
And at the other end the microscope,
Two instruments of nearly equal hope,
And in conjunction giving quite a spread.
Or, if he rests from scientific tread,
'Tis only to sit back and sway his head
Through ninety-odd degrees of arc, it seems,
Between two metaphysical extremes.
He sits back on his fundamental butt
With lifted snout and yes (if any) shut
(He almost looks religious but he's not),
And back and forth he sways from cheek to cheek,
At one extreme agreeing with one Greek,
At the other agreeing with another Greek,
Which may be thought, but only so to speak.
A baggy figure, equally pathetic,
when sedentary and when peripatetic."

Frost's ironic, humorous and understated philosophizing begins only after his minute observation of a bear, to whose autumn foraging he refers again in the last line ("peripatetic"). This is his standard method, and one well worth emulating: observe a scene closely and then philosophize; observation and meditation, description and comment. Here Frost universalizes a particular (the bear's necessary freedom in foraging) into the experience of all men. Nifty, huh?

Saying man is like "a bear pacing in a cage" is not a new thought, but to say it as well as Frost does, with his light ironic tone, certainly qualifies as a fresh thought because of fresh form and substance. And notice how the poem, with no stanza breaks, as a large block on the page, even resembles a bear.

I won't go into more details, or "expose" Frost's trademark "Ah, shucks" farmer's persona which fails to hide his erudition; suffice it to say that Frost traps us, by virtue of the poem, into an examination of our human limits in such a way that we are seduced, by poem's end, into mocking ourselves. And once you begin the ride it's very hard to get off, the sign of a sure hand.

Lastly, though perhaps more known for his music, consider this stanza from Yeats’ "Vacillation:"


The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah's coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?

As already suggested, I think it no accident that poets often write in pentameter couplets when wrestling with serious intellectual substance. Pentameter provides the metrical punch to drive points home while allowing enough space to make them. That's why in "The Age of Reason" or "Neo-Classical Age" of Restoration Literature, heroic couplets were so popular, in the hands of poets like Pope and Dryden and Johnson: they provide a good vehicle for wit, or ideas (coincidentally, in my examples above, three moderns employ this very form to transmit intellectual substance).

To return to the epigram from Shakespeare,

"Tell me, where is fancy bred,
In the heart or in the head?"

Both, obviously.

If we divided poets into poets of the mind or heart to crudely delineate individual examples of substance, we could jolly well have a field day, but good poets, though their strength may lie in one or the other, make sure by long practice to include both.

A companion essay, "On Emotional Substance in Poetry", is available online at Umbrella.

C.E. Chaffin, M.D., FAAFP, edited The Melic Review for eight years prior to its hiatus. Widely published, he has written literary criticism, fiction, personal essays, and has been the featured poet in over twenty magazines. In the last ten years he has had over 500 pieces published. Credits include: The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Pedestal, The Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review and Rattle. His new volume, Unexpected Light: Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008, Diminuendo Press, illuminates his struggle with manic-depression and his redeeming love for his deaf wife. It can be ordered at: www.cechaffin.com/light.html. Blog: www.cechaffin.blogspot.com.

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