In an excerpt from his upcoming collection of essays. Echo Soundings, Jeffery Donaldson flags an important truth about the art.
Poems are made of words, words that are everywhere outside you and inside you. We are in the midst of words. They do things, tell us things, tell us to do things, convey information, cajole, argue, and convince; they lie and feint and finesse; they go before and between; they explain and justify; they are well nigh indistinguishable from our thoughts and perceptions, our mindset, the culture we inhabit. The poem sits in the midst of all this verbal noise. It is hard not to assume that poems are trying to do the same thing in the world as other linguistic conveyances. So much of our criticism about literature and our teaching of it falls back on the assumption (often useful, as far as it goes) that the task of a poem, just so, is to convey information, convince you of something, argue a truth, compel or command, sway a disposition. But it can seem to do so very poorly, since it often makes so much fuss about the business. It seems coded by nature to make its own kind of trouble. Keep the teachers in business. Confronted thus, a young student thinks, quite reasonably: “If that’s what the poets meant, why the heck didn’t they just say so!” Poems are out of their element, in over their heads when they try to do the work that an instruction manual, a conceptual argument, a treatise, a political speech, a weather or news report, a science experiment will do much better.