Corporeal Words

OSS_poetryA good philosopher makes you think – not just adopt an opinion or give you something to believe or believe in (or not believe or believe in). A good philosopher makes you put on the brakes, stop the mind from racing along in its familiar tracks.

Here’s a good philosopher, Kelly Jolley, thinking out loud about poetry. Listening to him put the brakes on and made me think:

Poetry is a way of getting something to take on a body. It comes clothed in the corporeality of words themselves so the thing that you find yourself bothered by or interested in, or puzzled by, or find mysterious, becomes a kind of object on the page.

The idea, I suspect, is that bodies are synchronized to resonate together.

When you laugh my body (pretty much involuntarily) begins to chuckle or laugh, too – unless I’m resistant to your laugh and show it in stiff straight-faced impassivity.

When I read a line of poetry, I may undergo visceral feelings of funniness, strangeness, attraction, or of puzzlement, or of soaring serenity or of the sense of crawling in mud. All of these feelings, or responses, incorporate corporeal dimensions – knitted eyebrows, twisted stomachs, hands shaking off mud.

Perhaps in reading poetry my body is reacting to, or resonating in sympathy with, something like another human body. The words involve me – send me shivering, say – the way a person’s (embodied) voice or gesture might.

Things that are plainly non-persons can elicit my bodily response, too: spoiling bananas, pure snow, lilting breezes. These can set off a recoil, or instill a moment of serenity. So if a poetic line of words presents me with any of these “things,” I respond as if to a body, human or otherwise.

Thus we could say that poetry takes on a body.  It takes on a corporeality that sets my corporeality in synchronized motion: I catch my breath, or sigh in wonder, or feel the welling of tears.

Perhaps this is the way to hear Archibald MacLeish’s famous couplet: “A poem should not mean   / But be.”

The living poem is like a living body. It does this and that to us, which is quite something other than presenting a hidden meaning or a code to decipher with the help of a good dictionary.


— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor



Kelly Jolley on Poetry: podcast

Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica” from Collected Poems 1917-1982. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.











  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    My initial reaction was that poetry, like all writing, is incorporeal. It is mere breath or signs on paper. Of the arts, dance and theater are corporeal; they give a body to music and language. Perhaps in the figure of the bard, poetry may be considered corporeal; but words themselves are not. Attempts to make poetry “an object on the page” (e.g., Mallarme’s typographical experiments) don’t impress me.

    My second reaction is to question distinctions between poetry and other kinds of writing–the usual special pleading that poetry is unlike other kinds of writing. If poetry “comes clothed in the corporeality of words themselves,” couldn’t you say the same thing about a newspaper article or an advertisement? Have you not read a newspaper article–about, say, yet another unarmed black youth being murdered by police in an American city–that gave you the shakes?

    The attempts to turn poetry into something other than writing have ended up with poetry becoming bad writing–in fact, our worst writing, because it’s unreadable. Because it’s “magical.”

    Matthew Arnold dismissed a century of English poetry, from Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilus” to Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” as prose–the poets of a former age being merely asses who did not understand poetry. In the 20th century, critics distinguished between poetry and verse, and formal poems fell out of fashion, so that even a poet of the stature of Robert Frost had to be rescued by more astute readers from both his critics and his admirers. To say something prettily, wittily, wisely and well has gone from praise to censure. To those who disdain an epigram or quatrain as facile, I say, “Oh, yeah. Try it. I’d like to read your immortal epigrams.”

    Speaking of which, Mooney concludes his piece by quoting an epigram from MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” which is a series of ambiguous, mysterious, self-contradictory dicta. I take the poem as tongue-in-cheek: all these prescriptions for what a poem “should be” can’t be serious. Or they are serious in the way that koans are serious. I have nothing against this kind of writing–writing that “makes you think” because it appears irrational–but it is just one kind of writing, one kind of poem, and not my favorite kind.

    And, by the way, the hunt for “hidden meanings” drives me crazy. Readers of A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” have ingeniously discovered that the image in the penultimate line, “the cherry hung with snow,” is a metaphor for the cherry in bloom. This “hidden meaning” unfortunately obscures the argument of the poem, a twist on the traditional “nuts in May” carpe diem argument, which is that the cherry can be enjoyed in winter as well as in spring. I would argue that every poem is an argument–argues something–but this lawyerly interpretation of poetry takes the poet down several notches from high-priestliness, which is where some readers want to keep poets–keep them as priests who make the word flesh, which, if I’m not mistaken, is what Kelly Jolley thinks they do. For Jolley, poets are makers of golems, but only paper golems.

    Ed Mooney interprets Jolley’s thoughts on poetry differently: the poet’s words are made flesh in the body of the reader. I would agree that this can be so but with the qualification that most, if not all, good writing does that. Recipes become actions in the body of the cook, and a good recipe and a good cook can achieve a result most poignant. But Jolley says that a poem “becomes a kind of object on the page.” I think Jolley is saying something quite different from (and far sillier than) Mooney’s sensible interpretation. Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s a silly idea. The notion of poetry as magic is entrenched in our romantic era, and I’m never going to change that notion. But it brings out the savagery in me.


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