“The Otherness of Poetry” Essay by Thomas White

AI-generated image of Edgar Allan Poe as illustration for Thomas White's essay "The Otherness of Poetry"

Depth and mystery of subject matter, not mere metrical craftsmanship, are the heart of poetry. Take Poe’s “The Raven”: what are we to make of this weird, feathered emissary whose “fiery eyes” and haunting refrain “nevermore” appear in the middle of the poet’s sorrow over his deceased beloved Lenore? Do we gain anything more from analyzing the metrics of this poem than the images suggest?

In my poetry, I want my full dose of mystery, not exact technical mastery. Everyday techno-speak is literal and explicit. Poetry rescues us from the robotic. There is a useful analogy with the visual arts. As one critic said of the unsettling paintings of Edward Hopper: “if he had been more the painter, he would have been less the artist.” Do we really care that his human figures — or a poet’s lines — are not crafted perfectly when they exude powerful mystery? Computers can be programmed to generate metrically precise strings of words; only humans can still dive beyond the digital surface to probe the twilight.

This could be why I firmly believe that science fiction and fantasy’s stock in trade, the Strange and Weird, have a home in poetry, not in mere genre storytelling. From the Homeric epics to Dante’s Inferno, from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the extraordinary verse of Charles Simic, John Ashbery and Sylvia Plath, poetry has always been comfortable with Otherness.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines poetry somewhat cryptically, as “a form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.” What was really in his mind is unknown to me. But I will surmise this: poetry, belonging to the twilight and the strange, is a messenger from a land beyond the prosaic world recorded in “normal” magazines. Poetry, like the Raven, is that creepy tapping on our bedroom door that disturbs us from the slumber of our waking life.

Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.

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