The first critical essay I ever wrote was about the movie Dead Poets Society, which came out when I was fourteen. I wasn’t yet writing poetry myself, and I didn’t have any theories about why it should be read or taught. I just felt that the way the movie represented literature needed to be refuted, like a lie or libel.
I don’t remember exactly what I wrote about the movie for my high school’s opinion magazine, but today I would put it like this: While claiming to exalt poetry, Dead Poets Society actually mocks it by denigrating its key value — articulation. The whole purpose of language is to articulate experience, to turn private, hidden thoughts and feelings into public symbols that can be shared and reflected on. When an experience is especially complicated and elusive, language has to be wrenched out of its usual patterns to capture it, and the result is poetry.
Poetry is often more obscure than prose, yet at its best it’s also more meaningful, because it communicates on more wavelengths simultaneously. A poem makes use not just of words and sentences but of vowel sounds, syllabic patterns, rhyme schemes, etymologies, connotations, and allusions. As Keats told Shelley, the poet should load every rift with ore.
But in Dead Poets Society, the highest value is being inarticulate. This is clear from the moment Mr. Keating tells the class to tear out the introduction from their poetry textbooks. After all, its title is Understanding Poetry, and the point of poetry isn’t to understand it but to feel it, proclaims Mr. Keating. Understanding is an obstacle: “Use your imagination! First thing that pops to your mind, even if it’s gibberish!” Mr. Keating hectors a student. The boys learn to express their deep feelings by yawping and standing on their desks. Robert Sean Leonard proves he is the deepest of all by killing himself.
Later I would learn that the romanticism of Dead Poets Society has a history and a pedigree. Call it a Hollywood remake of William Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” But Wordsworth’s inarticulacy is impressive because he is able to express so much. His poetry illuminates such depths that what lies beyond must be unlightable, like the ocean floor.
You can’t learn to write a poem by reading an essay about poetry any more than you can learn to walk by reading a manual on walking.
For me, however, right at the beginning of my life as a reader and writer — before the beginning, even — the movie felt inimical, the way we know certain foods are poisonous because they taste bitter. At fourteen, feeling is only too easy; what’s hard is understanding and articulating what you feel. But Hollywood is nothing if not democratic, so it makes sense that a movie would say that the easy part is all that counts.
For an aspiring writer, however, this is a trap, since the difference between feeling poetic and writing poems is perhaps the hardest gap to bridge. The great poets agree that the process from feeling to expression requires a touch of coldness, a certain detachment. It was Wordsworth who defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” implying that it’s impossible to write about a feeling while still in its grip. Rather, he says in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, it has to pass away and then be recreated in the mind:
“The emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced.”
T.S. Eliot makes the same point more assertively in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” distinguishing between the personal emotions we experience in life and the “art emotions” we find in poetry. “It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting,” Eliot writes. He compares the poet to a catalyst in a chemical reaction, facilitating the transformation of experience into art while remaining personally unchanged.
When I started trying to write poetry, at age fifteen, I hadn’t read these famous texts. But even if I had, it wouldn’t have helped much. You can’t learn to write a poem by reading an essay about poetry any more than you can learn to walk by reading a manual on walking. Like a toddler, you can’t do it until one day you can, and even then you couldn’t explain exactly how. It’s as if impulses and pieces of knowledge that you already possessed rearranged themselves into a new shape and became legible.
For me, the interval between wanting to be a poet and writing something I could recognize as a poem felt painfully long. From ages fifteen to nineteen, there were nothing but false starts and self-doubt. I would try to write, be dismayed by the result, and resign myself to giving up, before trying again weeks or months later. Perhaps it was simply a situation that called for patience, like waiting for a growth spurt during puberty. The brain had to wire itself the right way and refused to be hurried.
But in retrospect, I can see that I made things harder for myself by wanting it too much, or in the wrong way. The more important poetry seemed to me, the more difficult it was to imagine myself writing it; the more difficult it was to write, the more elevated and remote it seemed. The metaphor of wooing the muse is obsolete, but writing and courtship have this in common, that the best way to drive away the object of desire is to place them on a pedestal — a mistake to which adolescents are especially prone. It’s far more productive to deal directly, as with a peer: “Sing, goddess,” Homer begins, and she does.
This piece is a part of the Berru Poetry Series, which supports Jewish poetry and poets on PB Daily. JBC also awards the Berru Poetry Award in memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash as a part of the National Jewish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2021 winner of the prize. If you’re interested in participating in the series, please check out the guidelines here.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic whose writing appears regularly in The New Yorker and other publications. He is the author of three previous collections of poetry and several books of criticism and biography, and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship. An editor at the Wall Street Journal, he has taught at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. He was born in Los Angeles and now lives in New York City.