Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject ... the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.I am generally sympathetic to this critique of sameness in poetry, though one is less subjected to sameness if one chooses to read, say, Action Books titles versus The New Yorker. But certainly, this is the kind of poem that tends to end up in Ploughshares and in collections that win the National Book Award (though simply writing these kinds of poems is not enough; one must also display pedigree).
But I tripped on the part where she says "the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany," seeming to equate the two. To my mind, there's a distinct difference between an epiphany and a profound thought. A poem may need to manufacture an epiphany or pseudo-epiphany to qualify as well-crafted/prize-winning, but it seems to me that the poems in any given issue of The New Yorker are seriously lacking in profound thoughts. In fact I think most poems could benefit from more profound thoughts (AKA good ideas).
So what's the difference between an epiphany and a profound thought? Here's my differentiating criteria:
- Epiphanies, almost by definition ("a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something"), are closed. They usually come at the end of the poem (the poet creates the illusion of having arrived at the epiphany by way of writing the poem; the reader arrives at the same epiphany by reading it), and make claims toward truth ("essential meaning"), so they are presented as final in two senses.
- A profound thought ("having intellectual depth and insight"), on the other hand, can occur anywhere and need not aspire toward truth. The most profound lines of poetry to me are more like questions, or little bits of thought that tend to spiral out into more complex connected thoughts. I think profound thoughts open up a poem, rather than close it down.
- Poets may shy away from putting thoughts or ideas in their poems because they worry those thoughts won't be seen as profound. Epiphanies, on the other hand, are usually personal. They're more like opinions that can't be proved or disproved. As Wolfgang Pauli would say, they're "not even wrong."
Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples. I opened up a recent New Yorker expecting to find some epiphany poets but, improbably, the featured poets were John "What's an Epiphany" Ashbery, with the flarf-like poem "Resisting Arrest," and Virginia Konchan, whom I always already love because she once reviewed my book (Thanks Virginia!).
Virginia's poem, "Love Story," actually begins with what I would call a profound thought, even though it's personal: "My body has never been my body." This line is open because it invites questioning, interpretation, even denial. Logically, it's false (A always equals A), but poetically, it can be "true," since poems often hinge on the polysemy of words or phrases. In other words, "my body" has multiple meanings, and the first instance of "my body" in this line may differ semantically from the second instance.
Another recent New Yorker does manage to supply an epiphany poem: "Interrogation" by Yusef Komunyakaa. The poem begins, per Perloff, with description and "extravagant metaphor":
He picks till it grows
into a tiny butterfly,
a transfigured bee-
& then into a secret icon
filled with belief,
& a drop of stardust.
A moment of half-
pulses on his skin
till his mouth closes
on a phrase in Latin,
& he wonders if an oath
leaves a scar.
It goes on for three more stanzas, and the sixth and final stanza contains the big epiphany:
He lifts the scab
with a fingernail,
till the almost healed
opens its little doubtful
mouth of resignation,
till he can gaze down
into himself & see
where eternity begins.
This sentence (each stanza in Komunyakaa's poem contains a single sentence, FYI) feels more shut down than the opening sentence in Virginia Konchan's poem in part because it's the final sentence in the poem; it feels less interesting because "eternity" is more of an abstraction than "my body," and because "where eternity begins" sounds like a cliche even if it isn't one, sounds like vaguely numinous bullshit (see also "a drop of stardust").
I don't want to go on record, however, as believing all epiphanies are bad. There is some overlap between epiphanies and profound thoughts. See "You must change your life" and other Rilke-isms; "Childhood Stories" by Matthew Rohrer. In general, I'll take profundities wherever they come. If you have a profound thought, please, by all means, express it (in a poem or otherwise).
Hat tip to Sandra Simonds for calling my attention to Perloff's essay.