A lot of people talk about music as conversation—the “argument” between the piano and the violin, the “dialogue” between the saxophone and the bass—and I think poems are the same. In some sense every
poem seems to be in a conversation with itself, like the old ballads:
Oh where have ye been, Lord Randall my son? …
I’ve been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon
Even poems like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
or Basho’s haiku:
The leeks newly washed white—
how cold it is!
seem like dialogues, the second lines a response to the first. And I think we judge poems on whether the responses seem adequate, like we judge people. If someone is sad, it may be an adequate response to say, “Bummer—let’s go out for Thai food,” but if they’re suicidal, it’s not.
Conversations often drift, and we enjoy the drift, but part of being a good listener is also remembering where they drifted from. It’s like a session between Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi. Remember when he tells her he wishes he could live a carefree life like “the Happy Wanderer” and, when they’re talking about something very different weeks later, she nails him by reminding him of the Happy Wanderer and he asks, “How do you remember that shit?”
is one thing that makes a good listener, and also what makes a good poem. The last line of a poem has to remember the first. Chekhov said, “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” The play can’t forget the gun. In a poem the effect is usually subtler, but the idea is the same. Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough” remember
the faces in the Metro.
If poems are conversations, different parts of the mind talking to one another, then what makes a poem great is our sense that the different parts are really listening
to one another as well as talking, the way the musicians in a great jazz ensemble listen to one another when they play. When Robert Hass in “Meditation at Lagunitas
” talks about the woodpecker “probing the dead trunk,” it’s a response
to the comment that opens the conversation: “All the new thinking is about loss.” The “woman I made love to” responds to the idea that “everything dissolves,” and the “little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed
” respond to the idea that “a word is elegy.”
A lot of poems are full of great images like “the little orange-silver fish” but the images don’t speak to one another. What makes “Meditation at Lagunitas” great is our sense of how closely the lines listen to one another and, like friends, remember what’s been said in the ongoing conversation, that “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry
” is a genuine response to the sense of loss that began the poem.