The Poetic Genes of Passion

June 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Guest post by Leah Zimmer

I’m looking for a poem that celebrates the rafter-shaking, window-pelting storm rolling in.

I want it to hold the bread and the knife of Billy Collins and the dark things of Pablo Neruda. It should have the brevity of William Carlos Williams’ plums and the yawning of Maxine Kumin’s bedding.

Last weekend, a musician-friend said, “I really want to like poetry, but I don’t know how to tell what I like or what’s good. And once I find it, how do I know what to read next?”

Both of these requests bring to mind the brilliant Music Genome Project that Pandora Radio uses to analyze, catalog and recommend music. It’s startlingly accurate, as I thumb-up most Arvo Part and thumb-down most Train, capturing the small details of taste I hadn’t been able to name before. And that’s really part of what my friend was asking about poetry, “How do I name what I like so that I can find it again?” How, indeed?

On Pandora, my “Futile Devices” station captures my affection for musical attributes (or musical genes) like “folk roots,” “a subtle use of vocal harmony,” “acoustic rhythm piano,” and “melodic songwriting,” which brings me more Sufjan, Ane Brun and The White Stripes. This is all good.

But poetry is often categorized thematically, whether on websites that identify poems about beauty, the sky, home, and loneliness, or as in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, where he gathers poems about “Such as It Is More or Less,” “Deliberate Obfuscation,” and “The Sound of a Car.”

Even a new Poetry App from The Poetry Foundation sticks to themes like optimism, passion, enthusiasm, nature and family when making recommendations, which seems more in line with the Moody-Player. But I am not attracted to a poem because it is about a particular topic. There is something, as Pandora has discovered with music, in the minute slicing of the details of voice, language, and rhythm that affects me.

I can read dozens of poems on passion, but only Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII” will cause my heart to skip a beat with its particular language of salt-rose and topaz, its growing intensity through the third stanza before falling back to bed, and the extended metaphors of earth and growth and hiding that move through the sonnet. Are these the genes of the poem? I am not looking for more poems about salt-rose or growing, so what is it? How to decipher the feelings that the poem’s DNA inspires?

A similar not-yet-released project is the Literary Genome Project, which only says “Pandora + The Love of Reading + You = The Literary Genome Project.” It seems full of possibility, and slightly more specific than a recommendation I might get from GoodReads.

I’m not sure that the work of the Music Genome Project, or its corollaries at Music-Map cannot be replicated with poetry, so it begs the question: what is the first gene we can build on? I’m more certain of this possibility now that I’ve seen another of my favorite musical trends—the mash-up—applied to literature when the Elevator Repair Service did a literary mash-up of three classics in 20 minutes. Poetry’s moment is coming.

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§ One Response to The Poetic Genes of Passion

  • Laura Mettler says:

    Yay for Arvo Part and the poets! I’m thinking you may just have to commission that poem from some Zimmer or other.

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