What we write about when we write about poetry. ( Antioch Review )
Let us begin by recognizing that one comes to a poem–or ought to come- -in openness and expectancy and acceptance. For a poem is an adventure, for both the poet and the reader: a venture into the as yet-unseen, the as-yet unexperienced. At the heart of it is the notknowing. It is search. It is discovery. It is existence entered. “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be,” says the painter Juan Gris, speaking or and to painters. But what he is speaking of is true of art in general, is as appropriate to poetry as to painting. What he is reminding us of is the need to remain open to discovery, to largess–the need to give over our desire to define, to interpret, to reduce, to translate, We need to remind ourselves, in short, that in a poem we find the world happening not as concept but as percept. It is the world happening. The world becoming. The world allowed to be–itself. Another way of putting the same thing, this time from the per-spective of thinking (the perspective of the mind in its engagement of the world), would be to say that the poem is an enactment of thinking itself: the mind in motion. Not merely a collection of thoughts, but rather the act of thought itself, the mind in action. The poem is not trying to be about something, it is trying to be something. It is trying to incorporate, to realize. Not ideas about the thing, writes Wallace Stevens, but the thing itself. As Denise Levertov has said, “The substance, the means, of an art, is am incarnation–not reference but phenomenon.”
This is of course what gives to poetry, to good poetry, a feeling of aliveness. Touch its body–the body of this particular “thinking” –and you will feel it pulse with hidden life. Which in a sense is much the same as saying that it will pulse with mystery. For what is more mysterious than the fact of life? I mean life actually encountered, its own self-sustaining presence. What greater difference than that between a living being and the corpse of that being, the life gone out of it? One moment it is a living presence of mystery. The next, it is something completely other, something best defined by absence, by what is not there. I can never get over it. At every moment I am astonished by it. Touch by it. Awed by it. Perhaps that facts, as much as any, is why I am a poet, why I have to keep searching for verbal bodies the mystery can be present in, where that hidden life of the planet we are part of can be seen again. Can be heard again. Touched again. And perhaps that reason, as much as any, is why we need poetry, have to have it, have to keep coming back to it.
What we are talking about is the world’s physical presence. And about our inevitable entanglement in it–our minds, our bodies. About the inexplicable capacity of words to embody the mystery of it. To actually embody it. Not just stand for it, or point to it, or suggest it: but somehow to be it. It is this quality of language–of words–that poetry, throughout history, has sworn its allegiance to.
In this respect, poetry is not so much a defining as a revealing. It recognizes the inherent mingling of the spiritual and the physical- -that is, the metaphoric nature of the world (or; as the Romantics would have said, the metaphoric nature of Nature). That is to say, it recognizes (or feels, or intuits, or perceives) that the world both is and means. And that language both is and means. And that for us–human being–languages is involved in both aspects of it: both the being and the meaning. And this is what we must give ourselves to when we come to a poem.
Most of the things we do to and with the external world have ulterior motives, have uses they wish to serve. And to this extent they are unwilling, or unable, to allow
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