Think about Poetry as a raw material – a bar of pure metal which is physically pulled or “drawn” through increasingly narrow die openings until it becomes wire fine enough to vibrate at a musical frequency. Normal daily speech does not easily tolerate the level of stress required for this kind of precision.
Poetry uses the same words as prose narrative, but because the majority of its work in the world deals with processing the most extreme human emotions, a poem goes through a great deal of pressure as it is being drawn, and may occasionally kick up into a kind of spontaneous descant, beyond control by the rational mind, and lasting just long enough to bring about a new relationship in the world that was previously absent.
Poetry is partly a language unto itself, hmmm yes. . . .but which language? Poems can be translated from one human speech to another, but what were Poetry's own very first words?
There are hints. Listen to this from Monica Gagliano, a plant-communication specialist who is one of an increasing number of scientists who have “gone over” to Poetry in order to find the vocabulary & metaphors they need to continue accurately documenting their work. (From her book Thus Spoke the Plant):
Here linguist and translator George Steiner in his book After Babel, is complimenting Shakespeare for intuitively understanding that individual words truly do not have definition outside of the full context of whatever surrounding words they are temporarily thrown into contact with.
In her book Nay, Rather, translator Anne Carson mentions a word in Homer's Odyssey even the poet himself did not translate any further than to bring it across with only its ancient Greek pronunciation to guard it from becoming revealed. Although the single-syllable word seems to refer to a plant that is probably a nightshade, Carson makes no attempt to draw a correlation with a real plant, since, as she says,
There is a sense building here, not only of plants as conscious beings with their own method of communication, but also that words themselves can be said to dwell in their own world, sharing much with us, but not everything. I ran across this same idea in a fantasy novel by Oregon-born (and recently deceased) author Patricia A. McKillip. She's referring to the long and arduous years of memorizing and translating that the ancient Irish bards went through: (from The Bards of Bone Plain)
So, words have their own world; plants have their own secret language, and Poetry is the closest we humans ever get to either. What a challenge! What a joy!
I'll close with a rare example of a poem where the poet is so addled by his original image that he steps aside almost in bewilderment, and allows the process to take its own course, rather than trying to describe his way out of his overwhelmed state. Brodkey manages to open a space for Poetry to come in like an interior decorator, to select and juxtapose some words which, in a normal, rational sequence might sound like just one damned thing after another.
Let's touch lightly upon the poem as aphorism. Most poets don't deliberately write aphorisms and call them poems, probably because aphorisms are innately stodgy: they flaunt rather than hide their didactic role of summing things up, so that you can't read too many of them in a row without cleansing your palate between doses.
Hint: the aphorism too often can sneak into the last stanza as a way of validating and “clarifying” the good intentions of the poem.
However, the (often hidden) aphoristic tendencies of poetry can be fun to mess around with as a kind of literary device. I would even go so far as to say a well-placed aphorism can completely change the “body chemistry” of the entire poem, even if in itself it seems innocent of any such intention.
Here are a few one-liners from Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (died, 1990), ably translated by Paul Merchant in his book Monochords. Ritsos regarded them as daily warm-up exercises.
Ritsos was possibly writing one-liners in the tradition of Heraclitus (c. 500 BC) whose tendency was more majestic (tr. by Brooks Haxton in Fragments: the Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus):
A contemporary poet, and there may be many others, who very deftly uses an aphoristic approach (think: summing everything up in the last line) is Lawrence Raab. Here's the final 1 ½ stanzas of his poem “Lost” (Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Fall 2017)
And here's the stunning final line of one of my favorite poems by Jorie Graham, 'Subjectivity' – a long poem that labored mightily and brought forth a yellow butterfly!
To finish, here's a poem of mine in which I deliberately succumb to the tangled logic that can be the death of a good aphorism.
– Martin Prechtel (The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic)
Much soul-searching is taking place in these historically difficult times, some of it private, but some through the enormous and complicated sieve of the collective unconscious. We feel one another's pain, so much so that once again we find ourselves re-visiting the perennial “Problem of Humans,” and once again hoping for the possibility to see it in a new light.
The light of Poetry, for example, especially its ability to stimulate visionary thinking. Poetry is vastly under-rated, under-utilized and misunderstood in the world we have mostly inhabited as rude guests for some 250,000 years. Our inconsiderate behavior has sometimes been so gauche and ignorant that I wonder if that in itself is part of a Larger Plan yet invisible to us. Does the Earth benefit from humans wreaking havoc upon its stately code of reciprocities?
In many origin myths, humans make their entrance rather late, and deeply unfit for the lives they have been destined to lead here. As if our entire world had been built upon an error – which should be logically impossible. At various times we are said to have been made of: mud, sticks, wood, cloth, and sometimes even then had to be forgiven many times in order to remain on the shelf at all. But even though the creator god destroys each flawed version of our species when inevitably it proves to be inferior, and starts over with a different set of ingredients, the story does not allow any realistic effort to root out and avoid the endless repetition of the mistake. As if the origin myth itself is the problem – a tossed-off first draft, truly little more than a bare outline, unable to include matters like quality of material, integrity of design, or anything at all about ways to improve our initial conditions.
Some ancient origin myths, especially in the East, insist that the chief work of the Universe and everything in it, is to become fully conscious or enlightened. Furthermore, that we humans have actually been very slowly, but collectively working ourselves into a fully awakened state, far beyond simple awareness. If this is true, however, it surely seems that we should have been fully conscious for quite some time already. If the vast and powerful universe so urgently needed us in order to manifest this one trait it could not bring into fruition itself, why has it spent so much energy and still not met its goal?
I know I must be asking the wrong question all over again. Were humans side-tracked by words?Did someone empty a huge tin of alphabet letters onto the path we were so imperfectly following, and suddenly, as they began to blow away, we disappeared into the woods on either side, snuffling like wild boars, having at last found our true calling?
There in the bush we discovered-were-discovered-by – Poetry! Poetry uses words in different proportions and densities than does prose. It is essentially a sixth sense, a separate way of being alive that for some reason was handed over to humans. We have an exclusive contract to preside over the eons of its unfolding. Perhaps the Universe is in thrall to our final “aha!” when we make that one last connection and become conscious.
I like to think we human beings carry inside us – like a sort of Original Virtue – a capacity for the raw metaphor that underlies everything. And in a strange mathematics of twos and threes, metaphor is primary. We can only truly understand anything at all through analogy to something we already know. It is the final and the first, the breakaway, the Form that emerges of its own accord out of tendency, out of strange attractiveness, out of whim. Yet most people never experience poetry as metaphor at all, even though it is hourly revealed in the gaps of meaning that naturally occur between poetry and prose. Our odd deafness to this achingly simple state of affairs, has prevented us for a very long time from returning to the full capacity for consciousness each one of us is capable of.
(and yes, I did end a sentence with a preposition, hoping that might be a small step in the right direction. . . .).
Our Deep Sense of Winter
– Annie Lighthart (Iron String)
Once again we have spent most of our preciously hoarded cache of winter endurance, and it's only the end of January. Once again we have arrived at the place where slogging through no longer works. No end in sight, so toss that metaphor. Time to go deep, but stay awake.
Let us now visit a few of the unspangled silences of this season.
I see something out my front window – a white cat stuck in an opening halfway up the old board fence
along my driveway. This space, where a board used to be, is about the right width for the cat to wedge there: uncomfortably, precariously, but not painfully. The cat is facing away from me, looking into the yard next door where she lives.
I look around for my cell phone; this is a rare opportunity to shoot an image in addition to the real thing. I find my binoculars instead.
The white cat sees a red squirrel begin to climb a cherry tree next to her, and remains motionless in her slot while she languidly turns her head to observe the fellow animal reach her own level. Likely she is rehearsing the possibility of leaping out and catching it (a universal cat fantasy, I believe) or even perhaps imitating it as it scurries along the branches of the half dead tree a few feet from her face. Is she truly stuck? I doubt it.
The squirrel has a walnut in its mouth, as do 89.4% of the squirrels at this time of year. They harvest them from a tree next door, but cross into my yard to bury them, or just as often to eat them, dropping shells all over the grass. A great transfer of nuts thus takes place every year between yards. So far as I can tell, nothing much comes of this.
Slowly the squirrel circles its way up the cherry tree, reappearing on a branch that hangs directly over the cat. The cat leans her head back and slowly swivels it round to follow the squirrel's path, until her face seems to come loose and lie flat on top of her neck, like a jar lid. Not many cats are curious enough to turn their heads that far. This does not fit my comfortable stereotype of this cat as stupid. Muttering, I sort through various explanations of what is happening.
Swivel – yes, that's the word I want! Across my imagination unfolds an image of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, thus connecting the whole scenario with something mythical. We have crossed temporarily into the realm of magic. Will it hold?
What I have stumbled int is not an image but a kind of cobbled-together situation – a story being conjured right in front of me, – one that flings out possibilities: face, swivel, sly, moon, with a pinch of aberration, into a static landscape of intersecting shapes.
This is not an anecdote about a cat and a squirrel, it is about the living geography of landscape as it regularly contorts itself into an occasion for art. Spontaneously, with no need for embellishment because this is what the universe does all the time, you just have to be awake while it happens. For in the nature of gifts, these spontaneous incidents don't last: all the loose ends have to be tied up simultaneously, on the spot – you can't go back later and assemble the parts you missed. Nope.
A Wish List
Recently a friend and I challenged each other with the question: “What's on your secret list of wishes right now, the one likely to make you the most happy?” Pretty simple and straightforward, right?
Our only rule was nothing hugely impossible or vague. Doesn't have to be a material possession.Take advantage of this opportunity to be totally selfish. But be careful what you wish for.
Right now I'd spend my wish on a room with a floor-to-ceiling window (at least 12 feet high) for this time of year, when the daylight hours are moving into the single digits. I would bask and bask. . . .
Think about how foolish this question would have sounded to the wise and kindly centaur Cheiron who was born immortal like his fellow centaurs, but was shot by accident with a poison-tipped arrow from the bow of the hero Heracles. Cheiron couldn't wish his way out of this paradox – eternal life with a festering wound so painful that he finally chose the lesser of evils and petitioned the gods for the ability to die. His request was granted.
Song-writer Soham Patel makes a choice (in her poem “Ultra Orator Spell”):
Lawrence Raab, similarly, goes out to the edge to find the center, in his poem Even Clearer:
Reginald Gibbons reminds us that whatever we wish for is always likely to be much larger than we could have imagined (from “After Mandelshtam”):
And Brenda Hillman, with the final stanza of her poem “Some Kinds of Forever Visit You,” granted another wish for me – one I didn't even know I had:
Even our Poems are no longer Huggable
When I went to replace my ancient and wheezing fridge last year with a brand new one, my first question to the dealer was “will it take refrigerator magnets?”
Inside, a refrigerator is all about food and its preservation. But Outside –
Outside, a refrigerator is all about photos, magnets, greeting cards – and poems! My fridge gallery always includes a couple or three poems that quietly pulse into the room like a little camp fire, keeping the wolves at a reasonable distance. On my fridge is written, “Poetry: An Embraceable Holiness.”
Recently – meaning within the past six months – I have witnessed a notable shift in the poems I review for inclusion in my fridge gallery: No matter what a poem pretends to be about, it's been totally saturated in advance with an apocalyptic view of things: Climate Change, Pandemic, and the worldwide erosion of Democracy. We're drowning in it; we have all sprung leaks, so that freshness, joy, appreciation of raw beauty – formerly the driving engines of Poetry as an Art Form – are being temporarily overwhelmed by a kind of desperate stoicism. The bees have finally become immune to our smoke, and we have lost our protective veils.
Here are two examples – my current fridge poems – . A few lines should give you the idea of the seriousness of the infiltration.
“Listen, no one signed up for this lullaby.
into the same day you dreamed of leaving –
get up and at it, pestilence be damned.”
~Rita Dove ("Incantation of the First Order," Poem-a-day Oct. 18, 2021)
“Easy light storms in through the window, soft
nest rigged high in the maple. I've got a bone
I've said You know what's funny? and then,
Ada Limón, ("Lover," Poem-a-day Oct. 4, 2021)
And returning to the immunity-of-bees as a metaphor, here is a different slant on what happens when the world can no longer postpone presenting its final bill – complete with immensely generous (already used up) discount for all comers. This poem is beyond revenge, beyond justice even – simply a new pathway to the heart's core.
Death of the Bee Keeper
Humming that swarmed his ears seemed also pain,
Because of honey, he forgave them, even
Their duty was death
The slow savor of which
from “Strountes” by Gunnar Ekelöf. Michigan Quarterly Review,
Poetry as Haptic Art
“The skin is the oldest and the most sensitive of our organs. . .Touch is the parent of our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It is the sense which became differentiated into the others. . . .”
“The body image is informed fundamentally from haptic and orienting experiences early in life. Our visual images are developed later on, and depend for their meaning on primal experiences that were acquired haptically.”
Of the so-called five senses – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting – only the first two have been considered highly evolved enough to support one of the “fine arts.” And yet, for at least a couple of thousand years, physicians in China and other parts of the East have quietly continued to compile a tradition based upon the sense of touch – taking the pulse of their patients for diagnosis – and over time refining this practice into a haptic art.
Recently I was conducting a somewhat “haptic” experiment of my own with two tuning forks, and discovered to my surprise that there is more to this than listening, or even just hearing. Both vision and touch have vigorously inserted themselves into the experience.
As it turns out, Chinese physician Wang Xi in the 3rd century found the process of taking the pulse to be an extremely deep well, both semantically and experientially. He wrote a kind of user's manual to help guide his fellow practitioners through the various ways that the “mo” (term that means “the abode” or the “pathway” of the blood) declares itself to the extremely sensitized hands of the physician.
From a poet's point of view, Wang Xi's detailed instructions are like a whole body immersion into the precision of abstract terms and an affirmation of primal role of metaphor in human speech (see epigraphs above).
So, bear with me if you can, as I unspool the original “aha!” moment that allowed me to compare listening to a set of tuning forks with the act of “feeling” the human pulse.
I would like to offer a comparison between a single tone from a tuning fork, to the single “tone” that the blood makes inside its abode (mo ) when passing back and forth between heart and lungs, plying its daily task of keeping a single human being alive. Wang Xi made a list of 24 major variations in the nature of the pulse that Chinese physicians were feeling in their diagnoses. I will describe the first four and compare them with four impressions of an A-220 tuning fork when it is struck, then matched by a tuner or musician.
1. Floating mo: If one lifts the fingers, there is abundance; if one presses down one finds insufficiency.
1. Singing flat: Sometimes I sing out A-220 just as I'm banging the tuning fork on my knee, and get a perfect match between the two tones. But as I continue to do this simple imitation over and over, some ingredient of the two sounds is no longer there, and I am left singing slightly flat. I do not know how to prevent this.
2. Hollow mo: floating, large and soft; pressing down the center is vacuous and the two sides feel full.
2. Sometimes I am singing a correct A, matching my voice to the fork, yet I can “hear” a kind of segment split off from the tone, like bark peeling from its outermost self, so that the tone feels flat when it is still “true” by some more holistic standard. As if the tone is feeling its way into a future not yet realized.
3. Flooding mo: extremely large under the fingers.
3. The voice is thicker than the tuning fork. It has a tendency to melt into it or over it, or between or around – clinging, dripping, penetrating but never really matching.
4. Slippery mo: it comes and goes in fluid succession; similar to the rapid (#5)
4. What does the voice or instrument expect to happen, by imitating a tuning fork? For the two tones to match one another so closely as to be indistinguishable? Or rather, for them to complement one another like a kind of aural triangulation, a fuller steadiness than a single fork or voice can maintain? But even this – is not achievable.
Congratulations if you have read this far! Warning: I may continue in this vein (!) next month.
Poetry as Divine Madness
It took me years of writing poems before I dared to say “I am a Poet” (with a capitol 'P'). Not out of simple modesty was I holding back – but a deep respect for the art, and also a kind of mild terror (?) at what Poetry does to a poet.
For example: signing the I Am A Poet contract means you agree to the following:
Now you're good to go, having taken the vaccine that will allow you to function inside a state of Divine Madness without losing your mind. You will be able to sing out to whatever muse or divinity may be guiding your writing life:
As a rebellious teenager I read this and thought, “Wait a minute! 'fervor' and 'wonder' are already excessive. You mean Poetry teaches me how to be extreme on purpose without being accused of disobedience, lying or lunacy? Yes, and
Poetry eventually starts demanding you to live up to the part of the contract that says, “make use of this
wild excess you have agreed to nurture inside yourself.” As poet Roya Marsh says, dive deep for
And in a poem I've never finished, another reminder to Poets:
Light and Dark
Now that we are emerging from the darkness and silence imposed by COVID – it's easy to get a feeling of having been snatched up and set down on a stage as an actor in a huge drama of cosmic proportions – actually in it, and of it. More than ever, even as a poet, I find myself noticing light and dark, sound and silence as if they were persons, not just abstract terms, and also I keep feeling a need to re-define and re-connect these enormous ideas to one another by way of smaller things, just in case a more hopeful picture of the future will show itself.
All of 2020 and into 2021 has been at the very least a painful reminder of our relationship to sound and light. For awhile, “light” no longer seemed bearable in its old form. Here is Macbeth expressing fear of daylight:
And so, we did – scarf up. And close ourselves off from one another to the point of highest anguish and fury. We did not go gently into this night. We obeyed and disobeyed, like Adam and Eve who long ago were accused of a sin called “disobedience,” when they didn't even know what the word meant.
But surely we should have known more. Like Riddley Walker in Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic novel, we found a sudden desperate need to understand “nite” more fully again, in the way of our less “civilized” ancestors from the stone age:
Listening back to the wisdom of the stones, when humans carefully arranged them into geometric patterns that we intuitively felt as a way to connect ourselves to and mimic the larger cosmos. We were matter-of-factly taking on our assigned role to help keep the whole universe active and alive.
Here is James Richardson, from his 63-part poem The Encyclopedia of the Stones: #21
And from #6: