A BRIEF POETICS
"Without contraries is no progression," wrote Blake, an idea I heartily subscribe to. You have made me rethink a lot of issues, and I hope I've done the same for you. It is reported that W.B. Yeats "had at least two views on every issue," saving most of his poems from mere propaganda. The poem is a unique form of discourse, always subverting the accepted view of things, always proposing new and unique perceptions and visions, based on desires, hopes. For Whitman, the self and the culture must be large enough to not only contain but to embrace differences, fragmentation, even contradiction. A republic that banned anyone or anything would be the central evil a society must overcome. He writes in "Song Of Myself"--
Do I contradict myself?
very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
This is not a vision based on any sort of purity, but on inclusiveness. His is a poem where the poet takes on every imaginable role, from that of the common laborer to the executive, from the victim to the criminal. "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there," he says.
Somebody asked me on Slovenia radio what my poetics were and I answered with the following anecdotes. Asked if he were going to walk the picket line at a demonstartion against the war, Dylan said he was trying instead to organize " a group of protesters...perhaps carrying cards with pictures of the jack of Diamonds on them and the Ace of Spades...pictures of mules, maybe words...[like] camera, microphone, loose, names of famous people...printed up and just picket...in front of the post office." I also said that I liked poems that worked like little operas--the way opera cross cuts and you can hear several voices at once-- what should be dissonance but actually comes together---Or the way, say, in Duke Elleington in "Mood Indigo' originally called "Dreamy Blues"-- the melody was started by a trio (muted trumpet, muted trombone, clarinet), but Ellington reveresed the traditional roles for Trombone and Clarinet so that the trombone played the high part and the clarinet the low part-- it created what Ellington calkled variously "a tone that's not there" and "an illusion of tone"--oddly they seemed to understand-- I've used these anecdotes before and not many understood.
As I write you I am listening in the background to Charivari (pronounced shah-ree-va-ree) a Cajun group. They are a Cajun group from Louisiana speak a combination of French with a strange accent, Creole (African American + Cree Indian), English and a few Spanish words. I have a translation that helps, but it is very hard to follow-- they skip a lot of words in the text. On the other hand the music and general theme almost lets you know what is happening-- and it is very upbeat and moving, even when the song is sad. That too is a metaphor for my poetics. The word Charivari itself refers to any group of revelers who show up at your house and start a party, taking complete control so that the householder just rides the wave of music, very lively dance music, and they stay all night. The house owner has no control and just goes along with the music and tone-- and that is also a metaphor for my poetics.
Whatever our poetics, we have to believe in what we are doing. Sometimes we can even assure ourselves like Ovid did from exile: In V.12 of the Tristia, despite a Rome that seems to have abandoned him, he says:
Still there are times
when I read what I've just written and have to admit to myself
that I've caught a piece of the truth, awkward perhaps,
even ugly but still, for all its deficiencies, honest
and maybe worth keeping.
Ovid had it right. The poet celebrates the world, so that even a bleak world that seems not to need him is transformed. He gives the world a new language by which it can understand his vision. My first mentor, William Meredith, once wrote: "Only if each language is capable of the accuracy of poetry can we hope to exchange the ideas we value most, those shy and complex needs we call brotherhood, sisterhood and love."
I think that's what I am trying to get at in this poem:
YOU CAN'T GET THE FACTS
UNTIL YOU GET THE FICTION
The fact is that the Death I put on in the morning is
the same Love I take off each night. The fact is
that my life slips out the back door just as I arrive.
Just now, just as I tell you this, while I am looking
for a little dignity under the open wound of the sky,
I am putting down the story of the two lovers killed
on a bridge outside Mostar. And the fact is love is
as extinct as those animals painted on cave walls
in Spain. The fact is, there is not a place on earth
that needs us. All our immortal themes are sitting
on the porch with woolen blankets over their knees.
But who wants to believe this? Instead, I am looking
for the right words as if they were hidden under
my doormat like keys. I would like to be able to report
that the 9 year old Rwandan girl did not hide under
her dead mother for hours. There are so many things
too horrible to say. And I would like to tell you
the eyes of the soldiers are sad, that despite all
this madness I can still kiss your soul, and yes,
you might say I was angry if it were not for the plain fact,
the indisputable fact, that I am filled with so much love,
so much irrational, foolish love, that I will not take
the pills or step off the bridge because of the single
fact of what you are about to say, some small act
of kindness from our wars, some simple gesture that fools me
into thinking we can still fall, in times like this, in love.
At the end of Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes how, waiting to depart for America, he could see, among the roofs of the city, behind a clothesline, the huge smokestack of the ship that would take him across the seas, "as something in a scrambled picture--Find What The Sailor has Hidden-- that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen." I think, for my part, that poetry provides this new vision we cannot unsee; it is the boat, ready to transport us anywhere, to make new discoveries, and the boat includes the whole picture it is linked to, not just an isolated object. Heidegger describes how each object in a poem contains a certain resonance when it works well, and how that resonance depends on whether the poem is able to relate the object to the presences and absences around it, that is, to discover each object's history, materiality, its place in human history and its place in the cosmos. It is perhaps an impossible task but the very possibility of that discovery provides a resonance of its own, a sense of something always larger that is at stake. The history of a poem is the history of the poet's thinking about it, from its vague beginnings to its final discovered form.
How exactly these discoveries occur has vexed poets and critics for all time. For a poet like Shelley, at least in his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," there is no real history of a poem since it arrives in a flash of inspiration, as in Plato's Ion. On the other hand, for a poet like Frost, or Horace, poetry is more perspiration than inspiration, and so, in a sense, the poem contains a history of itself. For others, the whole process is mysterious. In "The Connoisseur of Chaos," Wallace Stevens describes how, for a poem, suddenly
A small relation expanding like the shade
Of a cloud on sand, a shape on the side of the hill.
Relation -- metaphor-- means "transport," as Longinus wrote centuries ago: it takes us someplace other than where we are. Any poem is in a sense about the possibility of poetry-- or the possibility of language, since language, in poetry, is vision, discovery. As William Gass has written in his essay, Finding a Form"-- "Language, unlike any other medium... is the very instrument and organ of the mind. It is not the representation of thought, as Plato believed, and hence only an inadequate copy; but it is thought itself." How, then, did the language of this poem become the thought it is? The history of the poem, if we can call it that, has been a history to find a shape for its language for much of the content was there in the words of earlier versions, or implied by them. The only guiding principle in this whole process until the ode form was stumbled across was to cut away the unproductive, non-resonating details. I had been writing longer poems with a number of intersecting images, metaphors and scenes-- a sort of operatic arrangement with perspectives competing for stage time like understudies.
The poem raises, for a moment, the idea of political poetry. If it is going to remain realistic it should reflect the complexity of the speaker, and not reveal a speaker as a mouthpiece for one side or another. Too often political poetry does this. But here are two rules for the speakers of such poems: first, we should have a sense that the speaker would gladly give up the poem to change the situation (that he or she does not luxuriate in other people's pain), and second, that there is a sense that, given a twist of fate, any one of us has the capability of being a monster. This applies to any poetry that classifies itself by theme-- abuse poems, feminist protest poems, racial or ethnic protestations. this is not to say that the poem shouldn't offer judgments, only that the speaker shouldn't pretend to be God in doing so.
Language is thought, as William Gass said, and therefore also perplexed emotions we should add, -- and so is poetry. If the emotions of poetry are complex, even contradictory, they are held together by form in an order we can make sense of and thus deal with. I often recall this quote from Pliny the Younger: "Literature is both my joy and my comfort: it can add to every happiness and there is no sorrow it cannot console. So worried as I am by my wife's illness, and the sickness of my household and death of some of my servants, I have taken refuge in my work, the only distraction I have in my misery. It may make me more conscious of my troubles, but it helps me to bear them with patience."
Why Poetry Today?
P.E.N. Writers Conference, Lake Bled, Slovenia, 2000
"And what are poets for in a difficult time?" asks Holderlin. And in our own age, Czelaw Milosz seems to echo the question: "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?" And, we might ask today, what sort of poetry can do this and not participate in its own self-made imperialism? What sort of poetry can do this and not attempt to establish itself from an falcon's perspective, from a distant and austere Parnassus, looking down upon the very people it should serve? These are questions as important for readers as they are for writers. Here is the great Slovene poet, Edvard Kocbek:
If all the seven hundred million Chinese,
each weighing fifty kilos, say,
were simultaneously to jump
from a height of 2 meters
onto the land of their foe,
it would make for an earthquake of magnitude Four.
And if the Chinese were then to repeat this leap
every fifty-four minutes,
when the waves of the earthquake returned from around the world,
they would raise the tremor to such a pitch
it would raze the land of their foe.
All this would be true to the style of Mao Zedong.
Their enemies could stifle the quake
only by catching precisely the interfering waves
with counterleaps of their own.
The unknown is only the size of the population.
We, Slovenians, for instance, would need to jump
from such a height
that we would all be killed.
That is why we have to sign up with our neighbors.
There is a lot to be learned from this, but most important is the sense of self irony. Perhaps most obvious is that to speak the last line one must have the confidence, self assurance, and independence-- as a poet and as a people-- to be able to speak this irony. In terms of the numbers set up by the poem's images it is true; in terms of the spirit portrayed in the poem, the savage wit, it is false. Here is a poem of great power, a political poem for our difficult times, and yet it has a large enough vision to be able poke a little fun at itself, to give us a sense of irony and perspective -- to suggest a way of embracing other cultures, not just of fighting them. yes, on the surface it suggests "signing up" as a mode of losing national identity, but surely the tone I have suggested, and the satire against others earlier in the poem, suggets "signing up" as also a way of committing onself and ones culture, freely, to the concerns of all cultures for freedom and integrity.
When poetry goes bad it is usually because it becomes so ideological and rigid, so lacking in the kind of essential irony, self questioning, self evaluation, that I have suggested is part of Kocbek's vision: bad excludes rather than embraces us. It becomes dehumanized as the revolutionary forces given in language become institutionalized and static, as they begin to participate in the given power structure. It is reported that W.B. Yeats "had at least two views on every issue," saving most of his poems from mere propaganda. The poem is a unique form of discourse, always subverting the accepted view of things, always proposing new and unique perceptions and visions, based on desires, hopes. A poem is, to borrow from Longinus, a transport, a metaphor that takes us to another realm, another world, with different values, visions, rules. To be able to take a reader to this other realm, or to see the "real" world differently, if only slightly askew, threatens the established order-- as leaders of totalitarian states well know, and as the leaders of the debased consumerist cultures of the west equally know. Of course, this was something Plato understood when he banned the poets from his republic, --because their individual metaphors and perceptions run counter to the absolutist laws written by the state. Plato knew what we are often unable to admit: all poetry is inherently political. It gives us categories for thinking, sensing, feeling that the state has not authorized.
This is why, for instance, Czeslaw Milosz writes: "whoever wields power is also able to control language and not only with the prohibitions of censorship but also by changing the meaning of words. A peculiar phenomenon makes its appearance: the language of a captive community acquires certain durable habits; whole zones of reality cease to exist simply because they have no name...Only if we assume that a poet constantly strives to liberate himself from borrowed styles in search of reality is he dangerous." It is not just subject matter, then, but the very nature of poetry that is the issue here. Robert Hass, the American poet, writes: "Because rhythm has direct access to the unconscious, because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is power. And power is political. That is why rhythm is always revolutionary ground. It is always the place where the organic rises to abolish the mechanical and where energy announces the abolition of tradition. New rhythms are new perceptions." And here is Stanislaw Baranczak, the Polish poet: "regardless of theme and specific address, poetry is always some kind of protest....That's why all the metaphors and rhythms-- it's just a way of putting the world's chaotic gibberish in some meaningful order and restoring the original weight to abused words. That's why all the concreteness and conciseness-- to resist the engulfing power of the world's empty abstractions and statistical generalities. That's why all the speaking in first person singular and seeing things from a strictly individual perspective -- it's poetry's way of standing up to the world whenever it tries to elbow the individual aside and of the stage." And so, as Joseph Brodsky, the 1987 Nobel Prize winning poet, has written: "With a poet, one's ethical posture, indeed one's very temperament, is determined by one's aesthetics."
The problem for the poet, then, becomes an ethical one. The poem itself must question its own procedures and perspectives-- perhaps by shifting stylistic gears, asking questions, suggesting alternatives, changing tone or course in the middle, keeping an ironic tone, understating or overstating for effect. The technique of the poem ought to call itself into question, ought to turn its own revolutionary spirit on its own vision so that it does not become static. This is especially true when the subject of a poem with political aspirations deals with others, with observations, with witnessing. We must be aware of what Foucault calls "the indignity of speaking for others," for we risk the indignation of excluding, as Kristeva described, those others, whether we side with them or oppose them. Milan Kundera, the exiled Czech novelist, in an essay in the NYTBR characterizes the modern writer in Don Quixote's gesture, noble or foolish (the ambiguity being part of his definition), where he ventures out into the world to test his own paradigms for it. What he finds, suddenly, is what modern man finds -- a world that no longer fits his expectations, however learned, from religion, society, family, state, philosophy, science, etc. And worse, he finds a collective world actively or passively subverting his images and models for it. For Kundera, the contemporary writer and citizen is exiled; in order to assert his freedom and his will, he must question a world that tries to force its dogmatic answers on him. That questioning of everything, from external modes of authority to the very motives of the self, the poet him or herself, must be continuous.
Wallace Stevens in his poem, "Of Modern Poetry," says the poem must question everything it confronts to discover new values, however tentative: "It has to construct a new stage." At the same time it must fight a simple nostalgia for a simpler past: "It has not always had / To find: the scene was set; it repeated what / Was in the script.//Then the theatre was changed/ To something else. Its past was souvenir." The poet and the poem must always be at the frontiers of the heart and the imagination -- and at the frontiers of our societies. We might extend Stevens: all poetry, but more overtly, political poetry, is always written from the point of view of desire, of someone denied something-- an outsider-- yet must also be written within the tradition of poetry: the resulting double vision is itself something that can give this poetry its power, as witness poets such as Neruda and Vallejo, Dimitrova and Popa, Kosovel and Holub. As an outsider trying not to be exclusionary him or herself, the poet tries to discover and create a world -- with all the political inferences in that statement-- that includes and embraces us. It is a form of history making. That is why the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz said: "The language that nourishes the poem is, after all, nothing but history, name of this or that, reference and meaning....Without history -- without men, who are the origin, the substance and the end of history -- the poem could not be born or incarnated, and without the poem there could be no history either, because there would be no origin or beginning." Finally, on a metaphysical level, we might cite the modern philosopher Martin Heidegger who writes that poetry "founds the world," for "Only where there is languageis there world, ie. the perpetually altering circuit of decision and production, of action and responsibility, but also of commotion and arbitrariness, of decay and confusion." It is by trying to absorb this confusion in the form of honest self-questioning that the poet achieves an ethical stance that is indeed essential in our difficult times, a stance that will transcend the specific issues, that will speak to the truth of the human heart.
What Finally, can the poet's poem do? I am reminded of the lines by Kocbek from "In The Torched Village:"
I lean against the wall,
it is still hot
from the long fire,
there's no one around,
the fiend has fled,
the ground sinks away,
the universe falls apart,
the stars are dying.
All at once comes drifting in
the scent of violets,
I begin to listen to
the grass rises
awaiting new footsteps,
ash embraces ash
for a new hardness.
The brook splashes
into the stone trough,
the cat is coming back
to the charred doorstep,
I grow and I grow,
I am becoming a colossus,--
already I can see
over terror's shoulder.
The movement here enacts a reversal of positions and perspectives that is essential. The defeated man leaning against the charred wall at the beginning of the poem, dwarfed by the "universe" that is falling apart, and the dying "stars" becomes, by the end of the poem, the colossus for who these tragedies of war, personified by "terror," are themselves dwarfed by his encompassing vision. It is a vision, as the middle of the poem asserts, that comes not from huge political statements or poems, but tiny observations, the loving perspective of "gentle voices." Perhaps the turnabout comes most subtly in the sense that "ash embraces ash," the very images of desolation from earlier in the poem made here to enact a new beginning. What the poem does, what the writer can do, is suggest ways to transform our language of death into a language of life. As William Meredith said at the 1979 Struga Conference in Macedonia, words that today seem prophetic-- "Only if each language is capable of the accuracy of poetry can we hope to exchange the ideas we value most, those shy and complex needs we call brotherhood and love."
You can't stop the boxcars of despair.
You can't stop my voice from hiding out
like a virus inside your words, their knives
clamped between your teeth. You can't stop
the dogs gnawing on the bones from mass graves.
Thus your mirrors holding other faces. Thus your lungs
filled with someone else's words.
The eyelids of the heart closing. The sky drunk
on vapor trails. Otherwise, a few packages of conscience
to the refugees. You can't stop the sounds
of exploding stars as they approach you.
The anxious triggers. The land mines of idealism.
You can't stop Dismay from stumbling
out of the trenches of your dreams.
You can't stop these ghosts sitting around your table
gnawing on the past. Their candles burn down
to shimmering wounds in their cups.
Everyone holding their favorite flags like napkins.
The sound of bugles spilling from the room like laughter.
I know, you kill what you love just to hate yourself
all the more. You put on the cloak of distance.
A wind that blows away the weeks. The lovers' wilted embrace
that was your only, your last hope.
Everyone his own Judas. After a while
even the moon is just an excuse not to look too closely.
You can't stop the past boiling up in the heart like lava.
Otherwise, a history written by shadows.
For example, someone says the universe is expanding,
more anxious optimism, but where would it expand into?
There's only the vacuum that's always inside us.
There's Stephen Hawking saying the past is pear shaped
but that doesn't feed anyone. You can't stop the brain
of the starving child turning into a peach pit,
not his body terrorizing itself for food,
not his face wrinkling like the orange you leave on your table,
his liver collapsing, the last few muscles snug
over his bones like the tight leather gloves of your debutante.
Otherwise your old lies yawning to wake in the corner.
You can't stop the pieces of the suicide bomber
from splattering all over the cafe walls.
You can't stop the walls the tanks crush from rising again.
Otherwise a few tired rivers, a few fugitive stars.
The seasons that ignore us. The cicadas giving up on us.
Hope's broken antennas. Love trying to slip out of the noose.
The betrayed lives we were meant to live.
You can't stop that town from turning its soul on a spit,
not the light chiseling away desire, the morning
wandering dazed through the underbrush of deception.
You can't stop these sails of tomorrow hanging limp
from their masts. All you have are these backwaters of touch,
this voice spinning like a broken compass,
this muzzle made from your own laws.
But you can't stop the bodies piling up.
You can't stop the deafening roar of the sky.
You can't stop the bullet you've aimed at your own head.