AESTHETIC STATEMENT ONE: WORKING IN THE DARK: EARLY ENCOUNTERS WITH POETICS

Submitted for review in accordance with completion of the first year of the Creative Writing track at Gonzaga University.

I know that poetry is the antidote.  If we could agree that the object of living is to uncover “a way of experiencing the world in which we are living that will open to us the transcendent which informs it and at the same time informs ourselves within it” (Campbell, 45) –perhaps more simply put, to feel alive as much as we can— then poetry would be widely regarded as a crucial necessity.  Poetry provides a way of discovering and coming to know hidden depths of humanity that, without the guiding light of poetry, would be simply beyond our capacity.  In her essay Blood, Bread, and Poetry, Adrienne Rich describes her experience with poetry, “…poetry soon became more than music and images; it was also revelation, information, a kind of teaching […] I thought it could offer clues, intimations, keys to questions that already stalked me…” (Rich, 43).  I believe that poetry is a valuable light in a world imprisoned by social structures and ideologies; although one might not escape the confines of a culture in some ways, one can turn to art, to poetry, for hope, questions, and answers.  For me personally, poetry has provided a needed outlet from the anxieties I often feel in response to the social issues of American culture in particular.   Rich writes, “Every group that lives under the naming and image-making power of a dominant culture is at risk from mental fragmentation and needs an art that can resist it” (Rich, 49).  On a smaller scale, I think that poetry enables one to absorb images of compassion, beauty, and joy in a world that at times seems overwhelmed by sorrows alone.  Poetry allows one to turn their attention to these sustaining gifts of beauty that exist with the sorrows of the world.

I know that the poet is anonymous. Committing to poetry involves a “removal of identity and status” (Hirschfield, 19).  The moment one has surrendered their shell, rebirth can happen—leaving room for a truer existence.  The gap between external and internal is made smaller, and the loneliness of the writer provides the vessel for this moment.   In this way especially, one can be saved.  Without the limits or parameters of the “self” as externally defined, a new depth opens up for other people and emotions—other lives— to enter into the vessel of the body. Poetry is arguably a type of faith; one becomes filled with a grace from time to time—and through that experience, one can be brought to life.  Too many are dead in life—the pale events of their existence go on, one after the other, but there is no awakening.

Believers in poetry know when they have been “hit”, or awakened, by a poem—whether or not the poem has been written.  It could be sitting beneath the surface, waiting—but there is no denying those fleeting instances that bring us out of our bodies. John Steinbeck describes this moment,

“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes” (East of Eden).

It isn’t always clear exactly when these glories hit us, but writing enables one to realize what stayed, what stuck around long enough to matter—to evolve in meaning.

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With that glory, however, there is also a grave responsibility linked to the specific duty to accurately convey the “truth”.  Boris Pasternak writes,

“For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place” (75).

This goal can be described as both a privilege and burden for the poet—it involves uncovering the dark places where some of the best writing waits to be translated and delivered to the reader, which can be a painful territory to tread. It is a serious undertaking to find these places, to treat what hidden monsters or truths reside there with accuracy, and offer them to the world in the “truest” clothing possible—that is, in the most emotionally accurate way possible— so the reader might feel with the writer, as though side by side.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet who treats areas of great conflict and political turmoil with humbleness, hope, and even a rather indescribable sense of “quiet”.  Her work focusing on the violence in the Middle East is surprisingly uplifting in its focus on humanity and the abundance of beauty that lives among sorrow.  Nye finds the common threads of humanity that unite people when, too often, individuals strive to separate themselves from people who appear outwardly different from them or un-relatable in their situation. Her poem Blood successfully treats a “dark place” without losing the reader through distance or circumstance:

“I drive into the country to find sheep, cows, /to plead with the air: /Who calls anyone civilized?/ Where can the crying heart graze?/ What does a true Arab do now?”

Nye treats difficult subject matter with the aid of gentle images at times, and other times a simple dialogue or a careful description.  In this poem, she uses images to locate the reader in a place they can imagine and then asks a series of questions that are not foreign to any reader; they are questions for everyone, and she takes this route rather than preaching with authority.

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To me, honesty and accuracy of an object prove to be more dangerous and effective than the alteration of an object or moment through elevated language. In reading a work, I ask for the guts of the matter.  This is not to say that harsh or imperfect images cannot be treated through beautiful language.  It is simply better, in my opinion, to admit the event accurately (not to be confused with “factually”).  If describing road kill, do not pretend that the limbs of the creature are the limbs of a martyr, or that the spillage from the core of the animal is reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, unless it can be proven.  Tell me about the matted, wrecked fur of this lacerated dead thing as it is.

Robert Hass is a poet who has a profound ability for selecting the “right” images that, whether beautiful or haunting, are equally powerful in his work.  In his poem The Yellow Bicycle, Hass skillfully intertwines a narrative prose segment that includes what are, for me, memorable and “full” images:

“She was barefoot. Her face was covered/ with sores and dry peeling skin. The sores looked like raisins and her skin /was the dry yellow of a parchment lampshade ravaged by light and tossed away.”

Hass’ attention to highly specific detail rewards his images with a rich, textured quality.  Disturbing images suit this moment in the poem best, and Hass creates a feeling of unrest in the reader in his description of this woman.  This is an example of how an image is absorbed and recounted honestly in the sense that the emotions evoked from the image are intact; the image has not been “tampered with” through inaccurate language or undue alteration.

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The “poetry of the present”, as coined by D. H. Lawrence, can be described as “unfinished” in a sense. Lawrence discusses this area of poetics in his essay The Poetry of the Present:

“Do not ask for the qualities of the unfading timeless gems. Ask for the whiteness which is the seethe of mud, ask for that incipient putrescence which is the skies falling, ask for the never-pausing, never-ceasing life itself. There must be mutation, swifter than iridescence, haste, not rest, come-and-go, not fixity, inconclusiveness, immediacy, the quality of life itself, without dénouement or close. There must be the rapid momentaneous association of things which meet and pass on the forever incalculable journey of creation: everything left in its own rapid, fluid relationship with the rest of things.”

To me, it is undeniable: free verse best treats the present.  “It is obvious that the poetry of the instant present cannot have the same body or the same motion as the poetry of the before and after. It can never submit to the same conditions. It is never finished.” (Lawrence).  In treating the present, strict form causes me to feel further from my original intent.  External, strict forms can operate like a straightjacket when one’s goal is simply to instantly grab in your fist something that is “now.” This is a task; to hold the present despite its own built-in contradiction that the “present” is always in the past, and also always moving into the future—it is actually hardly real.  To grab this false moment in one’s fist then, and squeeze something out of it while it writhes to break free, is often a difficult task.  Lawrence explains, “The law must come new each time from within. The bird is on the wing in the winds, flexible to every breath, a living spark in the storm, its very flickering depending upon its supreme mutability and power of change… now, now, the bird is on the wing in the winds. ” (Lawrence). While the parameters of form can free the mind from the subject when utilized correctly, I believe free verse best suits “poetry of the present.” It is free verse that permits my mind and the more important elements outside of my mind to work together. “Free verse is, or should be direct utterance from the instant, whole man. It is the soul and the mind and body surging at once, nothing left out. They speak all together” (Lawrence).

Similar to the ways of free verse, organic form suggests that there is an inherent form for the subject and the poem at work.  In my opinion, to allow for form to come to a poem; in other words, to “receive” the form needed, is to let the subject at hand breathe and live accurately.  Denise Levertov describes the nature of organic form as “a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such poetry is exploratory” (Levertov).  I think it is especially important that Levertov describes this approach to poetry as “exploratory” because this suggests a style within free verse that, in my opinion, assumes less authority over a subject and instead remains open to changes within the subject matter, or in the least, an acceptance that one might not have the full picture; one might have only captured an element of the subject, and therefore it remains in dialogue and maintains an enigmatic element that invites further exploration and more “options” for the influence that the poem has over the reader.  Within the writing process, Levertov explains that the poet experiences a collage-effect of their own intellect linked with experience, images, sound and words.  Then, “In the same way, content and form are in a state of dynamic interaction; the understanding of whether an experience is a linear sequence or a constellation raying out from and into a central focus or axis, for instance, is discoverable only in the work, not before it” (Levertov).

For myself personally, the organic agency of a free-verse poem best suits experiences and ideas in poetry that require this space for unfinished “understanding.”  I do not know enough to claim to be an expert in any genre or on any human experience, and therefore it seems I should not be in the business of writing sentiments that appear “timeless” or “concise” by taking on a more strict form.  Of course, this is not where the benefits of free-verse poetry end, nor is it to say that great truths cannot be held in free-verse poetry.  But for myself, barely able to scratch the surface of poetics at this point in my life, I do not know that I could write anything but free-verse without feeling like a fraud—a child with undue authority. I consider the idea of a deliberately unfinished painting; the artist does not presume their own authority in capturing an image of “real life”—instead, the artist allows for the spaces between the beginning of the painting and its “end” to be considered by the viewer, and perhaps more so, not confined by a strict quality that implies a full understanding of a human tendency or aspect of natural life.  In poetry, I would rather engage the reader in conversation without projecting a sense of authority, especially at this point in my knowledge of poetics. Let it be clear, however, that Lawrence and Leverthov rightfully argue for free-verse as talented, professional poets—and the organic route of poetry is not reserved for or linked with the amateur, pretend-poet at all—despite my reliance on it.  Rather, free verse provides the intimated, personal form that blossoms seamlessly out of truth and meaning.

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Another area of poetics that I have come to feel strongly about is the use of gesture and speaking voice.  Recently, I have been intrigued primarily by the choices in gesture made by poets.  Unique gestures within poems draw me in as a reader and demand better attention, I believe. For example, when an imperative voice successfully interrupts a poem or disrupts an expectation in form or tone, the reader is pulled into dialogue with the content in a different way.  Speaking voice adds a dimension to the poem that, when done correctly, can personalize the reading experience.  Sam Green is a poet who I believe uses simple gestures to guide the reader to a deeper meaning within his more naturalistic images.  For example, in his poem Grubs, he interrupts what appears to be a fairly natural description of an image with the use of a speaking voice:

They have powerful jaws.
/Working in the dark, blind, in faith/
toward whatever they might become,
/they leave delicate etchings/ in the wood. I have to say /that I understand them”

Green uses a distinct voice that halts the process of showing the image and engages the reader in a type of conversation by directing more personal phrasing at the individual.  “I have to say” is a true turning point in this short poem, and when coupled with the line break directly following this phrase, the reader knows to slow down and consider the poem more, I believe.

Adrienne Rich utilizes the imperative voice in a way that I deeply envy; she is able to “get away with” much more than I ever could in her skillful application of this technique.  In her poem Final Notations, she exemplifies this approach:

“you are taking parts of us into places never planned /you are going far away with pieces of our lives /it will be short, it will take all your breath /it will not be simple, it will become your will”

Rich’s voice in this poem is unwavering; she is able to convey a great power in her words and meaning by using the imperative here.  Part of her success in technique for this particular poem could be that she maintains an imperative voice throughout the entire poem and does not allow for images that are too specific to rule the reader out of the situation.  The reader is “forced” into the imperative voice of the poem for the entire reading experience, and leaves the poem feeling affected by a truth that demands attention, a subject or idea that Rich makes relevant for the reader.

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            In regards to images, I can conclude for now that it is of utmost importance to select the “right” image for the emotional tone and meaning of the poem, and to treat every image, whether deemed beautiful or ugly, with emotional honesty in its usage so that the reader might find answers within the image as well.  At times I know that I have encountered an image to save and use in writing, but I am not equipped like other writers are with the skill and tools to speak justly of this image.  In waiting for greater understanding, I can turn to poets like Hass who see from the center with an eye that absorbs images just as they are and knows how they must be treated.  I believe fully that when a poet does true justice to a powerful image, the “beauty” or “ugliness” of the image is irrelevant; all perfect images are simply that: perfect.

My limited experience in the realm of form leads me to praise, perhaps too confidently, the glories of free verse— and to denigrate, perhaps obtusely, the boundaries of strict form.  For now, I find that free verse allows for the poet to receive the form, rather than create it for the purposes of the subject.  As an individual slightly overwhelmed by the emotional connections I am forming to my own surroundings (or maybe I’m simply self-absorbed) I find that free verse best parallels my current reactions to the world and my subsequent need for writing poetry; I am undone by simple acts or images, and cannot fully understand or translate into words what I am experiencing—therefore it seems only fitting to “explore” rather than “define” in my writing.  Free verse provides me with a weightless vessel for new meanings; it is like a fluid skeleton that grows out of its own words or a form that already knows what it wants.  Free verse tells me what to do while I wait for understanding.

Finally, in terms of voice, I can only follow the gestures and techniques of poets who know better than I.  These poets seem to have marinated in experience long enough to develop their voices into humble vessels of truth or demanding orators of injustice.  In my “inexperience” with poetry until recently, I find that my own voice can barely stand to be out in the light—it has dwelled on pages not seen by anyone, and has never needed to take on a quality of tone or gesture that successfully reaches people. Having my words read by more than one pair of eyes is foreign; I have not had to consider the reader previously when writing, so it is inevitable that my writing hardly knows how to speak to people let alone reach into their being and evoke genuine emotion. However, In reading the influential works of poets who sweat to tell perhaps just one truth lasting image to their readers, I am able to conclude that a well-crafted voice utilized at the right moment is a voice that the reader is drawn to; it is a voice that the reader accepts into dialogue, saying yes, I know this voice, I believe what it tells me— and it is why I love to let poetry take me apart.