Cognitive processes are essential to human life. They let us grow up, make a living, avoid head-on collisions on the highway, balance our checkbooks, write computer software, design buildings, manufacture airplanes, manipulate genes, blow each other up: survive. But the essential quality of a human being extends through dimensions of creation far beyond the “real” world we deal with through cognition. Christ knew it. Moses knew it. Mohammed knew it. The avatars that appeared over the centuries to Buddhists knew it. Shakespeare knew it. Deep down we all know it.
Most of us call the dimension of human existence that lies outside the intersection of cognition the soul. I also sometimes call it the “seer” because it seems to me that behind the apparatus of human cognition — the brain and the mind that processes what we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and perceive as the passage of time — lies a still point to which the results of these processes are delivered. It is not brain nor is it mind. Hindus call it something that seems to translate best as “self,” but unless you qualify it heavily “self” in ordinary English usage is too easily confused with “selfish.”
Nowadays the body is easily nourished. Food is plentiful and shelter is abundant. And the playthings of cognition are easy to come by. You can have computers, monster television sets, imposing houses, cellular phones, BMW’s, and bright red ribbons to hold your sunglasses on your neck. All you need is money. But the soul isn’t so easily nourished. Wealth can make life easier but it can’t make it more meaningful, and happiness based on the things you can buy isn’t very durable. Durable happiness depends on a healthy soul, and in general, cognition’s playthings simply aren’t capable of nourishing the soul.
I believe that poetry along with art in general is capable of nourishing the soul. But before I can make much headway with that statement I need to specify what poetry is. Poetry and Experience, by Archibald MacLeish contains the most convincing explanation I’ve ever read. The author starts out:
A lion hunt begins with the hypothesis of a lion — a roar in the night — a boy gone or a bullock — an enormous spoor in the path where the women walk — a fumet out beyond the thornbushes speculatively examined by the old men.
So with the pursuit of poetry. One begins by assuming that there is something called poetry to be found.
But whereas one knows in advance what a lion will look like when one catches up with him, the whole purpose of the pursuit of poetry is to discover, by running it down, what a poem is.
The principal difficulty of the undertaking stands therefore at the outset. The pursuit of poetry must begin more or less where it hopes to end — with a report of the quarry. And the danger is precisely there. For if you start with the wrong report you will end up with the wrong phoenix or the wrong unicorn — or whatever the fabulous creature turns out to be.
MacLeish sets off on the hunt by discussing words as sounds. He quotes Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” with which you’re familiar and says:
I think we can probably agree that this poem is a trap and cage in which a heaven and earth we recognize is somehow caught. A boy’s agony, face to face with the humility and submission of a dying father, is held here in such a way that we not only know the pain but know something we had not known before about that mysterious turning away which is the cause of pain. But can we go further still? Can we say how this knowing is given to us?
We can take, I think, at least one step. We can agree that whatever it is we know in this poem, we know only in the poem. It is not a knowledge we can extract from the poem like a meat from a nut and carry off. It is something the poem means — something that is gone when the poem goes and recovered only by returning to the poem’s words. And not only by returning to the poem’s words but by returning to them within the poem. If we alter them, if we change their order, though leaving their sense much as it is, if we speak them so that their movement changes, their meaning changes also.
Which is to say, in the most literal sense, that the meaning conveyed by the poem is not something you can “put your finger on.” The part of the poem you can deal with through ordinary cognition — by sorting it out in your mind in order to make sense of it — is trivial, and as a statement of fact the poem is gibberish. Words do not “fork lightning.” Frail deeds" do not “dance in a green bay.” You cannot “catch and sing the sun in flight.” You cannot “grieve it on its way.” Eyes, blind or otherwise, cannot “blaze like meteors.”
People often want poetry to “mean” something that they can carry away with them as knowledge. But, as MacLeish says, what we know we know only in the poem.
But what is it that we know? I don’t think we know “A boy’s agony, face to face with the humility and submission of a dying father.” We know that only if we know something about Thomas’s life, and in my estimation, a poem — like any work of art — has to stand on its own two feet. Since the poem includes nothing about Thomas’s life or his relationship with his father, it can’t really tell us these things. But the poem does, very clearly, tell us about agony and “that mysterious turning away which is the cause of pain.”
How can the poem tell us these things? MacLeish explores a notion exposited by Stéphane Mallarmé that a poem conveys its meaning entirely through sound. But after examining the idea at length MacLeish counters finally: “If you want the sound of lurk instead of the sound of lark in your sonnet you can write it down, but your bird will disappear.” Though words have sound, they also have meaning, and you can’t have the sounds without the meanings.
MacLeish next takes up the idea that poetry conveys its effect entirely with words as signs, and quotes George Moore’s proposal to make an anthology of “pure poetry, unsicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
In (Moore’s) anthology the words of the poem were to be allowed to “mean” but only within limits — only if they meant “things” seen in “innocency of vision” — “things” seen as themselves without the intrusion of the poet’s thought about them.
But again all the tests of Moore’s theory fail and we’re forced to conclude that although the “things” that words mean have an effect, they can’t by themselves account for what a poem does. And: “George Moore was no poet. . . It is a prose writer’s mistake to suppose that a man writes poems in order to express thoughts and that the ‘things’ he notices are noticed for the thought’s sake.”
MacLeish goes on to explore the place of imagery in poetry. He begins with this example: a poem by Tu Fu, greatest of China’s T’ang poets. In a translation by Robert Payne the poem goes:
The good rain knows when to fall,
Coming in this spring to help the seeds,
Choosing to fall by night with a friendly wind,
Silently moistening the whole earth.
Over this silent wilderness the clouds are dark.
The only light shines from a river boat.
Tomorrow morning everything will be red and wet
And all Chengtu will be covered with blossoming flowers.
MacLeish singled out the sixth line of this poem, of which he says: “In English. . . this line conveys nothing sharply visible or sensible. One registers the fact that the night is dark except for a light of some unspecified kind on a boat out in the river.” He then asked professor J.R. Hightower to translate the line literally for him. The Chinese ideographs, “. . . without connectives, enclitics, tools of syntax, directives for understanding. . .” translated literally as:
RIVER ... BOAT ... FIRE ... ALONE ... BRIGHT
. . . at once and inescapably one begins to see. Under those dark clouds in this black and silent wilderness there is a river, and on the river a boat and on the boat fire — such a cook fire probably as you see on the decks of river craft and small fishing vessels throughout the East. Moreover, besides this spark out there on the river there is nothing else that shines, nothing else that is bright. This fire is alone. . . one sees, one hears, one almost catches the scent of that rain-wet earth which will be red and white — that earth of Chengtu which, tomorrow morning, will be covered with flowers.
MacLeish explores some other examples of imagery in Chinese poetry and then sets down this old English song:
O westron wind when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Here the two little scenes of wind and weather and love and bed are left side by side to mean if they can. And they do mean. The poem is not a poem about the one or the other. It is not a poem about weather. And neither is it a poem about making love. The emotion it holds is held between these two statements in the place where love and time cross each other. Here, as in those old Chinese poems, the emotion, somehow contained in the poem, is an emotion which words cannot come at directly — which no words as words can describe. How can you “describe” in words the poignancy of the recognition of the obstacle of time — its recognition not on the clock face or among the stars but on the nerves of the body and in the blood itself? But if you cannot “describe” it in words how then can words contain it? Well, how do they contain it here? By not speaking of it. By not speaking of it at all. By speaking of something else, something off at the one side and the other as the man at the helm of a ship looks off and above to starboard and larboard to see the channel marker before him in the dark. By speaking of two things which, like parentheses, can include between them what neither of them says. (emphasis added) By leaving a space between one sensed image and another where what cannot be said can be — this sensuous, this bodily knowledge of the defeat of love by time — this When? When? Ah when? — When will the wind go west and the spring rain come to bring her back to me and me to her?
In other words, the poem’s force is carried in the interstices between the images. This is the clearest statement I’ve yet seen about how a poem does what it does. Sound is important, the “sign” value of words is important, and as MacLeish points out in a later chapter metaphor is important; but it is what’s carried in the interstices between images that makes the poem mean!
In chapter four he comes back again to “O Westron Wind:”
But... is it only emotion which the coupled images in a poem capture? ...There is the west wind, the spring wind, and its small rain. There is a bed and a girl. And there is emotion certainly there between them, and ache of longing. But is that all? Or is there also, and on beyond, a recognition of something known, something known before and now, in the space between the bed and the west wind, realized? Are the bed and the girl and the wind and the rain in some way caught up together, not in the mind, which cannot understand these irrelevancies, but in the emotion which can? ...Has this hollow between the wind and the rain on the one side and the bed and the girl on the other filled, not with emotion only, but with something emotion knows — something more immediate than knowledge, something tangible and felt, something as tangible as experience itself, felt as immediately as experience? Is it human experience itself, in its livingness as experience, these coupled images and the emotion they evoke, have captured? And was it this that Wordsworth meant when he spoke of truth “carried alive into the heart by passion”?
In the final chapters MacLeish takes the reader on a guided tour of the poems of Emily Dickenson, W.B. Yeats, Arthur Rimbaud, and John Keats to illustrate what the earlier chapters have taught. But to my mind the question of how a poem conveys what it conveys has been answered as well as it ever will be answered in his examination of “O Westron Wind.”
To deal with this question cleanly one has to make a distinction between poetry and verse. Not everything that has meter or rhymes is poetry. Apparently the use of meter and rhyme got their start as an aid to memorization — long before writing was invented — and I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a lot easier to memorize Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” than it is to memorize T.S. Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and not just because the Wordsworth is shorter.
But, though Eddie Guest’s “It Takes a Heap O’ Livin’ to Make a House a Home” has meter and rhyme, it doesn’t speak to my soul. Nor does Richard Armour’s ditty:
Shake and shake
the ketchup bottle.
None will come
and then a lot’ll.
The first example is doggerel, the second light verse. I think the question we want to discuss is: why don’t people read poetry, as opposed to why don’t people read things that have meter and rhyme.
Here, I think, are some of the reasons. I suspect our discussion will turn up even more:
Poetry is made effective by sounds, signs, imagery, and metaphor. If you don’t know how words are supposed to sound; if you don’t understand what words mean; if your background won’t reflect imagery; and if you haven’t been taught to make metaphorical connections, poetry isn’t going to have much effect on you.
Many years ago, near the time the discussion group started, I wrote a paper on this subject. I made reference to it in a footnote in the last (un-discussed) paper I wrote for our group but I couldn’t find the text. In January, cleaning out old records I ran across a copy and I’ve attached it to this paper. A few of you read it long ago. A few of you have never seen it.
If you’re taught that the only real things in creation are the things you can deal with through science and cognition you’re liable either to ignore or to be frightened by a poem that speaks to your soul.
Nowadays you hear a lot about the degradation of visual art in “works” like “Piss Christ.” Poetry is being torn apart by the same kind of vandalism and I’ll bring some examples to our discussion. But one of the marvelous things about art is how time filters it. Little more than a hundred years ago the French establishment was ridiculing the impressionists while subsidizing artists only art historians still remember. Happily this kind of filtering leaves us over time with the best of poetry; but there’s a catch:
T.S. Eliot pointed out in “Four Quartets” that: “. . . Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still. . .”
And of course words don’t stay still. Consider this poem from the thirteenth century, set down in The Norton Anthology of Poetry
Nou goth sonne under wode—
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre—
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and the.
Now goes the sun under the wood—
I pity, Mary, thy fair face.
Now goes the sun under the tree—
I pity, Mary, thy son and thee.
The problem isn’t just with the denotations of words. The milieu in which the words mean changes and the words’ connotations change along with it. When this poem was written wood and tree not only had their modern meanings but also meant the cross.
This is an extreme example, but the loss of imagery is a matter of degree. Are the images in Emily Dickenson’s poems of a hundred years ago still as bright as they were in her day? Even closer to our own time, here are the final lines of the first of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”:
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
Most of us have seen cab-horses plodding around a park, perhaps even ridden in a horse-drawn cab, and we’ve seen movies in which streets were lighted with gas lamps, but are the images we get from these things really the same images that were common to people who lived their lives with cab-horses and gas lamps?
This seems to me the most serious problem. It’s so easy to turn on the tube. It’s so easily accessible that it tends to crowd out every other spare-time activity. The effect is a sort of Gresham’s law of entertainment. I suspect we’ll have gotten into this question during our discussion of the White Trash Nation so I’ll leave it alone for now.
But history seems to say that when a civilization reaches a point where it easily can feed and shelter and clothe its people, poetry gets pushed aside in favor of bread and circuses and the civilization begins to die. The Roman empire is the classic example. It’s been a long time since I read Gibbon and not much of it remains in my mind, but I’m sure Rome had its Oprahs and Geraldos, and watching the lions eat the Christians clearly was their substitute for television.
All is not lost!
The first stanza of Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” ends with this extraordinary line: “Though lovers be lost love shall not.” And I suspect the same will be true of poetry. The urge to express oneself is a powerful thing. Some of us do it with poetry, some with painting, some with sculpture, some with pottery, some with music. What MacLeish in “Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments” called “The iron of English (that) rings from a tongue” isn’t going to go away. Even when visual telephones are common, people aren’t going to communicate exclusively with body language.
And even though time erodes language, time can’t erode the things that poetry transmits to us in the interstices between the images. New language and new images constantly are being found to transmit that same always-important nourishment for the soul. I think that:
Though poets be lost poems shall not
And death shall have no dominion!
February 13, 1995