Poetry in the World
I usually have no idea what I will say before I begin to write. This is especially true with poems, and only slightly less so with lectures or essays. I write to find out what I have to say—not what I have to say about a given subject, but simply what I have to say. Not that I find a prescribed subject too limiting, it's just that to address a particular subject might cast me in the role of an expert, which is preposterous. And yet, as it happens, I am sometimes given not just a subject for the lecture I must deliver, but a title as well. I was for this evening's, and I welcomed it—it seemed grand, even uplifting. "Humanities and the Public Sphere." "Ah yes!" I thought, "a fitting topic." But after struggling around for a few days, trying to think of what I might say, and how I might say it, I decided to change the title. I wanted one that would fall in line—almost magically—with what I might say. After all, I no longer knew what the humanities were, even though the changes that have taken place in that area of study over the past half-century have been well documented and tirelessly speculated on; and I didn't really grasp the notion of "public sphere," which, though a phrase commonly used, struck me as excessively abstract. So I came up with the less weighty "Poetry in the World." Although using "world" in the title did make me think—to be poetic for a moment—that I had bitten off more than I could possibly chew.
Days went by. I wrote nothing. I began to think that I should come up with yet another title, but I knew that I'd be giving in to a weakness I had for reduction, that were I to let myself go, I might end up with a title like "A Couple of Words in Space" or "A Syllable in the Woods." In other words, the less inclusive the title, the less I would feel obligated to say anything. But I also knew that without the obligation to speak, I might remain silent. A silent lecture! The ultimate reduction! But, alas, beyond my ability to perform. I decided to stick with "Poetry in the World."
Anyway, I put the matter of the talk aside until just a few weeks ago. I ran into one of my students at the local supermarket. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was writing a lecture which I was to give at the University of California, Irvine, and it was called "Poetry in the World," but its original title was "Humanities and the Public Sphere."
"How is it going?" asked the student, whose name was Dick.
"Very well," I replied. I was lying. I had done nothing but write a few notes, and they were of dubious value.
"Like, what do you talk about?" he asked.
"Oh, the usual." And then as I looked over the Fritos, I told Dick, "You know, poetry, the stuff of poems, more specifically, the stuff of lyric poems. The kind of poems that manifest musical properties, but are intended to be read or spoken, not sung. They are by and large brief, rarely exceeding a page or two, and have about them a degree of emotional intensity that accounts for their having been written at all. At their best, they represent the shadowy, often ephemeral motions of thought and feeling, and do so in ways that are clear and comprehensible. They not only fix in language what is most elusive about our experience, they convince us of its importance, even its truth. Of all literary genres the lyric is least changeable. Its themes are rooted in the continuity of human subjectivity and from antiquity have assumed a connection between privacy and universality. If this were not true, there would be no point in reading poems from the past. They speak to us with the immediacy that time has not diminished and gauge our humanness as accurately and as passionately as any poem written today."
"Whoa!" said Dick. "That is succinct!"
"It is, sort of," said I. But I felt that I had somehow told a lie. Poetry never seemed, at least to me, so clear-cut. Not that what I said was wrongit was just too narrow. And besides, I had said it before, almost word for word. So it was, in every sense, a pat answer to what poetry is. I thanked Dick, who stood among the salsas and tortilla chips pondering what I had said, and I walked off, thinking I better get down to work. What I called "the usual" didn't count for the fact that poetry, though it attempts to locate humanness, with the ultimate aim, perhaps, of binding us together, does not seem central to our lives. Most people, in fact, have very little use for it. Why is that? It is not simply that the public feels comfortable ignoring it, but the reading public has little use of it either.
After my dinner of broccoli and a yam, I went to the video store to pick up Cocteau's Orphée, thinking it might inspire me. I wanted to re-experience that moment when Orpheus is asked by a tribunal of judges in the Underworld what a poet is, and he answers by saying that a poet is someone who writes but is not a writer. When I went to pay for the video, I heard someone call me. It was Dick. He was with his girlfriend, who wore huge black clodhoppers, black jeans, black jacket. Her hair was black as well.
"Professor, this is Jane. I was trying to tell her about the talk you're writing, but I couldn't remember what you said exactly."
Jane looked at me as though I were a curiosity and said, "Professor, I don't mean to press you, but what's the use of poetry? What good does it do?"
"Oh God," I thought, "do I have to go through this again?"
But Jane's question was a good one. I would certainly have to deal with it in my talk. I wasn't prepared to answer it right away. I'd have to give it lots of thought, but that didn't keep me from talking. "Of course," I said, "I can't be sure, but I tend to believe that there are in each of us those shimmerings of the soul that we associate with or even recognize as poetrythose responses that move us deeply and for which we seem to have no language. No adequate language for a death or birth or even the first signs of spring, the blankness of winter, the unreachable depths of night sky. Yet, we have an urge to speak or to write down what we've experienced. But we don't. Instead, we hold our breath or we sigh. The urge to respond in a way that would register our feeling and contain or memorialize the occasion that gave birth to it passes. And we are haunted by a silence in which something of ourselves should have been, some language that would reflect the degree of feeling which had been ours. Why is this so? Is it that our language skills are usually called on to perform tasks that do not require much effort? Is it that we fear whatever we write or say would fail to do justice to the occasion that moved us so deeply? I don't know. But it seems clear to me that our deferrals turn us into agents of self-neglect, unable or unwilling to say what our experience has been. We reach for the language most immediately accessibleconventional phrases or clichés. Nothing that would individualize our experience, particularize our responses. What we are apt to say only removes us from who we are and what we feel, assuming of course that one feels, actually feels, what lies beyond his or her language to represent."
I looked at Jane, whose brow was suddenly furrowed with concern. "Surely, Professor, the role of poetry is not just about helping us to remember what we felt at a particular time. This may happen to a poet as he's writing a poem, but certainly I don't read poems that way."
Jane was right. What I had told her and Dick was a fiction. I had invented inadequacy on the public's part and limitation on the poet's part. I knew very well that what I consider "doing justice" in characterizing an event or our feeling about it is in itself an act of betrayal, that feelings communicated by language are in fact made up to resemble what we imagine our feelings to have been, or ought to have been. Every poet knows that there has to be something in his writing that embodies feeling, something that goes beyond merely referring to it. The poem must make the reader or listener believe that he is inside an emotional moment, however protracted. The event that would be recalled takes on a secondary role as if it were merely what called forth the poem, simply the occasion for the release of feelings that had always dwelled in us.
Both Jane and Dick looked at me oddly. "Are you all right?" asked Dick.
I assured him that I was, although I knew that I wasn't, at least when it came to my talk. I didn't want to be objective. That would be out of character. I didn't want to sound like a critic. That, too, would be out of character. Because I am a poet, my stake in poetryits value, its survival, that nature of the truth it tellsis perhaps greater than it is for most readers. Because my own poems have been shaped by the poems I grew up with, I have loyalties which are not likely to change with the times. That is, I am not about to abandon Wallace Stevens just because in the minds of many people, especially in the academy, his poems are no longer relevant and, with few exceptions, don't deal with social issues. For most people, they reek of privilege and seem remote from the plight of ordinary people. And the language . . . well, the language sounds too much like language. These are narrow-minded views, and, I think, mistaken ones. In any case, this was something I knew I would not discuss in my talk. I certainly wasn't going to bring up my poetic loyalties. And probably would not say that it should be clear to everyone that a poet's value is not in how well he represents his time, but in how he moves beyond it. It would be foolish for a poet to attach his poems to the impermanence of a cause when what he wishes is that his poems transcend the political and social climate in which they were born. To have written something that history cannot account for or that his own time cannot take credit for is the poet's deepest wish. He writes over or across time to make a continuity of human feeling.
Later, while I was walking home, I wondered just what the expectations for poetry were on the part of the reading public. Do they expect poems to sound like newspaper prose? Do they wish they were easier to follow? Maybe the problem with poetry is that it draws us inward, contributing to a sense of selfhood, and what most people want is the opposite. They want to be entertained in ways that have nothing to do with difficulty or with complex feelings. They want to escape, to be carried along by language they are familiar withthe language of conventional truths, of common assertions. Because poetry is more than anything the individual language of a poet, people are impatient with it. I suppose many feel it doesn't tell them what they really want to know. But nobody should read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the everyday worldwhether it be the truth of gossip or of the media. Similarly, nobody should read poetry to find out more concrete information, how to get to Sacramento, say, or how to boil an egg.
When I opened the door of my apartment, my phone was ringing. It was Dick.
"Are you really okay, Professor?"
"Yes," I replied, although I began to wonder how much uncertainty my face had revealed. Had I seemed pathetically anxious about the talk? I wanted to change the focus, or rather the drift, of my thinking. I was beginning to worry more about what my students thought of me than I was about getting my talk written.
"I want you and Jane to know," I said in a voice suddenly infused with certainty, "that I did not mean to imply that people read poems to gauge the state of their emotional condition and to discover in any large or enduring way the meaning of life. In fact, the experience of reading a poem, or most poems, is quite the opposite. Oh, of course, there are poemsand many are being written todaythat present the reader with a slice of life and say things like 'I went to the store today, and saw a man, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew in a flash that we were . . . thieves. And weren't we all thieves? 'This is extracting from everyday experience a statement about life, a moral. Such poems say what they mean right away. And the poets who write that sort of poemwhat might be called the metonymic poemare usually talking about their own experiences. What happens when you read such poems is that they put you back in the world you know. (Although my example may seem bizarre, even surreal, most metonymic poems tell stories that are conventional.) When they are read in front of an audience they often elicit a lot of head-nodding. They make the world seem friendlier, more comfortable, because they almost always imply that here is someone else who had an experience like yours. But it is equally the case that the anecdotes these poems offer us, and what we believe is true, are in fact fictions. They represent a reduction of the real world. I must admit I am not a fan of such poems. There is so much in our own experience that we take for granted, we don't need to read poems that help us to take those things even more for granted. You know what I mean?"
"I think so," said Dick.
"You mean I wasn't clear?"
"Well, yes, you were, but . . ."
"Well, if we don't find the meaning of life in poems, what do we find in them?"
"I'm not sure I know," I said, "although I do know there's another kind of poetry from the kind I've described. Sometimes a poem just exists as something else in the universe that you haven't encountered before. It proposes another world through which we can read this world. And the world of such poems seems right or true in a context somewhat other than the one in which most of our judgments are made. These are not poems that seek to comfort us. But the pleasure they offer an experienced reader can be deep and long-lasting. They don't imitate reality or conventional views of reality. They are an alternative to the predictable, which may be why they don't offer much comfort. And a reason why the pleasure they offer is often accompanied by difficulties that threaten to eradicate pleasure. The things of this world are rearranged, recontextualized so that they can be experienced instead of merely taken for granted. And when we report back to our own daily world, after experiencing the strangeness of the world reordered by the poet, it will look different, fresher, and have the voice of the poet written all over it."
"Hmm," said the student, "how different can this other world be?"
"Yes," I said, "there is a problem. The other world I'm talking about is made of words. And somehow I keep overlooking that important fact. Call me tomorrow and maybe I'll have some idea of what I'm talking about."
My confidence was shaken. Here I was a poet, and I couldn't say what it was I did. The more I thought about my talk, the more perplexed and anxious I became. Also, if the truth be known, I didn't think I should be using a student as a sounding board and actually making myself dependent on him and his girlfriend. Word might get out. And I would look ridiculous.
The next day came and went and I was just as ignorant as I had been. Though I feared looking bad, I decided to call Dick anyway. "Got any ideas for my talk?" I said.
There was silence.
"I'm only kidding," I quickly added. "The other day when I mentioned the poet's voice being written over everything, I think I was getting closer to what poetry is and what it does. After all, the reason we will read a particular poet is to hear his voice. Wallace Stevens sounds like Stevens, Frost sounds like Frost, Hardy like Hardy, etc. Their world is in their voiceinseparable from it. Their language is so forceful, so identifiable that you read them not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience in the world, but simply because you want to saturate yourself with the singularity of their voices. The amazing thing is they use the same language we all use. It's public property, there for all of us. But we make little use of it on our own, deferring, usually, to standardsvery low onesset by the media. Well, enough of that. Not all of us can be great poets or even vigilant ones."
"How do they make the language their own?" asked Dick.
"I don't know. I wish I did. But there's a paradox in what I've just said. Most poets are prisoners of languagesometimes as much as the public is. What I mean is that as a poet develops, he shows a predisposition to use certain words, which create or suggest certain landscapes or interiors, or certain attitudes. Those, along with the cadences he favors, become his identity as a poet. It is very hard for him to change his identity in midstream, to accommodate a vocabulary that he may have rejected along the way. The chances are it will be dropped again in favor of the words he knows will work, because finallydespite the value we place on experimentation, the courage we feel it takesit is more of his own poems that he wants to write, more of his own poems, poems that seem like they were written by him. This can be a terrible limitation if you are a poet of few words. For years I kept using words like 'stone, 'glass,' 'dark.' I conjured up the same bleak landscape again and again. It got boringbut those were the words that validated a poem for me. I stopped writing poems for five years."
"No," said the student in mock disbelief.
"Yes. Absolutely," said I. "I couldn't stand what I was writing and didn't want to keep repeating myself."
"Wow!" said Dick.
The next day I was making myself a small meatloaf when my mind wandered back to the lecture. I still wasn't sure that I had anything to say. There was a great deal to say, of course, but something in me wanted to hear someone else say it. The more I thought about poetry, the more tenuous my grasp of it seemed to be. For instance, I knew that there was more to a poem than its language, but I couldn't put my finger on what that more might be. The subject of most poems tends to be lossthe loss of love, the loss of friends, the loss of life. They tend to be sad, death-haunted affairs, because if you think deeply at all about your experience, you think about your experience in time, your life, and you can't avoid the fact that it will end in death. Everything about a poemespecially its cadence and its meteris a reminder of time. In fact, a poem keeps time. But the amazing thing is that poems provide us with pleasure. The very words that bring loss to mind are also the source of pleasure. What we have in poems is loss without pain, loss of a different and harmless order, one that we control, that we can put aside or take up. A different actuality, different from the one which may harbor pain, is what allows a poem to be beautiful.
My impulse was to call Dick right away. The talk didn't seem as impossible as it once had. I opened a can of beer and was about to take a swig when the phone rang. I thought it might be Dick, but it was Jane.
"I've got another question, Professor."
"What is it?" I said.
"Well, you might not want to deal with this in your talk, but I've always wanted to know the difference between poetry and fiction. I know they're different, I've just never known what the difference is."
"Well," I said somewhat tentatively, "I think a poet's focus is not quite what a fiction writer's is, it's not so fixed on the world outside. It's fixed on that area where inside meets the outside, where the poet's sensibility meets the weather, meets the street, meets other people, meets what he reads. So a poet describes that point of contact, and inhabits it when he is writing—the edge of the self, the edge of the worldthat shadow-land between self and reality. Sometimes the focus is tipped slightly in favor of the self, sometimes, more objectively, in favor of the world. Sometimes, when the balance is tipped towards the self, strange things are said. After all, the farther you are from the world that everyone recognizes as the world, the odder it looks. Some novels do report on this liminal space, but most do not. They are focused on what's 'out there,' and the novelist erases himself to ensure the autonomy of the narrative. A poet would never erase himself. For it is his voice that is the poem. Does that make any sense?"
"Sort of," she said.
At which point I began to think I would go mad trying to make sense out of what I do. I told Jane that I was as dubious about what I had been saying as she was. I said to her, "Maybe I shouldn't try to make sense of what I do. When I write, I do not make myself understand what I'm saying. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't."
"Really?" said Jane.
And then I realized I might have said too much. "Well perhaps I'm exaggerating, but I do feel that people's expectations are misdirected when all they want is to understand a poem. It is one of the exasperating things about the way poetry is taught. It is assumed that an understanding of the poem is the same as the experience of the poem. Often the experience of a poema good poemwill elude understanding. Not totally, of course, but enough, enough to have us be close to what lies just out of reach. I think that for most poets in the writing of their poems there is a point when language takes over and they follow it. Suddenly, it just sounds right. In my caseand I don't like to bring myself up in this wayI trust the implication of what I am saying, even though I am not absolutely sure of what it is that I am saying. I'm just willing to let it be. Because if I were sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and I could verify and check it out and feel, 'yes, I've said what I intended,' I don't think that poem would be smarter than I am. At any rate, to get back to what I was saying a moment ago: it is 'beyondness,' or that depth that you reach in a poem that keeps you returning to it. I suppose you have to like being mystified. That which can't be explained away or easily understood in a poem, that place which is unreachable or mysterious, is where the poem becomes ours, finally becomes the possession of the reader. I mean, in the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, of trying to characterize the experience of it, the reader is absorbing the poem; even though there's an absence there or something that doesn't quite match up with his experience, it becomes more and more his. And what becomes his is, of course, generated by language, language designed to make him feel connected to something that he doesn't understand. He comes into possession of a mystery, and instead of being frightened by it, he feels that he has some control over it. But does he? Or is it simply that language has permitted him the illusion of control? My own experience suggests that language allows me the feeling that it can go only as far as my consciousness will take it, even though I know the opposite is true, that I go where language leads. And it leads me again and again to the sense that it is holding something back, that it contains more than I can possibly grasp, that mysteries exist, and are encountered most seductively in poems. I even feel at times that poems are the protective shell of the seductiveness of language. What am I talking about? Even the meaning of the phrase I've just uttered suddenly eludes me."
"You're hard on yourself," said Jane.
"No, no. I'm just joking," I said, knowing that I wasn't and that I was still not sure what I would say in my talk. "I have the feeling," I said, "that tomorrow something will happen. Lightning will strike, and I'll write my talk, or it will write itself." I was running out of time. In the past, another Mark Strand would come to the rescue and get the job done. But where was he now? Perhaps because he gets no credit for what he does, except privately from me, he decided not to show up, leaving me, the lazy, everyday Strand, to face the music alone.
"Professor are you there?" said Jane.
"Sort of," I said, "I think I'm going to have to rethink my talk yet again."
"I'm sure you'll get it done, Professor."
"We'll see," I said, "tune in tomorrow for the latest."
Tomorrow brought me nothing new, no new ideas. More days went by. No calls from Dick and Jane. I decided I needed some pot roast, some food that would relax me. I went to the supermarket and picked up a rump roast and, while I was there, a New York Times. I dashed home and quickly started to prepare the roast. I was so occupied that I almost didn't hear the phone ring. I ran over and picked it up.
"Hi, Professor, it's Dick and Jane. Jane is sitting next to me. Anyway, the reason you haven't heard from us is that we thought we'd stay out of your hair and give you time to finish your talk. So, how's it going?"
"Fine," I said, leafing through the New York Times, "I've almost begun." The pot roast, even though I was merely getting it ready, was working its magic, converting my anxious state into a sanguine one. "Yes, I plan to begin any time now." At that instant, I was starting an article about the new Chandra telescope, using X-rays to see into the hearts of galaxies. I had barely glanced at the first paragraph when I said to Dick that I wanted to read him something that would have a great deal to do with what I was about to write. I read him the following:
"That's terrific," said Dick.
"I'm not so sure," I said.
That night, after pot roast, potatoes, and a frisée and endive salad with mustard vinaigrette, I fell into a dreamy consideration of galaxies and how they are represented down here on planet Earth. I remembered what I had said to Jane about the mystery at the heart of poems, and how we can get close to it without understanding it, accept it and be thrilled by it without knowing what it is. Reading the New York Times article, I was struck by how it attempted to explain something whose force is essentially mysterious and frightening. Whenever I look into the night at the thousands of stars that can be seen with the naked eye, I am terrified. And when I think that there are billions more that I cannot see, I want to go indoors and never look up again. For me, outer space has always been a source of intense fear. It is a hugeness that is inconceivable. I stare at the night and cannot imagine that those pinholes exist light-years away, sometimes thousands and thousands of light-years away. The numbers are staggering. I cannot conceive of even one light-year. Oh, I can say "one light-year," but I can't experience it. There is a paradox in this. That is, I see what I cannot imagine, and what is true is not what I see. Clearly, my ignorance plays a role in my fear. My ignorance and my lack of language. Perhaps they are the same. I wonder what it is like for astronomers and mathematicians to look up into the night. Do they experience anything like what I do? Or do they have a languagethe language of their particular disciplinesthat allows them the comfortable illusion that they are on familiar terms with what is "out there"? Does the fact of their spending every day with representations (photographic and numerical) of the thousands of galaxies tend to domesticate the wilderness of space, make it, numerically at least, a conceivable reality? Or do they feel that their language removes them from actuality? I wish I knew. My own representationsif they were to existwould veer straight into the safety zone of banality. This reminds me of what I told Jane a couple of days agoor was it weeks?about how most of us keep silent in response to deep feeling because we don't have the language to do justice to it. Maybe there is more to what I said than I thought at the time? But my inadequacy in dealing with the magnitude of the heavens is not quite the same as John Doe's inability to memorialze a significant event. What we share, however, is our speechlessness before experiences that are incomprehensible. The first paragraph of the New York Times piece attempts to describe what is not visible to the naked eye, nor seen in previous closeups of the galaxies. We are told that electromagnetic waves are thousands of times more energetic than the ultraviolet light given off by lazy nebulas and placidly burning stars. This, it seems to me, is an attempt to bring the heavens down to earth, give it attitudes that we are familiar with. Yet I wonder in what way are the nebulas lazy and the stars placid. Are they that much like us? It is a comforting thought, an image that characterizes our galaxy-strewn cosmos as unthreatening. And then to draw an even greater distinction between the visible universe and its X-ray counterpart, we are told that the lazy one is a relaxing bridge match and the other is sky surfing from 30,000 feet. Such images, in an attempt to give us a sense of what is happening in space, succeed primarily in undermining its hugeness by using metaphors that tame and trivialize. Where is the truth factor if we are asked to imagine stars, nebulas, galaxies, as bridge games and sky surfing? Are we in space or back home? It may be asking too much to have journalism be as scrupulous about language as poetry, and to bring us close, as poetry does, to the mystery of what is. Journalism would have to do what it is not supposed to, which is to make up the truth. A poet wouldn't report on what he sees, he would present what he imagines. And the result might say more about the awesomeness of galaxies; and that the scale of their reality is far greater than what we in our sense-bound reality can conceive of, and that it forces us to consider the scale of our lives, our limitations, to a degree that can be traumatizing.
Thinking about the New York Times article made me sleepy, but also made me realize that I could not possibly discuss it in my lecture. It would lead nowhere. I didn't know what I would do. Most of what I could say, I've already said many times. I wanted to write something differentsomething at least that would sound different. Alas, my mind was blank. Maybe I could write about that! Just as I was getting ready to brush my teeth, the phone rang. I figured it would be Dick. I was afraid he'd ask me if I'd written about the New York Times piece. Still, I picked up the receiver.
"Oh, hi Professor, it's me, Dick. I was wondering if you'd written anything about that paragraph."
"Well, Dick," I said, "I thought about it, but decided not to."
"Oh, what a shame," said Dick. He sounded heartbroken.
"Actually, Dick," I said, "I don't think I'll be giving the talk. I'm convinced that the best thing I could do would be to end it now, before I begin."
Mark Strand's "Poetry in the World" was
originally presented as part of The Nichols Public Lectures on Humanities
in the Public Sphere at the School of Humanities, University of California,
Irvine, in January of 2000. It was published as a chapbook by the School
of Humanities, University of California, Irvine, in 2001.