The profound intimacy of lyric poetry makes it perilous because it gets so far under the skin, into the skin. “For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences,” Rilke wrote in a famous passage from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I am convinced the kind of experience—the kind of knowledge—one gets from poetry cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The spiritual life wants articulation—it wants embodiment in language. The physical life wants the spirit. I know this because I hear it in the words, because when I liberate the message in the bottle a physical—a spiritual—urgency pulses through the arranged text. It is as if the spirit grows in my hands. Or the words rise in the air. “Roots and wings,” the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez writes, “But let the wings take root and the roots fly.”
There are people who defend themselves against being “carried away” by poetry, thus depriving themselves of an essential aspect of the experience. But there are others who welcome the transport poetry provides. They welcome it repeatedly. They desire it so much they start to crave it daily, nightly, nearly abject in their desire, seeking it out the way hungry people seek food. It is spiritual sustenance to them. Bread and wine. A way of transformative thinking. A method of transfiguration. There are those who honor the reality of roots and wings in words, but also want the wings to take root, to grow into the earth, and the roots to take flight, to ascend. They need such falling and rising, such metaphoric thinking. They are so taken by the ecstatic experience—the overwhelming intensity—of reading poems they have to respond in kind. And these people become poets.
Emily Dickinson is one of my models of a poet who responded completely to what she read. Here is her compelling test of poetry:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way.
Dickinson recognizes true poetry by the extremity—the actual physical intensity—of her response to it. It’s striking that she doesn’t say she knows poetry because of any intrinsic qualities of poetry itself. Rather, she recognizes it by contact; she knows it by what it does to her, and she trusts her own response. Of course, only the strongest poetry could effect such a response. Her aesthetic is clear: always she wants to be surprised, to be stunned, by what one of her poems calls “Bolts of Melody.”
Dickinson had a voracious appetite for reading poetry. She read it with tremendous hunger and thirst—poetry was sustenance to her. Much has been made of her reclusion, but, as her biographer Richard Sewall suggests, “She saw herself as a poet in the company of the Poets—and, functioning as she did mostly on her own, read them (among other reasons) for company.” He also points to Dickinson’s various metaphors for the poets she read. She called them “the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul,” her “Kinsmen of the Shelf,” her “enthralling friends, the immortalities.” She spoke of the poet’s “venerable Hand” that warmed her own. Dickinson was a model of poetic responsiveness because she read with her whole being.
One of the books Emily Dickinson marked up, Ik Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor (1850), recommends that people read for “soul-culture.” I like that dated nineteenth-century phrase because it points to the depth that can be shared by the community of solitaries who read poetry. I, too, read for soul-culture—the culture of the soul. That’s why the intensity of engagement I have with certain poems, certain poets, is so extreme. Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity. I am shocked by what I see in the poem but also by what the poem finds in me. It activates my secret world, commands my inner life. I cannot get access to that inner life any other way than through the power of the words themselves. The words pressure me into a response, and the rhythm of the poem carries me to another plane of time, outside of time.
Rhythm can hypnotize and alliteration can be almost hypnotic. A few lines from Tennyson’s The Princess can still send me into a kind of trance:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmurings of innumerable bees.
And I can still get lost when Hart Crane links the motion of a boat with an address to his lover in part 2 of “Voyages”:
And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.
The words move ahead of the thought in poetry. The imagination loves reverie, the daydreaming capacity of the mind set in motion by words, by images.
As a reader, the hold of the poem over me can be almost embarrassing because it is so childlike, because I need it so much to give me access to my own interior realms. It plunges me into the depths (and poetry is the literature of depths) and gives a tremendous sense of another world growing within. (“There is another world and it is in this one,” Paul Éluard wrote.) I need the poem to enchant me, to shock me awake, to shift my waking consciousness and open the world to me, to open me up to the world—to the word—in a new way. I am pried open. The spiritual desire for poetry can be overwhelming, so much do I need it to experience and name my own perilous depths and vast spaces, my own well-being. And yet the work of art is beyond existential embarrassment. It is mute and plaintive in its calling out, its need for renewal. It needs a reader to possess it, to be possessed by it. Its very life depends upon it.