Emerson’s “The Poet”—A Circling
For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.
Thus Emerson, in “The Poet,” one hundred seventy years ago. An expression that makes vivid the great paradox, which is that one and the same sentence can greet us as if from another world, even as it speaks with the intimate breath of someone leaning in to tell us something we feel we already knew. Which—here, now—is the point. Not that there is a gulf of time between us and Emerson, but that there might be an inner level at which we are contemporaneous. That this level would have little to do with dates and fashions goes without saying.
I feel as reluctant to write about this as I am interested. For what is clear to me right off is that there is no going forward if the word “soul” cannot be used. I see no point in talking about poetry in any deeper way without that access. At the same time, I know that there is no faster way to get cashiered out as the worst sort of throwback than by saying “soul” with a straight face.
What does this mean? Why should there be such discomfort around a word—or, rather, a concept? It’s as if to use the word is to say at the same time that you are denying the age you live in, deliberately voiding history, as if the conception of soul cannot be squared with things as they are.
I should define the word, make clear how I mean it. To speak of soul is not, for me, to speak about religion; it is not to announce oneself as a church-goer, a born-again Christian, or anything of the kind. Soul, for me, is prior to religion. Religion recognized the idea and posited it as something that it could help save, but not as something that faith brought into being. Soul comes before. I think of it as the active inner part of the self, the part that is not shaped by contingencies, that stands free; the part of the “I” that recognizes the absurd fact of its being; that is not in any sense immortal, but that recognizes the concept of immortality and understands the desire it expresses; that is that desire.
Soul, considered in this way, is a quality that can be recognized in expressions of language, even though it cannot be explained or accounted for. That it can be recognized confirms that language can express it. Does rarely, but can. And the expressions most kindred, most likely—though still very rare—are poems. This is because poems are written out of a double intent: to give voice to the most urgent and elusive inner states, and to use language with the greatest compression and intensity. The most lasting poetry—speaking historically—is the poetry that has given some expression to the poet’s soul, that part of him- or herself that connects most deeply and exactly with the souls of others.
But the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature.
What an astonishing idea it is that Emerson has of the poet. Not so out of place if we think back to Shelley and his attributions of power, but head-shakingly baffling if we look from the vantage of the present. But these phrases are to be looked at, and closely: the idea that the great majority of people are minors, who have not yet come into posession of their own. What could this mean, in Emerson’s terms and ours? What is it to “come into possession”? I don’t think he means mere—“mere”—maturity. Rather, it seems that he is still on the theme of the soul, and that the possession refers to that—to a person’s coming to recognize himself as a soul—something greater than the contingent sum of his parts, his experiences. And how might that recognition be accomplished? The next phrase may hold a partial answer: the idea that there might be, as a basis for this coming into one’s larger self, a conversation they have had with nature. What kind of conversation would one hold with nature? Emerson does not mean us to picture his person, his would-be poet, yodeling about in the woods, talking to trees and rocks. Surely not. He must be thinking of a conversation one would hold with oneself, with that nature that is within oneself, that fire of creation he adduces in his opening passage. Which sounds a good deal like the pop catchphrase about “getting in touch with your deeper self.” So vague as to mean almost nothing. Deeper self...But the question is there to be asked: is there such a thing? Is there still traction in the idea of the self having not just depth, but depth that at some fathom-level connects us to a primary element—said fire—in a way that then informs our living, gives us substance beyond all accumulations of the incidental and distracting. Further, is this a power that artists—not just poets—can somehow access? Is Emerson proposing self-knowledge as an active force, an attainment that can then lead to other attainments?
What interests me is that there is none of this kind of conversation to be found—not anywhere can it be found and recognized. Sure, there is always the private sphere, and what can happen between individuals in honest and searching conversation. Or therapy—good, intensive therapy. But so far as the public realm goes—academia included—there is none to be found. Academia, indeed, is part of the reason why there isn’t, for it has fostered and entrenched a culture of embarrassment. Academia has set itself against the preoccupations, concepts, and the essential spirit of what Emerson is doing here. Inklings of it were, only a decade or two ago, still to be found in the literary sector, in so-called belles lettres, but those have vanished completely.
At issue, really, though it will take some circling around, is the power and place of the individual. Not the demographic self, but the seeking, self-apprehending “I”—and, secondarily, the poet. The poet because she traditionally represents the importance of the search and manifests it through expression, through words. Not words as denotating or pointing to experience, but words as containing and embodying its energy.
But who thinks of language in this way, who believes that power? Except maybe a handful of poets.
For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word, or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem.
What a notion. It would appear, living as we do in an era where social reality is understood to be a construction, and the rest a matter of neural processing—another kind of construction—that we have come a full 180 degrees from Emerson’s assertion, which is not only that order inheres in creation, but that truths do as well, and that to discern and transcribe these with complete accuracy would be to bring forward a perfect beauty. Beauty—art—being not creation so much as the recovery of implanted harmonies. The poet, then, is the vessel, and language is the medium. And the implication is that language is adequate, while the transmission can be more and less successful. In-dwelling truth, and words fit for its recovery. So that words can be said to partake in some way of that essential stuff, related to the “primal warblings.”
As the editor of a literary magazine, I spend a good deal of time reading poetry submissions, assessing from my particular angle the state of the art. One of the things that has struck me—in the way that can only happen if you find yourself looking quickly (mostly) at a very large sample—is a quality of arbitrariness. I don’t mean arbitrariness in terms of subject matter, or approach, but at the level of language. Word choice, rhythm—those qualities that signify whether one is in the near-presence of poetry long before thematic elements are considered. Though it would be hard to specify exactly how this works, I would say—never mind all the decades of experimentation and innovation we have seen the genre go through—that determining whether the language is being used with poetic pressure, whether the words and phrases and lines are charged with the intent to mean, is easy. This can be felt on the pulse; it is prior to other judgments. And the more you have exposed yourself to poetry, the clearer this is. Just as you can hear when an instrument is out of tune, or several instruments are not tuned to the same pitch, so you can feel when the words are in a deliberate and sympathetic arrangement. This does not mean that they have to be making harmony—there are artful dissonances that reflect this, too—only that they are being used with some high awareness of their implicit verbal properties, and the understanding that all verbal juxtapositions release their chemical properties, and that a poem does this with high deliberation. Though it often takes a number of readings to decide whether a poem really “works,” it takes only a few seconds to decide whether the expression qualifies as a poem.
Whether this quasi-chemical understanding of words on the page has any relation to Emerson’s proclamation about original creation—it would be hard to advance the argument—it does allow us to see poetic language as operating far more subtly, and with greater variation, than the language we use to make sure the day’s business gets done. And to consider expression as open to all kinds of nuance is not to be making any argument about its enchanted origins. The magic need not be the property of the words themselves, activated through inspired use—it can also reflect our capacity to project upon words, when their arrangement elicits projection.
For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.
It will be necessary to keep the sentiment but broaden the reference. That the world seems always waiting seems incontestable, the feeling of waiting is everywhere—it is, I think, what makes us ever more deeply enslaved to our devices: we are glued to our screens of all sizes not for amusement or business, but because we think something is going to be announced. We can’t bear to miss it. But that something is not poetry, unless we give poetry an apocalyptic possibility. We are on the run from the anxious vibration of our living, caused in part by the sense that things are more connected than ever and that it’s the whole world that is somehow pressing in on us, “obsessing our private lives,” as Auden wrote, though the nature of those private lives has changed a great deal since that writing. It could almost be argued that we no longer have private lives, and that that lack, and the porousness that it implies, is the cause of our unease, is what underlies that waiting. We are waiting for something that will feel like a solution when it arrives; we are waiting for the oppression of “what’s next?” to be lifted. We are, in a deeper sense, waiting for our poet. But we are not waiting for the poem so much as the permission to certify ourselves, to inhabit the world on terms we understand, to be free of the feeling that everything is being decided elsewhere. The poet, then, is the emblem of self-sufficiency, and the poem, could we only find our way to it and understand it, is his proof. The poem of our age, the new confession, would find a way to shape the ambient energies and the anxiety of that interconnectedness into an expression that felt contained, that gathered the edgy intuitions that pass through us constantly and made them feel like understandings. Not closed off or insistent understandings, but clarifications, ways of abiding with the terrifying glut of signals. Moving that agitated flurry into language is no small task. It might even be impossible, given that the nature of most of these signals is pre- or post-verbal. Emerson’s assertion becomes a question, the question: can anyone, poet or artist or mere lay mortal, create a confession—an expression, a synthesis—that would alleviate the waiting world? Or have we moved once and for all beyond the pale of synthesis—with only partial versions possible? Another way of asking whether our circumstance is now beyond the reach of vision. Beyond language.
How does the poet, the serious poet, navigate what has become the inescapable porousness, the basic destruction of the boundary of the private? Is the full and authentic lyric poem possible, or is it condemned to being a nostalgic gesture—with part of its impact derived from that fact?
Observe how nature...has ensured the poet’s fidelity to his office of announcement and affirming, namely, by the beauty of things, which becomes a new, and higher beauty, when expressed.
What a stunning and redemptive thought! But it needs to be looked at: that the beauty of things becomes a new—and higher—beauty when expressed. We know expression to be a kind of transformation, if only of vague inklings and inchoate half-thoughts into syntactical propositions. But that the world’s beauty is made new, augmented, by artistic expression—this would somehow argue that the form-conferring impulse of consciousness is not just a part of what is, but an advancement. I think of Rilke—his question in the Duino Elegies: “earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us, invisible?” And isn’t that the substance of the first of the Sonnets to Orpheus: nature re-forming into language through the poet’s consciousness? Tall tree in the ear.
Be that as it may. What strikes me here is how archaic these sentiments seem, how remote from contemporary thinking, even by so-called “creative” types. To make such a claim for any art, to consider any making by the imagination to be an actual power. It seems a measure of how far we have conceded to the merely material.
I take Emerson’s poet as the focus, but really I am talking about all the arts. Not about their aesthetic development, but about their perceived power within the cultural system. It seems to me they have nearly none. Prestige, sales, their place in whatever is the collective conversation: the arts are in receivership. The concerns and insights of these idiosyncratic makers do not bear on the lives we are anxiously leading. Could it be, at least in part, because they have not found a way to take that anxiety and its myriad sources and make of it a subject matter: to exercise upon it precisely that transformation that Emerson claims the poet can exercise upon the beauty of nature?
Part of the problem—part of what tells me that there is a problem—is that I want to speak of poetry and art in terms that sound foolish. Not just because of their idealistic seriousness (but wasn’t this the idiom we learned was proper to this discussion)—it sounds embarrassing—but because works that might justify that sort of language do not come readily to mind. And perhaps because of that I always feel saddened when I hear the high-minded propaganda of arts organizations that are looking for ways to bring their wares before the public.
If art is no longer transformational, can it recover some part of that power? Is it of any interest to us if it cannot, except of course as curriculum fodder? The question, I suppose, is not whether art can make beauty at all, but whether works of art—paintings, novels, musical compositions, poems—can still exert significant effect on people, can alter the ways they think and live? Can they make sufficient beauty, beauty big enough, poignant enough, unsettling enough? I would ask, too, how much this process—this bringing into being of newly imagined forms—requires the belief of the maker in a potential audience? Can significant, impact-making beauty be created without faith that it might be received? How different it is to create when there is a felt need, a desire. Have we lost the wanting? And if we have, how could that have happened? Do we not take ourselves seriously as souls? Is that what is at issue?
Our science is sensual, and therefore superficial.
Two sentences earlier Emerson has written: “The Universe is an externization of the soul.” Do we need to go quite so far? But some essential split, or disjunction, comes into view. The sciences do treat of the outer, superficial, material manifestations of things—by definition. And they consider all phenomena with reference to their type, their abstracted essence. This was Walker Percy’s insight about the difference between the writer and the scientist: the scientist never addressed the individual.
If the arts are not exerting any serious effect, are not being hungered for (which is what has allowed us to come to such a pass), this might be because we are less and less experiencing ourselves individually and through an awareness of our lives as possessing depth. Less and less psychologically; less and less existentially. We are making ourselves increasingly amenable to the logics of sciences and systems that control our lives. Everything is subject to the demographic calculation, the logic of the survey, this all-pervasive voting on preferences ironically giving the illusion that we are making choices, expressing ourselves, being proactive.
The dying out of the arts, or of the idea of the power of the arts, is linked to this waning of the psychological “I,” never mind anything as fanciful as the soul. It is not the fashion to speak in these terms, as it is not the fashion to address anything having to do with inwardness, or even to use words pertaining to it. Except when notched with irony. Try it. Go anywhere among consenting adults—except those of a born-again or overtly New Age persuasion—and use the words soul, spirit, inner...You will see that they have become toxic for public consumption. Where the words have been lost, the concepts cannot be far behind. Take away the concepts, the consensual awareness that gives them life, and you cannot hope to have the thriving of serious art.
A beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.
Here I’m surprised, this doesn’t seem in keeping with the rest of Emerson’s thinking. Can there be a beauty that we can see to the end of—is that a beauty? To me the quality that certifies the beautiful is that it exceeds explanation. A work completely laid to rest by analysis, with no over-and-above aspect, which doesn’t even expose the mystery of its making, or all making, cannot possibly lay claim to beauty. After all: “Beauty is the beginning of a terror we are just able to bear” (Rilke) and, no less dramatically, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Keats). But I’m fussing too much now. The important idea is that beauty is essentially unknowable, which is to say it is not a thing that merely greets the rational mind; it somehow reaches the senses and the emotions and the intuitions, all those other ways of knowing that we have.
But what is now the status of beauty? We don’t appear to fetishize it as we have at various times in the past. I am almost never told, about any new art, that I must see it, that it’s “beautiful.” Exciting, yes, that I hear, along with: unsettling, provocative, unusual, intriguing, even sometimes powerful. Of course there are beautiful novels and poems being written, beautiful paintings painted. But they are so often works that hark back in some way. Renditions of the cultural present are almost expressive of some dissonance; they communicate as part of their message the fact of a falling away from former orders and understandings—those things that underwrote the earlier beautiful. Do we jettison the term, or do we repurpose it—in the interests of that Keatsian “truth”—to include much that has been considered ugly?
That “over-and-above” quality, that which does not yield to analysis, is not explicable; that is the object of the search—though, of course, it cannot by definition be had. But it can be referenced, pointed toward. It has everything to do with the subject: the poet, the artist, the condition of art. Music can be subjected to stringent analysis, it can be precisely notated, and yet the notations give no purchase whatsoever on beauty. Because while a note can be named, a sound, and from sound a melody, cannot. And with poetry, beauty and mystery begin at the very point where denotation ends. The meanings of the words reach the mind; the word-sounds reach the senses. The primary material conditions for the making of beauty have not changed. But the frame of attention, and the context of mattering—these have. A poem, however lyrically brilliant, lies inert so long as its music cannot press its claim. For this there must be attention, and attention is only active as attention toward. It is created by a desire or a need. If we need meanings, we will attend to those things that may yield them.
The crisis of art—if it is a crisis—arises from a loss of attention, a falling off of that which creates attention.
Readers of poetry see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these; for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading; but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the bee-hive, or the spider’s geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own. Besides, in a centered mind, it signifies nothing how many mechanical inventions you exhibit. Though you add millions, and never so surprising, the fact of mechanics has not gained a grain’s weight. The spiritual fact remains unalterable, by many or by few particulars.
And here, maybe, is a way of grasping the problem of the “ugly,” for there has been such a proliferation of “inventions” and such a spread of updated versions of the “factory-village,” that the poetry of landscape has not so much been interrupted as displaced almost entirely. Which is how the old question of beauty has been overpowered by subject matter. Our life consists of materials that have not been assimilated. Where is the centered mind that can absorb all that we have wrought and make poetry—or any art—from it? If Emerson is right then the proliferation is just quantitative and it does not change the deeper principle: the “fact of mechanics” remains the same. But the quantity would seem to have distracted us, made it far more difficult to recognize the “spiritual fact.” Again, it is attention that is at issue. The complexity of the technologized world has distracted us completely, made it hard to believe that there is anything else besides.
And if there were a poet—an artist—who had the breadth to take it all in, to subject it to a full human pressure, could there be the beginnings of a new beauty—“new styles of architecture, a change of heart” (Auden)—and if there were, could we rouse up enough attention to understand it as such? Must beauty await attention, or is part of its task to awaken it?
Language is fossil poetry.
What a philosophy is encoded in those four words. Original seeing, and the first coinings of likeness, matching of sound to object or action, signifier to signified, is itself poetry. Which is to say, again, that poetry is attention, is complete openness to experience. Perception before the first coat of familiarity, the inevitable reductions of received wisdom. The study of Greek—I’ve not attempted it—is said to feel like an excavation, a laying bare, bringing one closer to what over centuries has calcified, retaining the shape signature but not the sap of the living thing.
Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy, and the temple of Delphi, and are as swiftly passing away.
We could substitute, say, mutual funds and the Internet, Twitter and Facebook, and maybe the principle would be the same. But I have to ask now, having given Emerson his high-toned say, whether these phrases, these assertions, strike any recognition. He is one of our bedrock thinkers, and his thought is on subjects that, being of the spirit and the supposed verities, ought not change that much over time. And yet it seems to me, reading, that we have landed on a different planet, that not only do the beliefs about the art match nothing that I have heard any artists talking about, but the conception of the human that is invoked is almost impossible to square with anything available in our secular marketplace. People don’t talk this way, or think this way, not about poetry—or anything. Emerson’s transcendental projections of the human may have marked a moment, one of those F. Scott Fitzgerald moments that imagines the promise of the new land and ties that imagining to an exalted vision of the individual, his possibility; but if it had any hope at all, the moment was undone by commerce and the external busyness of nation-building. I spend so much time with “The Poet” for this very reason: because nothing could be different, because we could not be more opposite. And yet to the poet there still accrues some trace of this hyperbolic endowment; the label—“poet”—still carries a tinge, as does that of “artist.” If there is any space still kept for the unpredictable, the inward-looking, the singular, then it is signed over to these people. Assigned, and yet it is a kind of phantom-limb attribution. For we don’t credit the inward as a place for progress or gain, or anything much at all. That the material order would be on some continuum with an immaterial “spirit”—even suggesting this would court ridicule.
Sven Birkerts is the author, most recently, of The Other Walk (Graywolf Press, 2011). He is director of the Bennington Writing Seminars and editor of the journal agni, based at Boston University.