Quoth Ange Mlinko -
Just three years ago I was sitting in a room of a Madison Avenue office tower, listening to my boss make a pitch to his boss, a hedge fund manager. Normally, during my spotty career as "content specialist" in various capacities, meetings were an opportunity to get hopped up on coffee and doodle. This was not to happen in front of a man whose day was micro-scheduled in fifteen-minute increments. Instead I listened dutifully to a plan to build a mirror site for the hedge fund's server "outside the blast zone," in the blueberry fields of New Jersey. At least the information would survive, even if we didn't.
Information, thy nemesis is reverie. The reverie I used to fall into, for instance, when I didn't care to listen in meetings. The reverie of great poetry, for another instance. But when I reflect that the most contemporary-sounding poems sound the least lonely, I wonder where reverie, as a mode of poetic thinking, is going. I also wonder if the store of knowledge unique to the poetic tradition of reverie will survive—or if it will morph into something at all recognizable to, say, Sappho...

You can read more of Ange's meditative review of new books by Devin Johnston and Linda Gregg in the November issue of Poetry. What's curious is how reverie, like poetry, can be denigrated as a kind of daydreaming. Reverie used to be associated with laziness: when I was a kid, parents were supposed to discourage kids from things like daydreaming, lest we become useless. My old man hated catching me at it, just as he did discovering that I intended to spend my life working at things connected to books in general and poetry in particular. His worry was that by letting my mind wander, I wouldn't get anywhere. He was partially right. As the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh put it:
"A man (I am thinking of myself) innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life. Versing activity leads him away from the paths of conventional unhappiness... I suppose when I come to think of it, if I had a stronger character, I might have done well enough for myself. But there was some kink in me, put there by Verse."
Kavanagh eventually arrives at this conclusion: "A true poet is selfish and implacable. A poet merely states the position and does not care whether his words change anything or not... I lost my messianic compulsion. I sat on the bank of the Grand Canal in the summer of 1955 and let the water lap idly on the shores of my mind. My purpose in life was to have no purpose."
Some of the recent threads here talk about how poets will be able to make a living in this new bad economy. Well, there never was a strong connection between poetry and making a living, as my old man well knew. Just now there's not a lot of money in anything. But there is, there has to be, survival. And letting the mind wander is something we'll need more of now as we re-imagine our financial futures, and perhaps even our political and social circumstances. As for poetry, no doubt something of it will not only survive but be - dare I (day)dream it? - immortal, and limitless (as in, you know, "language without limit").
The Spanish have an expression... Pensar en la inmortalidad del cangrejo. It's very poetical:
--¿En qué piensas?
--Nada, en la inmortalidad del cangrejo.
"What are you thinking about?" "Nothing. The immortality of the crab."
Here's a poem on the subject, attributed to Miguel de Unamuno:
Inmortalidad del cangrejo
El más profundo problema:
el de la inmortalidad
del cangrejo, que tiene alma,
Una almita de verdad ...
Que si el cangrejo se muere
todo en su totalidad
con él nos morimos todos
por toda la eternidad
It says that the most profound - deepest - problem is the immortality of the crab,
which has a soul, a tiny soul: if it dies, then we all die with it, too, and for all eternity...
But I digress. My mind is wandering. Too much information... Gotta go read more poetry.

Originally Published: November 25th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. November 25, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Yes. I think along these lines...
    Richard of St. Victor, back in the Middle Ages. Contemplation. Even the evil Ezra Pound was aiming for this, & wrote about it. Reverie, contemplation. A mode of thanks-giving. & what it has to do with poetry.
    But lately I've been thinking about TS Eliot's obsession with the primacy of dramatic poetry. The means which theater has to represent situations where people can't say what they feel - yet it's represented anyway.
    The misunderstandings, the cruelties, the cowardice, the indifference, the vanities, the power games, that we impose on others - in our private lives. & how these acts, through their ineluctable consequences, become a judgement on our lives - our personalities, our experience, our fate.
    That sphere of personal freedom & responsibility which is "literally" inexpressible - in Public Life, or Hisatory, or Philosophy... comes through in poetry, and theater.
    Think about the Good Life, then... or the Kingdom of God... or Utopia...

  2. November 26, 2008
     Don Share

    That's really interesting, Henry: "The means which theater has to represent situations where people can't say what they feel - yet it's represented anyway."
    Meanwhile, yes: reverie, contemplation as a mode of thanks-giving. And so Happy Thanksgiving to you, and thanks for all your comments here!