While writing a poem the hot wire of thought welds together strange chunks of this and that.
It can’t completely combine the disparate elements and make a new element of them, but it can loosen the edges of mutually disinterested materials enough to bond them so that a serial lumpy going on is achieved, crude emergency bridges made, say, of brush and old doors, just barely strong enough to get the thought across before the furious townspeople show up.
Because thought is stolen, of course, ripped out of a case and carried off in a sack.
Anything nearby is pressed into service to forward the thought. The lathered horse falls out of the picture as the horseman hurls himself and the sack onto the speeding train. When he leaps to a crane, the train falls away, and so on, according to the laws of attention and expedience.
And you will note the presence of “speed” in the middle of expedience: only high speeds permit the transmission of thought, the brief mutations of substance, the continued whispered advance of some articulation that is at once autonomous and at the same time completely the product of what’s available to make itself out of.
Thus we could not separate thought from conversion; we must see the two forces melted into one, thought as conversion itself, and thus never static, never possessable, but like the edges of combustion where the creosote is bubbling to explode in a ripply red line advancing across the desert.
It’s not so much what poems are, in themselves, but the infinitely larger optimism they offer by their intermittent twinkles: that beneath the little lights on their tiny masts, so far from one another, so lost to each other, there must be a single black sea. We could have no sense of the continuousness of the unknowable without these buoyant specks.
The poem is a space capsule in which impossible combinations feel casual. The body of the capsule is of necessity very strong to have broken out of gravity. It is the hard case for the frail experiments inside. Not frail in the wasted sense, but frail in the opposite sense: the brief visibility of the invisible.
Because what I am transporting in my hands is both weightless and invisible, and because it must be held loosely, it is impossible to know at the time if I have carried it or if what I have done is a comical act, a person pretending to carry something carefully; a farcelike delicacy of manners.
Some people have one great dream in life which they fail to fulfill.
Others have no dream at all and fail to fulfill even that.
— Fernando Pessoa
I have a note beside this that says: ha ha perfect Pessoa.
Maybe some of us are wired backward and respond paradoxically to stimuli. Maybe what we think is orange is blue. But I for one have always laughed in the presence of the dismal. Not a rueful laugh but with fresh relish. I cannot tire of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet or Larkin’s night terrors. They are voluptuaries of the bed of aridity.
Yes, to write is to lose myself, but everyone gets lost, because everything in life is loss. But unlike the river flowing into the estuary for which, unknowing, it was born, I feel no joy in losing myself, but lie like the pool left on the beach at high tide, a pool whose waters, swallowed by the sands, never more return to the sea.
— Fernando Pessoa
As distinct as Pessoa is, he is nonetheless one of the category of writers who find themselves and their reactions so far outside the conventional that they have no tools but those they construct for themselves for knowing anything, for finding their bearings. They must synthesize gravity, direction, time, substance. They can’t use anyone else’s.
It explains these writers completely. It is as though the atmosphere, beautiful and breathable to everyone else, were toxic to them, a poison gas. They are urgently occupied with building a conversion machine. Oh, and this conversion machine can never be finished. Every day it has to be built over again, but differently. To an outside eye, the machines would look identical, but to the poet, panicking for lack of air, something has gone wrong again. It all has to be undertaken again — from scratch.
Dust of SnowThe way a crowShook down on meThe dust of snowFrom a hemlock treeHas given my hearta change of moodand saved some partof a day I had rued.
— Robert Frost
I have a terrible time remembering anything, so I really appreciate a poem I can hold onto.
But additionally, greatness in a poem can be calculated as the relationship between means and ends: the bigger the disproportion the greater the poem. Which makes “Dust of Snow” ridiculously great. It is one sentence. Only two words go to two syllables. It doesn’t have any metaphors. You could cover it up with a matchbook.
Nothing keeps the poem from being metabolized. The rhymes button perfectly into their button holes. The picture is black (crow) white (snow) and utterly simple. That’s all there is, out in the snow of the empty page.
So it begins sinking into the mind and turning into our own personal shift: how any little surprise can dislodge everything. A bad day can go on forever; release from it is the putting-right of the universe.
It takes such perfect intuition to know to shut up like this, to know that all you have to do is get the crack started and let the crack continue in the reader.
The amount you need to say is so hard to gauge. How much can you not say, and something will still have the charge of the unsaid? There is a point at which what is said is too pale, or frail, one fears, to tip the mind into the unsaid. And the reason for the pallor might not be punctilio but a genuine failure of force.
But there is no failure of force here. Frost does what needs to be done to make his poem work. And if it takes a minor adjustment to conversational phrasing to get the rhyme, he makes it. I mean, no one would say “saved some part of a day I had rued.” It’s not quite speech. Frost goes on and on about the “sound of sense,” but you notice he’ll do what he has to do to make the poem stick in your head. Because above everything else, as he says in his Paris Review interview, “you’ve got to score.”
And back to the idea that it doesn’t use any metaphors: of course it is also only a metaphor. If it were just a little Vermont stamp we would forget it. No, it’s the break-line where the welding of the world comes loose.
Reference BackThat was a pretty one, I heard you callFrom the unsatisfactory hallTo the unsatisfactory room where IPlayed record after record, idly,Wasting my time at home, that youLooked so much forward to.Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And nowI shall, I suppose, always remember howThe flock of notes those antique negroes blewOut of Chicago air intoA huge remembering pre-electric hornThe year after I was bornThree decades later made this sudden bridgeFrom your unsatisfactory ageto my unsatisfactory prime.Truly, though our element is time,We are not suited to the long perspectivesOpen at each instant of our lives.They link us to our losses: worse,They show us what we have as it once was,Blindingly undiminished, just as thoughBy acting differently we could have kept it so.
— Philip Larkin
His old mother hovers about, listening from the hall beyond the bedroom where he has ineffectually barricaded himself with his record player. It takes Larkin just six lines to set the trap.
I always want to laugh at the perfection of these setups. We know this desperate stuckness well from his other poems. There could almost be a Chinese character, one single figure that would mean in all its pent-up intensity, “Larkin’s fix.” He’s always in Larkin’s fix.
He’s such a comically unattractive character. It’s a marvel to me that he exposes himself so mercilessly. Another marvel to me is the sleight of hand that Larkin works on us from inside these suffocating chambers, dumping the emotional contents from stanza to stanza, room to room, mother to son, ear to ear, creating a sense of permeability and interpenetration while at the same time walling the poem up with contrary rhetoric. The effect is classic Larkin: irresistible fluidity completely boxed in.
“Blindingly undiminished” is sophistry. Things were never as they once were; I mean, even when they were, they weren’t. But that doesn’t take a thing away from the fact that these terrible nostalgic gusts (to which we are constantly susceptible) feel true. They are made up by us; they are abetted by the lyric temperament; we visit them and suffer phantom perfection.
The quick flash in the dark created by the phrase, “blindingly undiminished” — and extinguished by every other line in the poem — is the breeder reactor for the whole thing. It is such an unbearably intense radiation that only a sad sack like Larkin can wrap it in a sufficient number of wet blankets to make it bearable to us.
Again and again it’s this threatened availability of everything we ever desired that puts the fire under Larkin’s kettles. How could we stand his poems otherwise? Why would we?
Today I feel the opposite of Borges, who wished all poetry could be anonymous, or at least his. I want the human trajectory, the feeling of the personal struggle against paralysis and despair and ridiculousness. I want Larkin to fight in his Larkinness. I want him to sneak through the obstacles one more time.
Something Matters but We Don'tIn man, I can see no substance solidly;it is as if what we call man were no morethan an oddly angled look at something else.Or is it my limitation, being man,not to be able to see whatever is there?And aren’t these two alternatives the same?Let me leave off speaking, unknowing as I am,but not before I speak of the limits of speech,or tell of man that there is nothing to tell,or tell of what we discern perhaps there could beto tell that we know too little except it is thereand, if anything happens, it must be it happens thereand not to us, not by us: goodor evil, it doesn’t matter what we do.
— William Bronk
I was enjoying the grind of Bronk, admiring it this morning.
We are all trying to focus, but we each have a particular distance we care about. Some people are after a granular closeness, some want a middle range. For Bronk, the remoteness is extreme. He’s so hungry to get some faraway focus and he just can’t. All of his poems are these barren tripod marks, where he set up his glass once again, where he tried again.
I don’t know why the evidence of failure should provide consolation but it always does.
#1099My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze —I’m feeling for the Air —A dim capacity for WingsDemeans the Dress I wear —A power of Butterfly must be —The Aptitude to flyMeadows of Majesty concedesAnd easy Sweeps of Sky —So I must baffle at the HintAnd cipher at the SignAnd make much blunder, if at lastI take the clue divine
— Emily Dickinson
Higginson was right; she is spasmodic. Dickinson terrain is hard on the brain suspension. In any poem of more than one stanza, one stanza is likely to bottom out.
# 1099 has several things not going for it. First, I always worry when it looks like she’s going to inhabit an insect. These experiments can go bad in the fey direction. (Recall the “little Tippler / Leaning against the — Sun — .”) And here she is in stanza one already sensing herself in the early stages of becoming a butterfly.
It’s a very odd condition, squeezed into a Cocoon while also still in her Dress — not fey but off-balance and unsettled. She isn’t the one thing or the other quite yet; her condition is conjectural. “Colors teaze,” and she feels “A dim capacity for Wings.” So far the picture’s funny and ill fitting and, well, let’s just say so, ravishing: it takes massive poetic wings to think of “a dim capacity for Wings.”
Then stanza two just isn’t very strong, essentially some Dickinson boilerplate to say, Butterflies fly. Of course it is useful for the advancement of her idea, which is that if she is to be a butterfly she must get beyond the cocoon stage. And it does serve the purpose of making a bridge to stanza three, the stanza for which I have dog-eared this page in Johnson.
Here she works one of her false-reason tricks, starting the stanza with “So,” as though what follows will be the result of what has gone before. As though it won’t be a cosmic leap. As though she cared about those old stanzas anymore. But this is a different plane. By now she is purely addressing the poet’s interior puzzle: how can I move in the direction of what I sense — not as a butterfly, but as a poet?
This is just such a strange capsule of a stanza. I am so interested in her heavy emphasis on clumsiness here, saying it three ways in three lines: she must baffle and cipher and make much blunder if she’s ever going to “take the clue divine.” She’s turning it over and over: the way of the poet is the way of awkwardness and error.
I don’t know if I’m getting across what seems rare to me in this. It’s the exhilarating unworkability of it: one can only blunder into the light, or whatever the “clue divine” is. It’s not gradual, or progressive, or accumulative: you don’t get better or make fewer blunders, approaching the godhead step by step. Blundering doesn’t work, except it does. It can’t lead you there, except it’s the only way to get there. I will go so far as to hazard that blundering might be generative, meaning that rooting around in a haystack long and fruitlessly enough could conceivably breed a needle.
The Poet HinThe foolish poet wondersWhy so much honourIs given to other poetsBut to himNo honour is given.I am much condescended to, said the poet Hin,By my inferiors. And, said the poet Hin,On my tombstone I will have inscribed:“He was much condescended to by his inferiors.”Then, said the poet Hin,I shall be properly remembered.Hin — wiping his tears away, I cried —Your words tell meYou know the correct use of shall and will.That, Hin, is something we may think about,May, may, may, man.Well yes, true, said Hin, stopping crying then,Well yes, but true only in part,Well, your wiping my tears awayWas a part.But ah me, ah me,So much vanity, said he, is in my heart.Yet not light always is the painThat roots in levity. Or without fruit whollyAs from this levity’sFlowering pang of melancholyMay grow what is weighty,May come beauty.True too, Hin, true too. Well, as now: You have gone onDifferently from what you begun.Yet both truths have validity,the one meanly begot, the other nobly,And as each alone glosses overWhat the other says, so only togetherHave they a full thought to uncover.
— Stevie Smith
Why is this so wonderful?
Because it is utterly headstrong and meant to amuse and gratify her own self, meant to keep herself good company and also to console her, and along the way stumbles into some wisdom.
The most beautiful thoughts and feelings can barely settle or they break us. We can’t endure more than the briefest visitations. That’s the cruel fact. Almost every writer almost always crushes her own work under the weight of thoughts and feelings.
Nobody knows how to be light much of the time. Maybe not even the Dalai Lama. Stevie Smith had some natural advantages, a natural distance from conventional behavior.
The only reason it’s bearable to know the things she stubs her toe on is the offhand method of arrival and her chronic throwaway, “hi-ho” tone. She sends very hot things through the cooling coils of her poems and plays with them in her bare hands. For of course poems must include hot things; if all the hot things are removed the result cannot be poetry since it is the job of poetry to remain open to the whole catastrophe.
In “The Poet Hin” she manages to say things she utterly means:
1. I am condescended to by my inferiors.
2. Levity contains pain and weight and beauty.
But these heavy matters enjoy the particular weightlessness conferred on the reader’s mind by the assurance that they are the ravings of an individual. The reader of Stevie Smith can never for an instant forget that she is looking through the cock eyes of Stevie Smith. Everything that transpires does so in Stevie Smith’s universe, which is not one’s own. Meaning, none of the sufferings hurt and none of the pronouncements crowd the mind. Instead, they can be entertained; we can examine them as if they were toys although they are not.
There is nothing so freeing as someone pleasing herself.
Work that pleases itself first just snips so many binding strings in the minds of others.
“Reference Back” from The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett. Copyright © 2012 by the Estate of Philip Larkin and reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd. and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, llc. “Something Matters but We Don’t” by William Bronk reprinted by permission of the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. “My cocoon tightens, colors teaze” by Emily Dickinson reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Massachusetts (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, copyright © 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College). “The Poet Hin” by Stevie Smith reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing.
Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)...