What, should we get rid of our ignorance, of the very substance of our lives, merely in order to understand one another?
The poets did not think so either.
— R.P. Blackmur
The Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition of “unknowing” is simple: “Ignorance.” Two centuries later, though, another meaning emerges: “To cease to know, to forget (what one has known).” This sense comes into the language courtesy of a poet; in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Philoclea “rather wished to unknow what she knew, than to burden her heart with more hopeless knowledge.” So the invention of this kind of unknowing registers its own impossibility in this particular case. Shelley would later proclaim that “the curse of this life is, that whatever is once known, can never be unknown.” The past “clings to you,” he says, “revenges your desertion” if you seek to leave it behind. We are not ignorant, then, just ignorant of the many things we know; the forgotten or the forsaken has a habit of fighting back. From this vantage point, a call for “unknowing” lyric could seem naïve. Not even naïve, but disingenuous, too knowing by half. Faced by those who apparently achieved innocence, Coleridge dryly remarked: “a rare merit: at least, I find, I cannot attain this innocent nakedness, except by assumption. I resemble the Duchess of Kingston, who masqueraded in the character of ‘Eve before the Fall,’ in flesh-coloured Silk.”
Yet Coleridge’s position houses another assumption: that we are in fact sure of what we know, that we understand our understanding. The return of the repressed needn’t be the return of knowledge; it’s just as likely to be the return of our bewilderment. Encountering poems, I seem to know lots of things (“this is a sonnet”; “this is an off-rhyme”; “this is typical of Paul Muldoon”) but one of the reasons I read (I think) is to be disoriented. “We want to feel poetry turning against itself again and again,” James Longenbach suggests, “not only because we need to interrogate our best ideas but because we want to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping just beyond our capacity to know them certainly.” One sign that it may be a good poem — I feel this especially when I’m “teaching” poetry — is that, whenever I return to it, I’ve forgotten it. Or: not forgotten it, but forgotten my way through it. I’m not sure how to offer pedagogical guidance: I have difficulty in saying who is doing what to whom on the Grecian Urn, or where it’s being viewed from; or I find myself having to figure out (again) who might be pulling the trigger in a life that had stood — a loaded gun. Veronica Forrest-Thomson said that “the worst disservice criticism can do to poetry is to try to understand it too soon.” This offers relief, although it does imply that, once we have served our apprenticeship in non-understanding, we will be rewarded for our patience and graduate with flying colors. In the preface to The Gay Science, Nietzsche is imagining something less serviceable when he asks us “to learn as artists to forget well, to be good at not knowing!” He’s not calling for a mere repression of knowledge, nor for its delay, but for its derangement. By “artists,” he means anybody who cares to become the artist of their own life, yet he’s also suggesting that artists have something to teach their audiences about forms of unknowing. If we are inclined to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping just beyond our capacity to know them certainly we could begin to hear the “unknowing” in “unknowing lyric” as an adjective, not a verb — a property of lyric, not something we do to it. Or a combination of both options: an incitement from within the lyric for us to have our way with it. Not any old way, though, but a particular kind of way, something more wayward than knowledge.
Whatever else they are, lyrics are invitations to listen to sounds we can’t quite know. Dorothy Wordsworth writes of how:
With busy eyes I pierced the laneIn quest of known and unknown things.
The meter plays the syllable “known” in two ways, first stressed then unstressed, as if intent on making even the word less knowable. It’s not even clear whether the known and the unknown are being conceived as properties of different things, or whether they inhere in the same thing. She could be in quest of the known thing only in order to make it less knowable through a second look; maybe she senses that her knowledge is a misnomer, or an evasion. Somewhere in the lines there lies the feeling, too, that the “I” who watches is itself one of the “things.” To “pierce” the lane needn’t simply be to give it a piercing look; the OED provides other meanings of the verb: “to pass or break through or into something . . . [to] make one’s way through or into.” She’s absorbed by the objects of her gaze, and also absorbed into them — no less clear-cut than they are.
Dorothy’s lines might be read as an allegory of our relation to lyric poems themselves, for although we confidently talk about such poems as though they were objects of knowledge, on closer inspection it is not clear that we know what we’re talking about. T.S. Eliot was adamant that “the word cannot be satisfactorily defined,” and on looking up “lyric” in the latest edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the first thing we are told is that “in Western poetics, almost all poetry is now characterized as lyric.” This renders the thing so known as to render it unknown. If lyric stands as the epitome of poetry, and if poetry often stands as the epitome of the literary, then the enduring temptation to define it — as though to define it were to know it — is understandable enough. Yet if we take a historical perspective for a moment and avoid the chimera of a timeless definition, another unknown variable swims into view. The etymology of “lyric” is of course derived from the Greek musical instrument used to accompany the songs of poets, but the word itself only arrived on the scene in the third century BC, when scholars of the Alexandrian library sought to preserve poems on the page whose musical settings had been lost. As the Encyclopedia entry puts it: “lyric was from its inception a term used to describe a music that could no longer be heard, an idea of poetry characterized by a lost collective experience.” If, when it comes to art, form is indivisible from content, if the style of playing is part of the meaning of what is being played, then the lyric was, from the very start, a reminder that you were missing something.
One of the things lyrics appear narrowly to miss out on is knowledge. The birdsong that appears so frequently in lyric poems — an utterance that the poet both adores and envies, a song that provides its own accompaniment — is the fantasy of perfected lyric itself (the constellation Lyra was represented by ancient cultures as a bird, as a harp, and sometimes as a bird holding a harp). This birdsong often gestures toward, without quite confirming, a sense of something known. Listening to the “dying music” of the nightingale’s song, Shelley is enraptured by its thousand scattered notes: “now to the hushed ear it floats / Like field-smells known in infancy.” The line’s force is heightened by the apprehension that we are no longer infants; we do not quite know what he’s talking about, but we feel that we might have once, way back, when we didn’t have the ability — or the need — to talk about it. Later, in “The Darkling Thrush,” when Thomas Hardy listens in a world where “tangled bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings of broken lyres,” the bird initially appears to claim that knowledge is not necessarily a thing of the past:
So little cause for carolingsOf such ecstatic soundWas written on terrestrial thingsAfar or nigh around,That I could think there trembled throughHis happy good-night airSome blessed Hope, whereof he knewAnd I was unaware.
This is a blessing indeed, although when the speaker says that he could think that, he intimates that he may think other things too. The lines contain a barely-whispered sense that lyric can be a ghost of our own making, one that we choose to be haunted and tormented by, a fabrication of a state of knowingness that would magically bring an end to our problems. So while the bird’s utterance contains (maybe) a knowledge of hope, the poet’s utterance entertains a certain hope of knowledge, hope that knowledge itself will be cause for ecstasy. Yet hope trembles through the bird’s song; hope isn’t the opposite of fear, it has fear built into it. Whatever the thrush does or doesn’t know, it is not untouched by anxiety.
Still, the idea that lyrics are missing something needn’t imply a predicament; it could also signal a peculiar kind of enjoyment. Heard melodies are sweet, Keats acknowledged, before adding that
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
The poet is enjoying the return of “ear” in the word “endear’d,” reveling in how “endear’d” sails blithely away from the rhyme that’s been set up for it. The “ear” in “unheard” is seen but not heard, so Keats is leaving that inhospitable sound behind, opting for the longer vowel (as Don Paterson has suggested in another context, “Singing works by ‘unnaturally’ elongating the vowel,” and lyric, “in signing its kinship with song, puts the vowel back centre-stage”). The same thing happens with the o in “play on”; it’s too short, so — as if in recompense — the rhyme doesn’t just play on but plays up, doubling up for a long o in “no tone.” That’s the lyric o: the luxuriatingly rich sense of a tone from no tone. It can only be sensed, though, not known, because Keats’s own ditty doesn’t quite have a decidable tone either. It exists on the silently-speaking page as a potential, a flirtation, an invitation for a readerly voice to take up — and to take on — the sound of a lost lyric music. And that flirtation with an unconsummated melody seems to me to be related to the way the poem closes; when a voice (it’s not entirely clear whose voice) ends on another long o and explains that “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” we are not quite left in the know. I cannot recall a single occasion when I was left feeling placated after having been told “That’s all you need to know.” My feeling whenever I get to the end of this poem is something akin to the one Proust describes in “On Reading”: “we would like to have [the author] give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.” Lyrics always leave something to be desired.
But sometimes it would seem that we don’t want desires, we want answers — want answers, indeed, as a way of being done with desire. “How does the individual get from needing to needing to know?” Adam Phillips asks in Missing Out; he suggests that it’s “as though knowing someone was a way of having them in safekeeping.” We may claim to know the other person in order to evade our desire for them; knowledge becomes a means to tame and triumph over loss, or longing, or both. One thing that seems to me striking about lyric poems — or, more accurately, about my relationship with lyric poems — is how often they seem to raise the question of knowability (their own, and other people’s), how they highlight the ways in which I might be tempted to reach for knowledge at the earliest opportunity and as a last resort. A necessary but not sufficient condition for lyric, one of the signs I know it by, is that it makes me wary of saying “I understand this.”
This is not to suggest that the poets hold the keys to their poems, that they could sort out any misunderstandings should they wish to. Poets appear to be in many ways resistant to the stock advice proffered to writers: “Write what you know.” When Robert Creeley said to Denise Levertov that “I hate what I know in my own work,” he was also confessing a lyrical impulse he loved. Robert Lowell felt that “in the writing of a poem all our compulsions and biases should get in, so that finally we don’t know what we mean”; more recently, Mark Strand has noted: “I confess to a desire to forget knowing, especially when I sit down to work on a poem.” Confessions of unknowingness frequently make it into the poems themselves, sometimes with a sigh (in his latest collection, Frank Bidart speaks of “One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough”) and sometimes with self-relishing glee (Frederick Seidel asks: “We know so much nothing, / Why not know some more?”). When Eliot said that genuine poetry communicates before it is understood, he may well have had the poet as well as the reader in mind. His wonderful lines in “Marina” are spoken by Pericles, but I also hear Eliot speaking of his own poem through his speaker:
I made this, I have forgottenAnd remember.The rigging weak and the canvas rottenBetween one June and another September.Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The poet-parent isn’t any less a maker, but his intimacy with his craft makes it hard for him to tell volition and compulsion apart. The feeling for form is more like an instinct than an intention. He can call his creation his own only if it was made unknowingly; it’s his to possess only if he was possessed by it. Such an approach toward a sense of lyric might be thought of as a way of getting to know something, not necessarily knowing it (or “getting” it). Indeed, “I have forgotten / And remember” makes any revelation seem fraught, fragile, likely to unravel at any moment.
One senses the dangers here. All this might seem too knowing in its unknowingness, too satisfied with its own obliquity, a sort of spiritual kitsch in which to make is always, all-too-predictably, to make strange. But the dangers shouldn’t necessitate a distrust of the feeling; they could instead raise awareness of those moments when “unknowing” is arrived at, rather than merely leaned on. And, given how often poets are inclined to cajole knowingness into a state of uncertainty, commentary on lyrical poems might stand to benefit from making a little more space for this kind of uncertainty as part of its response. Recent criticism has perhaps tended to be fearful that it wouldn’t be criticism if it weren’t standing at a critical distance, or if it hadn’t decided upon something. Stanley Cavell offers a more openly hesitant yet tactile language for thinking these things through:
Works of art are objects of the sort that can only be known in sensing. It is not, as in the case of ordinary material objects, that I know because I see, or that seeing is how I know . . . It is rather, one may wish to say, that what I know is what I see; or even: seeing feels like knowing . . . . Or one may even say: In such cases, knowing functions like an organ of sense. . . .
Another way one might try to capture the idea is by saying: Such objects are only known by feeling, or in feeling.
He has to come at the problem via what one may wish to say, or what one may say, not what one is saying. (From this perspective, lyrics are at once gifts and goads; what we would most like to say about them, we can’t.) Cavell’s links between epistemology and emotion — between the cerebral and the somatic, a body of knowledge — can be teased out by turning to the only poet I’ve come across who actually entitles a poem “Unknowing,” a poet whose best writing makes much of various conditions of unknowingness. Here is Hardy’s “The Last Performance”; it’s one of the poems about the loss of his wife, but it’s also about the loss of a tune, and in that sense it offers a quintessentially lyrical moment:
“I am playing my oldest tunes,” declared she,“All the old tunes I know, —Those I learnt ever so long ago.”— Why she should think just then she’d play themSilence cloaks like snow.When I returned from the town at nightfallNotes continued to pourAs when I had left two hours before:“It’s the very last time,” she said in closing;“From now I play no more.”A few morns onward found her fading,And, as her life outflew,I thought of her playing her tunes right through;And I felt she had known of what was coming,And wondered how she knew.
It wasn’t strictly a performance because he didn’t stay to listen. It’s only as she dies that he thinks of her playing her tunes right through; the performance is constructed belatedly, is in many ways his performance. “All those old tunes I know”: she had memorized the tunes, so to get closer to her — perhaps as a form of penance — he’s memorizing her playing them. And yet, knowing here is not so much functioning like “an organ of sense” in Cavell’s terms, but like an imagined organ of sense; whatever he knows is blended of presence and projection. She knows the tunes, and part of him is envious of that relationship, that intimacy, even the very way she “closed” it, for everywhere here is the feeling that he both can and cannot know her, that she is a tune he can’t quite get, somehow never got. If art objects, for Cavell, “are only known by feeling, or in feeling,” when Hardy confesses “and I felt she had known of what was coming,” you might say he is experiencing his lost wife as if she were a poem — and finding that experience almost too much to bear. He does not speak here of a feeling for what she had known, but for what she had “known of”; the penultimate line allows not only for space between him and her, but also between her and her own forms of knowing (knowing of something feels less definitive than knowing it). Hardy’s last line perhaps reduces that space a little, solidifies the knowing (both his and hers), although you do get the feeling that — despite the past tense — he’s still wondering.
That word — “wonder” — has been hiding in plain view until now, and it’s a word that gets to the heart of lyrical utterances. Emily Dickinson offers a non-definitive definition:
Wonder — is not precisely knowingAnd not precisely knowing not —A beautiful but bleak conditionHe has not lived who has not felt —
When experiencing wonder, it feels as though we know something without quite being sure of what we know. (You know how it is, when you don’t quite know what the “it” is.) Since Aristotle noted in the Poetics that wonder is central to poetic art, many have made similar claims: in the 1550s Antonio Minturno — the first writer to treat the lyric as a genre on par with the epic and the dramatic — wrote that “no one can be called a poet who does not excel in the power of arousing wonder”; four hundred years later, Auden claimed that “whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe.” While lyrics may come from a wondrous unknowingness, they don’t seem able to rest with or in a state of “not precisely knowing not.” On the one hand, the work of lyric poems testifies to a need for abstraction, or sense, or knowledge, to a need to go over experience in order to seek out a certain distance and clarity. But even as the poem undertakes this expressive work, the embodied motion of the seeking seems to recommit poet and reader to bafflement, immersion, confusion. This mixed state of affairs helps to account for the coalescence of excitement and pathos — the beautiful and the bleak — one often feels in lyric encounters. Lyrics contain an elegiac feeling: one revisits experience, seeks a shape in which to know it, but the shape that is created brings with it wonder at the fact that no experience can ever quite be known. Lyrical abstraction reconnects us to, and re-alienates us from, our experience in a single moment.
When Dickinson tells us that “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” and that she felt that “Sense was breaking through” even as her mind was “going numb,” she was having one such lyrical, wondrous moment:
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,And I dropped down, and down —And hit a World, at every plunge,And Finished knowing — then —
From one perspective, a lyric, like wonder, doesn’t last — and it speaks to us of other things that can’t last. It comes in short bursts, reminds us of the short-lived. How long, we might wonder, did “ — then — ” go on for? The poet may look back, with tenderness or with horror, on an unknowing mood as something from which she has now emerged; she has returned to Reason, as it were, and can now compose both herself and the poem. But from another perspective the lyrical moment, like the wondrous one, may be something you never really get or get over, something that seems to reenact itself whenever you recollect it. She finished knowing “then,” and since then things have never quite been the same. The syntax also carries with it a glimmer of an uncertain future as well as a disorienting past and present: she finished knowing, and then . . . then what? Then something else happened, something she can’t even begin to find words for. If “wonder” is indeed the right sort of word for this kind of happening, it’s suggestive that some etymologists link the word to the German for “cut, gash, wound,” and that older definitions of the word include “great distress or grief.” Hamlet speaks of “wonder-wounded hearers,” which is a fitting description of one kind of lyric listener.
Wonder is what lyrics often seek to bequeath to readers — as though there were something about the lyrical situation that the poet can’t bear to face alone (when Dickinson says of wonder that “He has not lived who has not felt,” she is trying to seduce as well as to warn us, trying to make us wonder what we would be missing out on if we were to resist the feeling’s equivocal charms). Robert Frost creates a similar blurring of the dividing line between writer and reader when he thinks about the importance of wonder to lyrical experience — or, perhaps more precisely, to the lyricizing of experience:
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.
Not the least of the pleasures of reading Frost is the frequency with which he makes knowing sound like dreaming. Wonder may involve remembrance, recognition, knowledge, but the as-if-ness of the feeling, and the way it encourages rather than dissipates the unexpected, is a vital source of its appeal. The feeling is a grounding that includes a “growing”; it clarifies and also confounds. Something comes together for you, even as it prevents you from quite getting yourself together.
Frost is one of wonder’s most eloquent defenders, and his defense is all the more eloquent for his general avoidance of the word (he’s wary of the ease with which its champions can descend into mystagogy or mushiness). So he tends to take on “knowledge” instead: “The poet’s instinct is to shun or shed more knowledge than he can swing or sing,” he writes, and many of his most well-known lines (so well-known, perhaps, that it’s hard to know them) both shun and shed knowledge:
Whose woods these are I think I know.His house is in the village though;He will not see me stopping hereTo watch his woods fill up with snow.My little horse must think it queerTo stop without a farmhouse nearBetween the woods and frozen lakeThe darkest evening of the year.He gives his harness bells a shakeTo ask if there is some mistake.The only other sound’s the sweepOf easy wind and downy flake.The woods are lovely, dark and deep,But I have promises to keep,And miles to go before I sleep,And miles to go before I sleep.
“Whose woods these are I think I know.” Does he know or not? Thinking you know something isn’t necessarily knowing it; it could be more the feeling that you know it. I want to say that the speaker believes his knowledge into existence, or lives this knowledge, for by the fourth line he can say “his” woods, not “the woods.” But by the final stanza the woods are pronoun-less again, somehow nobody’s and nowhere, just as they are in the lyric’s title: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” If, as Frost says elsewhere, “a poet builds better than he knows,” and if the act of writing a poem involves coming “with surprise to an end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion,” then what this poem comes to know — or know of — is both the tenacity and the fragility of its own claims to knowledge.
“My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near.” Must it? Does it think, exactly? The line is of course knowingly whimsical, but — as so often with Frost — the knowing look has a way of opening up vistas of implication which the poem may turn from but which it can’t forget. While the speaker claims to know so much about the wood, the horse, and himself, the poem claims to know only so much. And, in fact, looking back at Frost’s first line again, trying hard to unknow it, I want to allow myself another uncertainty: “Whose woods these are I think I know” could just about be heard as “I think I know the person whose woods these are.” So there are the primary questions (Do you, or do you not, know who owns these woods? Could you, if pressed, give a name?); but there’s another sort of question too: Do you know the person whose woods these are? How well acquainted are you? How confident are you that he wouldn’t mind you being here? The conundrum is a version of the knowing versus knowing that distinction (connaître versus savoir). Perhaps the man whose woods these are is to Frost as Frost is to the reader; the poet cannot see me stopping here, but he wouldn’t (I’m sure) mind me watching “his” woods so intently — he’s no longer on the scene, after all. Reading his lyric in this way, admiring and enjoying it as I do, being reminded of other things I know about him as I read, I’m of a mind to say that I know Frost. But what do I know?
Frost said elsewhere that “a poem is the emotion of having a thought while the reader waits a little anxiously for the success of dawn.” This again appears to imply that the lyrical impulse involves the need to share something — or yearns for a reader who, by going through the poem’s motions with their voice, will take up and take on the position of the poet and know what it feels like to inhabit his unknowingness (the poet is not exactly “having a thought,” we note, but having the emotion of one). One final (or not quite final) way to clarify what is passed on to us, or what “dawns” on us, in experiencing lyrical poems is to look at the dawn through the eyes of someone who fell in love with it. Here is Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” wrapt up in wonder about what he knows as he remembers how he used to watch his beloved Aurora:
felt my bloodGlow with the glow that slowly crimson’d allThy presence and thy portals, while I lay,Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warmWith kisses balmier than half-opening budsOf April, and could hear the lips that kiss’dWhispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.
The ecstatic ache of this presses home the erotic wound of knowledge; he knew her, once. Yet carnal knowledge brings with it a loss of bearings. “Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet”: the unhinged brilliance of this, the way “wild” and “sweet” throw off their adjectival qualities and aspire toward becoming nouns, expresses both plenitude and perplexity. Although the sun is coming up, it’s hard to see here, to visualize clearly, and Tithonus is in a place akin to the one Roland Barthes describes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Most often I am in the very darkness of my desire; I know not what it wants.” Weirdly, crucially, Tithonus likens this state of desirous not-knowing-whatness to the act of being witness to poetic making; it is “Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing, / While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.” Both whispering lips and Apollonian song stay strange — become stranger — in being known. Built into both experiences is the feeling of an arousal that can’t be either sated or shunned.
Lyric unknowing is the moment when such an arousal dawns on you, but when, exactly, is the dawn? While writing this piece I went to a reading by Alice Oswald; in the Q&A she noted that “to me, poetry has a duty not to know what it thinks,” and her own recent revisiting of the Tithonus myth also returns to knowledge as its speaker tries to seize the day by knowing it:
as soon as dawn one star thensuddenly none then blue then paleand the whole apparition onlyever known backwards already toolate now almost gone— From Tithonus
Perhaps knowledge is always either proleptic or belated, preemptive or postlapsarian. Knowledge, unlike experience, is never now. Lyric poems, though, by so often longing for the now, for a kind of presentness if not always a present tense, seem to house a dream of a moment in which you could do something other than know things — or in which you could re-experience how you come at knowing, rather than merely know your knowing. “Fiction is what happened next; lyric is about what happens now,” Jonathan Culler has recently pronounced, and from this perspective lyric can answer back to elegy, can displace an irreversible temporal disjunction through evocation and enunciation. Yet Oswald’s “now” must face the “then”s that precede it, must acknowledge the force of temporalities it wants to resist and with which it colludes: “One star then / suddenly none then blue then pale.” Like Dickinson’s “then,” these ones finish knowing: they tell not simply of lyric’s desire to give a choreographed, incantatory duration to the transient; they also cast strange new light (or darkness) on “now,” make us less certain of whether we can ever grasp what or when now is. Even as lyrical poems long to make us a present of the present, lyric poets seem drawn to reminding us of the equivocal nature of their gifts. As Tennyson noted: “in the present is always something unreal and indistinct.”
A perception of the surrealism of the real, a sense of a vividness that is also vertiginous, an awareness that my knowledge may itself be a wonderfully necessary hallucination — these are the feelings I most often take (or make) from lyric poems. The last words of the last poem of Wallace Stevens’s last collection — another lyric that tracks a dawn — speak volumes:
It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
He is not suggesting that such knowledge is stable (hence the indefinite article). One wouldn’t be refusing to assent to either the grandeur or the wonder of these lines — their thrilling sense of discovery, their delight in the construable — by noting that this moment is like knowledge, not knowledge itself; indeed, the moment might be something more and less than that. A year after Stevens’s poem came out, and a few weeks before he died, Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” appeared in Poems. Having looked carefully at the sea, and having confessed to us that “I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,” she wrote the final lines:
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,then briny, then surely burn your tongue.It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,drawn from the cold hard mouthof the world, derived from the rocky breastsforever, flowing and drawn, and sinceour knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Not simply “like” knowledge, but like what we imagine knowledge to be — as though even our concept of knowledge (not merely our knowing) keeps having to be dreamt up in order to keep the show on the road. (Shelley was pointing to something similar when, in “Defence of Poetry,” he asserted that “we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know”). Such a faculty is part of the texture of the lines themselves as Bishop tells us, confidently, knowingly, what would happen if we tasted the water (note the happily suppositional fact that it would “surely” burn your tongue). Yet even as knowledge gets made up and made over — gets shifted from being “knowledge” to being “our knowledge” in the last line — the passage breathes a feeling of lyric unknowing, the feeling of an encounter with something that heightens our sense of both an intimacy and an estrangement.
I don’t understand these lines. Or, rather, I don’t know when I would ever reach the end of my understanding. I don’t understand why, or how, knowledge is drawn from a cold hard mouth, and derived from rocky breasts. Putting the two images together I see, or half-see, the image of a suckling baby and Mother Nature, and somewhere behind this scenery I sense a primal scene. (Sometimes, when reading them, I think about what happened to Bishop’s mother and about what happened to Bishop as a result; and sometimes I think about something else.) Still, like many lyrical moments, moments in quest of known and unknown things, this one is trying to address a loss of some sort, trying to find a way to enjoy — not simply to endure — the “flown.” Bishop would later tell Frank Bidart that, when she was writing these lines, “she hardly knew what she was writing, knew the words were right.” The right words, indeed, because she hardly knew. What flies for writers can fly for readers too. “I love the feeling of a song before you understand it,” Nick Cave recently said, and one reason for that love — not that you need a reason — is that it reminds you that your strongest attachments are not always your most appropriative ones. By leaving the song alone, by infinitely elongating that period of before-ness, you come to an understanding with it (which is not the same as an understanding of it). In its turn, the song leaves you to yourself, leaves you for yourself.
Matthew Bevis is the author, most recently, of Life Lessons from Byron (Pan MacMillan, 2013) and coeditor with James Williams of Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2016).