poem does not originate with the poet,
but rather, the poet is the medium through which
the poem passes from a higher sphere to the world.
-- Plato paraphrasing Socrates
the farmlands of Indiana and, for that matter, in the corridors of my
employer -- a large corporation where we sell pre-computer hardware,
as in hammers and post hole diggers -- poetry is not scorned as once
I feared. Instead it is tenuously respected, by both farmers and executives,
as one might respect a proctoscope -- they're certain it performs some
valued function, but they'd rather not get too close to the topic.
made a small fortune in the hardware business. I call it accidental
because no one who knows me would ever ask me to fix a screen door since
I am inept at actually handling hardware. They would most likely come
to me first if they were ever in need of a poem, although this has yet
to happen. And where hardware has almost nothing in common with poetry,
it can provide a starting point.
to be born, like the cotton gin came to Eli, as seminal gifts emanating
from outside the conscious. Any inventor will tell you about the value
of intuition or the flash of insight bestowed while one stands in the
I call poems reverse prayers, in that real prayers go forth from one
who beseeches outward to the Great Beyond; poems, on the other hand,
emanate from the Great Beyond back into the receptor poet.
of this term, reverse prayers, I walked around satiated for many months
until I read in a Richard Wilbur essay that Emily called them "bulletins
from Immortality." This gave me pause. I didn't know if I had stepped
on the power-rail of poetic luck or not.
learned Jack Spicer used to refer to poets as little radio receivers.
No doubt in the future some essayist will think to call us ion beam
that old joke about the redneck who puzzled over a thermos bottle. He
pondered how you can put coffee into it, and later the coffee comes
out hot. Or you could put soda pop into it, and later the soda comes
out cold. Mystified he asks, "How do it know?"
like those rare moments at a crowded seashore when, by capricious timing,
there are no waves breaking and the brief silence alerts everyone to
the succinct importance of introspection. Quickly the waves continue.
stance for a poet to learn -- like a bizarre literary bio-feedback,
void of conscious thought -- is the poetic equivalent of "how do it
know?" The best lines of the poem sneak between the foliations of the
unsuspecting mind. One truly does not need to know them at the moment
of birth; one simply needs to be able to recognize them later, on the
success, I should point out, is the opposite of business success, which
depends so much upon conscious endeavors and unshakeable wills. And
where many executives might profit from increased reliance on the ability
to intuit, no poet is going to benefit by trying harder and harder.
When poets try harder, they quickly become afflicted by writer's block.
Stephen Dobyns quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, "Ideally, [an artist] should
be unconscious of his insights . . . all his progress should enter so
swiftly into the work that he is unable to recognize them in the moment
all poets see these little gifts as benevolent. Some go on to give them
spiritual bodies with devilish characters, so throughout poetry we find
the duende or dybbuk or recalcitrant muse disquieting the minds of poets.
These particular spirits are less like radio signals, and more like
waves of dyspepsia.
wrote, "The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is
possible." Edward Hirsch pivots from that to "Duende, then, means something
like artistic inspiration in the presence of death." Or perhaps one
could say sometimes these tricksters spring from the dichotomy between
messiah and predestination.
again, this time on Rilke: "There are in truth any number of such uncanny
moments in Rilke's poems when the mind seems to give way before an incomprehensible
mystery and, out of a long foreground, the lines on the poem seem to
be forming themselves, as if dictated by a force from without that is
also somehow a voice within."
"It is a struggle, not a thought." But I have no fight with it, and
secretly hope these tricksters do not exist for me. I have never been
so afflicted. Knock on wood for me. Instead of fighting, I usually try
to achieve a reverent clearing of my mind. "Don't think," I caution
myself . . . then I simply wait to see what comes on in. So far it has
worked pretty well, including the middle of this paragraph. At the moment
I'm on a jet heading for Dallas. By the way, writing always seems to
flow well for me at thirty-thousand feet.
Emerson to weigh in. "For poetry was all written before time was," the
greatest essayist points out. And, " . . . but the poet knows well that
it is not his; that it is as strange and beautiful to him as to you."
It would lead one to believe -- indeed all the above leads one to believe
-- that there's a celestial reservoir, something like a personal cistern,
floating above the heads of the elected ones.
I can see
the choice of the word cistern has minimized the topic. Perhaps I'm
writing my own heresy when I minimize, for I have always been a believer
and have frequently stated in the past that one does not select poetry,
poetry selects you. I do strongly believe that one's childhood grants
the evidence. Elisha Porat once put it, "Artists are born with a different
framework for their soul . . . perhaps some flaw . . . as alluring beauty
sometimes comes from differing from the norm."
I tend toward the metaphysical, I self-correct, then cast an aspersion
or two on the topic. I drag myself back from the mystical towers of
my most cherished fantasy. Yet how do it know? Just where do these seminal
nuggets come from?
these quoted poets have experienced the motion beyond intuition, the
achievement of the sense that allows one to poetically intuit, and all
have felt the actual words and phrases come rolling in so fluidly. All
of these poets have accepted the presence of poetic thought somewhere
beyond their own conscious. I've never known a poet who didn't get a
little wistful when discussing these matters, and have never, never,
heard a poet brag, "Hey, I just make it up as I go, man."
do I come down on the topic? Are they reverse prayers or not?
are reverse prayers. I think our souls entertain the stuff of the poem.
I think the soul can intuit back to the conscious. I don't think these
poems come bubbling up from the unconscious, as the more pragmatic of
us would have it, but rather I can feel, or I can intuit, these little
revelations emanate from the very soul, the soul who already has one
foot planted solidly in death (a nod to Senor Lorca) or, if you will,
the afterlife. Of course, I would very much like to prove it . . . but
say this: even though I think the soul entertains the stuff of poetry,
I do not, however, believe the process is metaphysical. Indeed, I think
it will be found to be physical.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we readily believe that our arms are in
the physical world, that our skin and bones are physical, and that our
very brain is physical, but we quickly balk at believing that our souls
are physical. Most of us would say, "No, no, our souls must be ephemeral,
wiffy, spiritual." But why? Perhaps our souls are physical, too. Who
would say their consciousness is not a part of nature? To quote the
good Jesuit directly: "To think we must eat." And, "In the last analysis,
somehow or other, there must be a single energy operating in the world.
And the first idea that occurs to us is that the 'soul' must be as it
were a focal point of transformation at which, from all points of nature,
the forces of bodies converge, to become interiorised and sublimated
in beauty and truth."
the past five thousand years of the written word, it is clear that as
science progresses and explains more of the physical world, the metaphysical
world has retreated from what it once termed concrete truths (for example,
Adam and Eve) to more allegorical truths (the Big Bang was perhaps instigated
has not yet invented a strong enough microscope or telescope to discern
the human soul. Yet I have a great faith in the future of science. In
the end I believe we will discover that it is indeed physical not metaphysical,
although I do not expect this to happen tomorrow, or for that matter,
within the next hundred generations. In the meantime, I recommend reverse
prayers to you. They're not quite as scientific as a microscope, but
they're all the evidence we have right now.