“What’s Not There: A Few Casual Reflections on Poetry”

by Sam Buntz

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enameling…

-William Butler Yeats

I’m not sure it is necessarily healthy for someone who tries to write poems to think too hard about what he or she is doing.  The method is, after all, a ghostly one—I’m not sure anyone has ever actually “exerted” their energies in the early stages of creating a poem, which seem to me to be entirely receptive, phantasmic, and characterized by an awareness of shapes that flit among the shadows drifting in the mind’s deep recesses.  Bits and pieces fall out of heaven, land in the sticky stuff in your head, and you need to spoon them out, wash them, dry them, brush their hair, and put them on their way.  Poems “love to happen” (stealing a phrase from Marcus Aurelius)—but the poet needs to acknowledge and recognize them when they are happening, and to provide them with space and light, and with adequate doses of vitamins and minerals, in order to let them bristle up in full.  Of course, it is really the god who gets the work done.  The outward, merely actual, mask of the poet is that of a clerk, taking dictation—no less a faithful recorder than a table-tapping occultist.  Yet there is still certainly some connection between the real self of the poet and the god who dictates the poem…maybe even perfect identity.  And the poet’s revisions are not a boring uninspired labor either, occurring in the wake of the initial flash and dash—a drop of water needs to be hitting the stones in the cave at every moment, feeding the moss, even if the apparent day is drab and drier than dust.

What I mean to discuss in writing this collection of reflective oddments is not the occult nature of the operation itself—which will be left free to proceed in due darkness—but what I admire in the best poets’ creations: creations of Eternity at love with and at war with “the productions of Time,” to steal a great phrase from Blake.  And perhaps these appreciations will serve to heighten a few poets’ awareness of what I find to be worthy of pursuit, if what I say has any validity—who knows.  Really, I myself wouldn’t quibble with Dickinson’s definition: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry.”  A more serious person than I would simply cite that quote, leave it red and beating on the table, and excuse himself.  But I plan to get messy.

For I admire a kind of restless messiness in poetry—“crooked roads” are the paths of genius, says Blake, just as a meandering river has more grandeur than a smooth, cement-paved canal.  Every poet worth his or her salt has managed to give birth to something wonderfully imperfect, something somewhere, in some portion of it’s being, a little broken, misshapen—since contact with Deity deforms just as it informs.   So one should not paint things too exactly, too clearly: true humanity creeps in where the eyes’ supernatural lenses can pervert merely natural scenery to a just and symmetrical end.  Giving advice to another musician, Miles Davis said “Don’t play what’s there—play what’s not there.”  This advice is just as apt for poetry.  A genuine poet—a Blake or a Wordsworth, for instance—does not rest with what is merely there, inert and stupid.  Blake flies clean beyond what we customarily think of as reality, exposing a fair amount of its mental, spiritual, and imaginative superstructure, and Wordsworth—while simultaneously more appreciative of and more confined by natural beauty than Blake—ultimately believes that the “mind of man” can grow more beautiful than the nature it beholds, while at the same time being informed by the beauty of that nature.  If we’re only going to describe what is so crudely there, why don’t we revert to photography, rather than picking up the pen in the first place?  But poetry—or, I should say, the best poetry—escapes, out-soars these surly bonds.

Poetry “is more than an imitation for the ear”—hold fast by this dictum (courtesy of Wallace Stevens) and you will do well, for it is of your eternal salvation… To provide a brighter illustration, I have no problem admitting that I like the little poem that begins “so much depends / upon / a red wheelbarrow…” by William Carlos Williams.  But, while I know a lot of Williams-heads out there who go bananas for his poems, I cannot bring myself to do much more than like them.  I certainly don’t love “so much depends/ upon / a red wheelbarrow…”  I think this is because this poem really is just “an imitation for the ear.”  Sure, something “depends / upon” the red wheelbarrow—which goes a little beyond what’s there—but really, all we have in the poem are verbal signs representing a red wheelbarrow, a glaze of rain-water, and some white chickens.  A photo would’ve served us better, though I confess there is something oddly haunting about simple objects inked verbally in a simple light.  But what our full humanity demands is certainly a sight more.  We need to see how a seagull’s wings “shed white rings of tumult, building high,” or see a Tyger’s brain being forged with mysterious chains and anvils in a symbolic furnace, or perceive the path of a hummingbird as “a route of evanescence / with a revolving wheel.”

If the aesthetic wonder of what’s not there is not yet obvious to you, I think I can explain it best this way: I admire a dog who tugs at her chain more than I admire a dog who sits disconsolate with the links lying loose behind.  Seeing something as it is not, but strangely seems to be, is really nothing less than what we call metaphor.  It may not sound like a very intense critical standard, but I appreciate poems that have good metaphors—the weirder and wilder, the better, usually.  When Hart Crane tells me that the Caribbean Ocean seemed to him to be “a great wink of eternity” I start to get that “top of my head coming off” feeling that Dickinson was talking about.  But we may pause to bring up the robotic analyst’s objection: is the ocean at all like “a wink”?  Well, yes and no.  We can find almost nothing in the baldly visual realm that could compare the ocean to a wink, whether a wink winked by Eternity or a wink winked by just anybody.  Yet in the realm of “Intellectual Beauty” or of what the Sufi scholar Henry Corbin has called “The Imaginal World”  (as opposed to the “imaginary” world), these metaphors make sense—they follow definite rules, according to a bright logic that transcends our own, typically shadowy reasoning.  At the same time, I confess that I am utterly unable to express this logic in precise, analytical language—because that is exactly what it wishes to avoid or transcend.  All I know is that the natural world is burnt up by this sudden influx of holy strangeness.  If it makes sense to you once, it will make sense to you forever—but if it hasn’t happened yet, please continue trying or else attempt to better the world in some noble and practical manner.  Although “this great wink of eternity” may not be what’s there, it doesn’t stand to reason that it doesn’t exist somewhere, cannot be redeemed for legal tender in some higher, sunnier climate.

Yet, it can be reasonably asked, do we seek only to divert ourselves from a cold, stony reality with a highly intellectualized form of nonsense, a kind of voluntary madness?  Fortunately, “much madness is divinest sense.”  But, at the same time, such madness of metaphor will only make sense to the divinely mad.  “A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees.”  I propose that such leaps of sense beyond the physical, do correspond to a real world—a world that we could follow Boehme and Blake by terming “the super-sensual,” since it suggests something transcending the sensual world, while also heightening and bringing out the fullness of being embedded in the sensual.  One might think of this as the world of the intellect or of the imagination, and one might consider such a world to exist purely as an outgrowth—an emergent wonderland—springing from our biological form.  Great poets, such as Wallace Stevens, have taken this position.  But, for me, at least, the meaning of the super-sensual world is Occult and the world of “Intellectual Beauty” literally exists—I insist that it exists in the fullest sense of the term, more so than our world of fret and worry, of mosquito bites and genocides and allergies.

Of the English poets, Blake and Shakespeare seem to have been most directly connected with this other world—a world where every thing exists as a giant of itself, containing within what, on earth, were only the implications and associations attached to it.  Blake called these “Giant Forms.”  Sweet hints of this world drop regularly like manna into the brains of the witting and the unwitting, but are rarely recognized, let alone tasted.  Shakespeare seemed to be more of a connoisseur than anyone, yet he was so natural a writer that he never seems to have wished to map out a spiritual topography (unless he does so in Lear), devise a cosmic myth, or instruct us in the same way that Blake wished to instruct us (though there is definitely limitless wisdom to be had in Shakespeare.)  But the fullness of inspiration—of a world where things outleap themselves—is preeminently present in Shakespeare.

But for teaching purposes, I think Blake best exemplifies what I mean.  He insisted that he never beheld the world of nature, that all he looked on existed only as a mental representation, and that the work of the artist, performed “in the pulsation of an artery,” could best express the reality in which we live—extending, as it does, beyond the bounds delineated by microscopes and particle-accelerators.     Blake hints at that “sweet golden clime” to which the time-weary sunflower forever turns.  Here, however, in the world of time, we are bound to use time-bound objects in trying to express the timeless—we use dwarven forms to stand for the giant.  But, if somehow, out of the system of relations established between the various pieces we’ve managed to quilt and stitch, we may discern a giant symmetry—the sacrifice is well-performed, the offering paid.  A smoky twist of incense rises towards the nostrils of the god.

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Review: Moonrise Kingdom

by Sam Buntz

“BERT FISCHER: You’re like one of those clipper ship captains.  You’re married to the sea.

MAX FISCHER: Yes, that’s true. (Pause.) But I’ve been out to sea for a long time.”

-from Rushmore

In Wes Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, Sam (Jared Gilman) asks Suzy (Kara Hayward) what kind of bird she is, after he sneaks into the girls’ dressing room backstage at the local church’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (or Noah’s Flood—Britten’s musical re-working of a 15th Century mystery play.)   She replies, “I’m a raven.”  First, consider her role in the play, and then consider the role she is portraying in Anderson’s film and you’ll see how they coincide.  In case you haven’t read the Book of Genesis in a while or watched any 15th Century mystery plays, Noah sends the raven out from the Ark to find dry land— but it keeps going “to and fro” (back to the Ark and back out to sea).  Eventually, the raven finds dry land and decides not to return—alerting Noah to the fact that it’s getting close to time to unpack the Ark.  In the movie—which also features a storm/flood (which isn’t to give anything away, since it’s mentioned at the very beginning of the film)—.Sam and Suzy are together a pair of ravens, a pair of outsiders, not unlike Max as figurative clipper-ship captain in Rushmore.  Pre-teens eloping together, they both could share the sentiments expressed by Noah’s raven in a little poem by W.S. Merwin: “Why should I have returned? / My knowledge could not fit into theirs.  / I found untouched the desert of the unknown, / Big enough for my feet. / It is my home…”  The little kingdom by the sea that Sam and Suzy establish is just such an unknown—big enough only for the ravens’ feet.

I mention Anderson’s allusions to the Noah story to give the reader a sense of what a high level of aesthetic activity he’s operating on, in addition to highlighting key themes.  Moonrise Kingdom is the kind of film that will undoubtedly reward repeat viewings—there are certainly more treasures to be unearthed than I can manage to uncover in a relatively brief article.  At any rate, to continue with the movie itself: in a recent interview, Anderson said, “I’m drawn to outsiders…and people who have originality in their personalities.”  Anderson’s fans—among whom I proudly count myself, without any reservations whatsoever—would probably all confess to feeling the same way.  Suzy’s reading preferences again highlight this theme—the privileges and perils of outsider-hood.  She tells Sam that the books she likes tend to be set on “foreign planets,” typically featuring female characters—and we see her reading a book entitled The Girl From Jupiter, with a blue-skinned young alien girl on the cover.

Earlier in the film, we see her reading a book entitled Shelly and the Secret Universe.  In a sense, the film Moonrise Kingdom is itself a “secret universe”—maybe even an aesthetic Noah’s Ark, destined to make it through the flood.  The island of New Penzance is by no means a utopia, but it exists in a fully aestheticized universe—a kind of second Nature hovering about three or four feet above our own.  People still have plenty of problems in New Penzance, but these problems exist entirely within the strict parameters of art, of the Ark—order persisting over and above the flood.

As the movie begins, we hear a recording (which will be replayed at the end)—put on the record player by Suzy’s brother. (They still use record players in this odd time-out-of-time, which we are informed is the latter half of the 20th Century, but could very well be the kind of time that exists in that odd second Nature hovering a few feet above the everyday one.)  It happens to be an educational recording of Benjamin Britten conducting an orchestra, breaking a musical piece down into its separate parts—playing them all together, and then playing individual sections (woodwinds, percussion, etc.)  It is this neatness of composition, at once seamless and at once comprised of so many observable, interlocking pieces, that informs Anderson’s own method of creation.  It is a humorous metaphor for how he will develop and play his own characters off one another.  Really, he is as impeccable an artist as a French aesthete of the early 20th Century—everything needs to be and is under control.  Even something like death or orphanhood (or vengeance enacted with a pair of lefty scissors, for that matter) can be transfigured by Anderson’s stylization into something sensible—not morally or cosmically sensible, necessarily, but artistically. He uses his style —as they say, “oft imitated, never equaled” — to add, in Percy Shelley’s words, “grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.”  It is not just “art for art’s sake” (though it works very well as “art for art’s sake” if you want it to), but it is art as a safety net for life—a way of lifting us up from whatever low level we’ve managed to sink to and reflecting our own lives back to us in a way that makes them seem to have a plot.  Anderson has spoken of the intense influence that J.D. Salinger has had on him as a creator, and I believe that he inherits this rare ability directly from Salinger.  It is the ability to be a “catcher in the rye” and to actually use art as a way to catch or save us from misanthropy.  Salinger accomplishes this routinely in Nine Stories (and in all of his other books), which has always somehow seemed to me to be the Salinger book that has had the most influence on Anderson.

One of the things I like most about Wes Anderson is that he clearly asks himself, “What is the movie that I would most like to see in the world right now?” And he goes out and makes it.  If you can do that, you can do no wrong in my view.  Moonrise Kingdom is at once unpredictable—Anderson keeps us on our toes, we don’t know where it’s going—yet inevitable, as all great art needs to be.  When it gets to it’s final destination, we abandon our uncertainty and say, “Yes—that’s how it needed to be.”  We see that, truly, it is “not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan…”  In short—it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a while.

Review: Prometheus

The opening of Prometheus provides what is, by far, the most haunting and poetic scene in the entire movie—which is by no means to say that what follows is not artistically accomplished.  The rest of the film is quite good, but you couldn’t apply those two adjectives (“haunting” and “poetic”) to it, exactly, nor would you want or expect to.   But the first scene is impressive—and it needs to be considered in light of the wild ride that comes after it.  It’s also the kind of thing that would be ruined by verbal explanation, one of those surprisingly rare moments when a movie manages to convince you that a picture really is worth a thousand words, that the film is accomplishing something transcending its script (which is why I hope they don’t try to explain it in a sequel–though they apparently are, already.)  Throughout the course of the film, the audience will be moved to ponder the question (whether at the conscious or subconscious level, depending on how tuned in they are): “Was life on earth created out of purely material chaos, or was there a grander design, a lofty and noble purpose behind it all?”  The beauty of the first scene is that it provides the only true hint in the movie to whatever answers this question might possess.  It might not clear anything up, but it is highly suggestive—Ridley Scott must know something about the many religious myths that relate the idea that human beings were originally created from the fragments of a sacrificed god…

The strength of the movie—elevating it above the standard, special-effects  intensive summer blockbuster—is drawn from the fact that it uses a conflict of eternally absorbing interest to center it thematically: design vs. essential chaos.  (It could be argued that this conflict is really one of the few questions of genuine interest to any truly thoughtful person.)  Even though some of the critics I’ve looked at have only praised the movie for spectacle, while simultaneously accusing it of being derivative, I think that they’re missing something.  It’s rare that an action-adventure movie that needs to please an audience looking for sci-fi hi-jinks and splatter-horror also manages to do something more.  While, obviously, a movie geared towards an art-house audience—like The Tree of Life—has the leisure to get more philosophical and expand on its viewpoint to a greater degree, Prometheus uses exciting bits and pieces culled from other films, with a less explicitly philosophical perspective, to buffer its central conflict—such as Scott’s own Alien or the “body horror” of David Cronenberg’s movies (there’s a totally horrifying and genuinely disgusting scene in Prometheus that I don’t want to ruin for you).  But the threateningly primal life forms rising up to overwhelm, infect, and destroy human beings in Prometheus are more than simply thrilling examples of special-effects magic and artist-designer H.R. Giger’s perverse genius: they’re symbols of something we all fear—a return to the dark primordial cesspool from which our physical forms evolved, and to which sudden chaos and unrestricted impulse can often act to return us.   Those lower life-forms are contrasted with what is best in the humans and aliens in the movie—who can both seek reason, order, and design, attempting to carve a little haven out of “Chaos and Old Night” (as Milton called it), while all too easily succumbing to that primal swamp.  The movie’s violence and grossness are not an audience-pleasing device at odds with the rest of the movie’s message.  Rather, they represent the use of traditional sci-fi/horror plot points to help transmit that message—something for which the movie should be admired rather than derided.

Also, among generally fine acting, Michael Fassbender’s performance stood out as being particularly excellent, as he delivered lines like “It’s not a traditional fetus,” with a strangely knowing and ironic (for a robot) dead-pan expression.

I highly recommend Prometheus.  While I wouldn’t quite rank it on the same level as a mind-blowingly inventive and thought-provoking science-fiction masterwork like, for example, the original The Matrix, I would still say that it’s significantly more than the usual blood-and-guts, alien-invaders shoot-em-up that we’re all used to by now.