“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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