Origins of a Poem
The Poet in the World
Some time in 1960 I wrote "The Necessity," a poem which has
remained, for me, a kind of testament, or a point of both moral and technical
reference, but which has seemed obscure to some readers. Since l don't think its
diction or its syntax really are obscure, it seems to me their difficulties with
it must arise from their unawareness of the ground it stands on, or is rooted
in; or to put it another way, the poem -- any poem, but especially a poem having
for the poet that character of testament -- is fruit, flower, or twig of a tree,
and is not to be fully comprehended without some knowledge of the tree's nature
and structure, even though its claim to be a poem must depend on internal evidence
alone. What f propose to do here is not to paraphrase or explicate "The Necessity,"
which I assume to be a poem, but to provide and explore some of the attitudes
and realizations to which it is related.
I keep two kinds of notebooks: one is a kind of anthology
of brief essential texts, the other a journal that includes meditations or ruminations
on such texts. In drawing from these sources, as I propose to do here, I am not
implying that all of them are literally antecedents, in my consciousness, of this
particular poem. In fact, although most or all of the sources -- the quotations
I shall be making from other writers -- were probably familiar to me by 1960,
and in many instances long before, and had been copied out by then into my private
anthology, the reflections on them written in my journals are of later date. I
am therefore not speaking of simple sequence but habitual preoccupations, which
accrue and which periodically emerge in different forms.
One such preoccupation forms itself as a question. What
is the task of the poet? What is the essential nature of his work? Are these not
questions we too often fail to ask ourselves, as we blindly pursue some form of
poetic activity? In the confusion of our relativistic age and our eroding, or
at least rapidly changing, culture, the very phrase, "the task of the poet," may
seem to have a nineteenth-century ring, both highfalutin and irrelevant. Our fear
of the highfalutin is related to the salutary dislike of hypocrisy; but I believe
we undercut ourselves, deprive ourselves of certain profound and necessary understandings,
if we dismiss the question as irrelevant, and refuse, out of what is really only
a kind of embarrassment, to consider as a task, and a lofty one, the engagement
with language into which we are led by whatever talent we may have. And precisely
this lack of an underlying conception of what the poet is doing accounts for the
subject-seeking of some young poets -- and maybe some old ones too -- and for
the emptiness, flippancy, or total subjectivity of a certain amount of writing
that goes under the name of poetry.
Years ago, I copied out this statement by Ibsen in a
The task of the poet is to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the
temporal and eternal questions. . . .
In 1959 or 1960 I used these words as the subject of one of "Three
Meditations." The three formed one poem, so that in referring this one alone certain
allusions are lost; but it makes a certain amount of sense on its own:
throng the straight roads of
my empire, converging
on black Rome.
There is darkness in me.
sternly, in tenuous joy
cut through its folds:
arise from cloud.
Who was it yelled, cracking
the glass of delight?
Who sent the child
sobbing to bed, and woke it
later to comfort it?
I, I, I, I.
I multitude, I tyrant,
I angel, I you, you
world, battlefield, stirring
with unheard litanies, sounds of piercing
green half-smothered by
My emphasis was on asking oneself the
questions, internalizing them, on coming to realize how much the apparently external
problems have their parallels within us. (Parenthetically, I would suggest that
man has to recognize not only that he tends to project his personal problems on
the external world but also that he is a microcosm within which indeed the same
problems, the same tyrannies, injustices, hopes, and mercies act and react and
demand resolution.) This internalization still seems to me what is essential in
Ibsen's dictum: what the poet is called on to clarify is not answers but the existence
and nature of questions; and his likelihood of so clarifying them for others is
made possible only through dialogue with himself Inner colloquy as a means of
communication with otters was something I assumed in the poem but had not been
at that time overtly concerned with, though in fact I had already translated a
Toltec poem that includes the line, "The true artist I maintains dialogue with
What duality does dialogue with himself dialogue with
his heart, imply? "Every art needs two -- one who makes it, and one who needs
it," Ernst Barlach, the German sculptor and playwright; is reported to have said.
If this is taken to mean someone out there who needs it -- an audience -- the
working artist is in immediate danger of externalizing his activity', of distorting
his vision to accommodate it to what he knows, or supposes he knows, his audience
requires, or to what he thinks it ought to hear. Writing to a student in 1965,
I put it this way:
. . . you will find yourself not saying all you have to say-you will limit
yourself according to your sense of his, or her, or their, capacity. In order
to do all that one can in any given instance (and nothing less than all is good
enough, though the artist, not being of a complacent nature, will never feel sure
he has done all) one must develop objectivity; at some stage in the writing of
a poem you must dismiss from your mind all special knowledge (of what you were
intending to say, of private allusions, etc.) and read it with the innocence you
bring to a poem by someone unknown to you. If you satisfy yourself as reader (not
just as "self-expressive" writer) you have a reasonable expectation of reaching
This "reader within one" is identical
with Barlach's "one who needs" the work of art. To become aware of him safeguards
the artist both from the superficialities resulting from over adaptation to the
external, and from miasmic subjectivities My reference above to "self-expression"
is closely related to what I believe Ibsen must have meant by "to make clear to
himself" A self-expressive act is one which makes the doer feel liberated, "clear"
in the act itself. A scream, a shout, a leaping into the air, a clapping of hands-or
an effusion of words associated for their writer at that moment with an emotion-all
these are self-expressive. They satisfy their performer momentarily. But they
are not art. And the poet's "making clear," which Ibsen was talking about, is
art: it goes beyond (though it includes) the self-expressive verbal effusion,
as it goes beyond the ephemeral gesture; it is a construct of words that remains
clear even after the writer has ceased to be aware of the is associations that
initially impelled it. This kind of "making clear" engages both the subjective
and objective in him. The difference is between the satisfaction of exercising
the power of utterance as such, of saying, of the clarity of action; and of the
autonomous clarity of the thing said, the enduring clarity of the right words.
Cid Corman once said in a broadcast that poetry gives us "not experience thrown
as a personal problem on others but experience as an order that will sing to others."
The poet -- when he is writing -- is a priest, the poem
is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it. The communion is triple:
between the maker and the needer within the poet; between the maker and the needers
outside him -- those who need but can't make their own poems (or who do make their
own but need this one too); and between the human and the divine in both poet
and reader. By divine I mean something beyond both the making and the needing
elements, vast, irreducible, a spirit summoned by the exercise of needing and
making. When the poet converses with this god he has summoned into manifestation,
he reveals to others the possibility of their own dialogue with the god in themselves.
Writing the poem is the poet's means of summoning the divine; the reader's maybe
through reading the poem, or through what the experience of the poem leads him
Rilke wrote in a letter: ". . . and does not ultimately
tend to produce more artists. It does not mean to call anyone over to it; indeed,
it has always been my guess that it is not concerned at all with any effect. But
while its creations, having issued irresistibly from an inexhaustible source,
stand there strangely quiet and surpassable among things, it may be that involuntarily
they become somehow exemplary for every human activity by reason of their innate
disinterestedness, freedom and intensity . . . ."1
It is when making and needing have a single point of
origin that this "disinterestedness" occurs. And only when it does occur are the
"freedom and intensity" generated which "involuntarily become exemplary" -- which
do, that is, communicate to others outside the artist's self. That is the logic
of Ibsen's word "thereby" ("to make clear to himself and thereby to others").
I'd like to take a closer look at this word need.
The need I am talking about is specific (and it is the same, I think, that fluke
meant when in the famous first letter to the Young Poet he told him he should
ask himself "Must I write?"). This need is the need for a poem; when this fact
is not recognized, other needs -- such as an undifferentiated need for self-expression,
which could just as well find satisfaction in a gesture or an action; or the need
to reassure the ego by writing something that will impress others -- are apt to
be mistaken for specific poem-need. Talent will not save a poem written under
these misapprehensions from being weak and ephemeral.
For years I understood the related testimony of Jean
Hélion, the contemporary French painter, only as it concerned "integrity" and
as an affirmation of the existence of an "other" within oneself, when he wrote
in an English art magazine of the 1940s: "Art degenerates if not kept essentially
the language of the mysterious being hidden in each man, behind his eyes. I act
as if this hidden being got life only through the manipulation of plastic quantities,
as if they were his only body, as if their growth were his only future. I identify
him with his language. Instead of a description, an expression, or a comment,
art becomes a realization with which the urge to live collaborates as a mason."
But when I reconsidered this passage in relation to how the transition from the
inner world, inner dialogue, of the artist, to communication with any external
other, is effected, I came to realize that Hélion is also implying that it is
through the sensuous substance of the art, and only through that, that the transition
The act of realizing inner experience in material substance
is in itself an action toward others, even when the conscious intention
has not gone beyond the desire for self-expression. Just as the activity of the
artist gives body and future to "the mysterious being hidden behind his eyes,"
so the very fact of concrete manifestation, of paint, of words, reaches over beyond
the world of inner dialogue. When Hélion says that then art becomes a realization,
he clearly means not awareness but quite literally "realization," making real,
substantiation. Instead of description, expression, comment -- all of which only
refer to an absent subject-art becomes substance, entity.
Heidegger, interpreting Hölderlin,2
says that to be human is to be a conversation -- a strange and striking
way of saying that communion is the very basis of human living, of living humanly.
The poet develops the basic human need for dialogue in concretions that are audible
to others; in listening, others are stimulated into awareness of their own needs
and capacities, stirred into taking up their own dialogues, which are so often
neglected (as are the poet's own, too often, when he is not actively being
a poet). Yet this effect, or result, of his work, though he cannot but be
aware of it, cannot be the intention of the poet, for such outward, effect-directed
intention is self-defeating.
Man's vital need for communion, his humanity's being
rooted in "conversation," is due to the fact that since living things, and parts
of living things, atrophy if not exercised in their proper functions and since
man does contain, among his living parts, the complementary dualities of Needer
and Maker, he must engage them if they are not to deteriorate. That is why Hélion
speaks of "the urge to live collaborating as a mason" in the realization of art.
The two beings are one being, mutually dependent. The life of both depends not
merely on mutual recognition but on the manifestation of that recognition in substantial
terms -- whether as "plastic quantities" or as words (or in the means of whatever
art is in question). The substance, the means, of an art, is an incarnation --
not reference but phenomenon. A poem is an indivisibility of "spirit and matter''
much more absolute than what most people seem to understand by the synthesis of
form and content." That phrase is often taken to imply a process of will, craft,
taste, and understanding, by which the form of a work may painstakingly be molded
to a perfect expression of, or vehicle for, its content. But artists know this
is not the case -- or only as a recourse, a substitute in thin times for the real
thing. It is without doubt the proper process for certain forms of writing --
for exposition of ideas, for critical studies. But in the primary work of art
it exists, at best, as a steppingstone to activity less laborious, less linked
to effort and will. Just as the "other being" of Hélion's metaphor is identified,
in process, with his Language, which is his "only body, his only future," so content,
which is the dialogue between him and the "maker," becomes form. Emerson
says, ". . . insight which expresses itself by what is called Imagination does
not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees,
by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid
to others ..." (my italics). 3 Goethe
says, ". . . the moralists think of the ulterior effect, about which the true
artist troubles himself as little as Nature does when she makes a lion or a hummingbird."4
And Heidegger, in ''Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry," writes: "Poetry
looks like a game and is not. A game does indeed bring men together, but in such
a way that each forgets himself in the process. In poetry, on the other hand,
man is reunited on the foundation of his existence. There he comes to rest; not
indeed to the seeming rest of inactivity and emptiness of thought, but to that
infinite state of rest in which all powers and relations are active."
"Disinterested intensity, of which Rilke wrote, then,
is truly exemplary and affective intensity. What Charles Olson has called a man's
"filling of his given space, what John Donne said of the presence of God in a
straw -- "God is a straw in a straw -point toward that disinterest. The strawness
of straw, the humanness of the human, is their divinity; in that intensity is
the "divine spark" Hasidic lore tells us dwells in all created things. "Who then
is man?" Heidegger asks. "He who must affirm what he is. To affirm means to declare;
but at the same time it means: to give in the declaration a guarantee of what
is declared. Man is he who he is, precisely in the affirmation of his own
Olson's words about filling our given space occur in
a passage that further parallels Heidegger:
. . . a man, carved
out of himself, so wrought he
fills his given space, makes
traceries sufficient to
others' needs . . .
social action, for the poet
needs . . .
Olson is saying, as Heidegger is saying,
that it is by being what he is capable of being, by living his life
so that his identity is "carved, is wrought," by filling his given space,
that a man, and in particular a poet as a representative of an activity peculiarly
human, does make "traceries sufficient to others' needs" (which is, in
the most profound sense, a "social" or "political" action). Poems bear witness
to the manness of man, which, like the strawness of straw, is an exiled spark.
Only by the light and heat of these divine sparks can we see, can we feel, the
extent of the human range They bear witness to the possibility of "disinterest,
freedom, and intensity."
"Therefore dive deep," wrote Edward Young -- author of
the once so popular, later despised, Night Thoughts - "dive deep into thy
bosom; learn the depths, extent, bias, and full fort of thy mind; contract full
intimacy within the stranger within thee; excite and cherish every spark of intellectual
light and beat, however smothered under former negligence, or scattered through
the dull, dark mass of common thoughts; and collecting them into a body, let thy
genius rise (if genius thou hast) as the sun from chaos; and if I then should
say, like an Indian, Worship it (though too bold) yet should I say little more
than my second rule enjoins, viz., Reverence thyself."5
What I have now to now been suggesting as the task of
the poet may seem of an Emersonian idealism (though perhaps Emerson has been misread
on this point) that refuses to look mans capacity for evil square in the eyes.
Now as perhaps never before, when we are so acutely conscious of being ruled by
evil men, and that in our time man's inhumanity to man has swollen to proportions
of perhaps unexampled monstrosity, such a refusal would be no less than idiotic.
Or I may seem to have been advocating a Nietzschean acceptance of man's power
for evil, simply on the ground that it is among his possibilities. But Young's
final injunction, in the passage just quoted, is what, for me, holds the clue
to what must make the poet's humanity humane. "Reverence thyself" is necessarily
an aspect of Schweitzer's doctrine of Reverence for Life, the recognition of oneself
as life that wants to live among other forms of life that want to live.
This recognition is indissoluble, reciprocal, and dual. There can be no self-respect
without respect for others, no love and reverence for others without love and
reverence for oneself; and no recognition of others is possible without the imagination.
The imagination of what it is to be those other forms of life that want to live
is the only way to recognition; and it is that imaginative recognition that brings
compassion to birth. Man's capacity for evil, then, is less a positive capacity,
for all its horrendous activity, than a failure to develop mans most human function,
the imagination, to its fullness, and consequently a failure to develop compassion.
But how is this relevant to the practice of the arts,
and of poetry in particular? Reverence for life, if it is a necessary relationship
to the world, must be so for all people, not only for poets. Yes; but it is the
poet who has language in his care; the poet who more than others recognizes language
also as a form of life and a common resource to be cherished and served
as we should serve and cherish earth and its waters, animal and vegetable life,
and each other. The would-be poet who looks on language merely as something to
be used, as the bad farmer or the rapacious industrialist looks on the soil or
on rivers merely as things to be used, will not discover a deep poetry; he will
only, according to the degree of his skill, construct a counterfeit more or less
acceptable -- a subpoetry, at best efficiently representative of his thought or
feeling -- a reference, not an incarnation. And he will be contributing, even
if not in any immediately apparent way, to the erosion of language, just as the
irresponsible, irreverent farmer and industrialist erode the land and pollute
the rivers. All of our common resources, tangible or intangible, need to be given
to, not exclusively taken from. They require the care that arises from intellectual
love -- from an understanding of their perfections.
Moreover, the poet's love of language must, if language
is to reward him with unlooked-for miracles, that is, with poetry, amount to a
passion. The passion for things of the world and the passion for naming them must
be in him indistinguishable. I think that Wordsworth's intensity of feeling lay
as much in his naming of the waterfall as in his physical apprehension of it,
when he wrote:
...The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion ...
The poet's task is to hold in trust the knowledge that language,
as Robert Duncan has declared, is not a set of counters to be manipulated, but
a Power. .And only in this knowledge does he arrive at music, at that quality
of song within speech which is not the result of manipulations of euphonious parts
but of an attention, at once to the organic relationships of experienced phenomena
and to the latent harmony and counterpoint of language itself as it is identified
with those phenomena. Writing poetry is a process of discovery, revealing inherent
music, the music of correspondences, the music of inscape. It parallels what,
in a person's life, is called individuation: the evolution of consciousness toward
wholeness, not an isolation of intellectual awareness but an awareness involving
the whole self, a knowing (as man and woman ''know'' one another), a touching,
a ''being in touch.''
All the thinking I do about poetry leads me back, always,
to a reverence for Life as the ground for poetic activity; because it seems the
ground for Attention. This is not to put the cart before the horse: some sense
or identity, at which we wonder; an innocent self-regard, which we see in infants
and in the humblest forms of life; these come first, a center out of which Attention
reaches. Without Attention -- to the world outside us, to the voices within us
-- what poems could possibly come into existence? Attention is the exercise of
Reverence for the ''other forms of life that want to live." The progression seems
clear to me: from Reverence for life to Attention to Life, from Attention to Life
to a highly developed Seeing and Hearing, from Seeing and Hearing (faculties almost
indistinguishable for the poet) to the Discovery and Revelation of Form, from
Form to Song.
There are links in this chain of which I have not spoken,
except to name them -- the heightened Seeing and Hearing that result from Attention
to anything, their relation to the discovery and revelation of form. To speak
intelligibly of them would take more time and space than I have. But I hope that
I have conveyed some idea of the true background of a poem, and have helped to
define for others much that they have already intuited in and for their own labours,
perhaps without knowing that they knew it:
From love one takes
petal to rock and blesséd
one took thought
for frail tint and spectral
from way back that stillness,
that heart of fire, rose
at the core of gold glow,
could go down undiminished,
for love and
or in fear knowing
the risk, knowing
what one is touching, one does it,
of speech a spark
awaiting redemption, each
a virtue, a power
in abeyance unless we
give it care
our need designs in us. Then
all we have led away returns to us.
1From a letter to Rudolf Bodlander. See Letters
of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vol.11 (New York, W.W. Norton, 1969), p.294.
2Martin Heidegger's essay on "Hölderlin
and the Essence of Poetry" is included in Existence and Being (Chicago,
3From "Poetry," Essays (second
4Quoted by Thomas Mann in "Goethe & Tolstoy,"
Essays of Thomas Mann (New York, Vintage, 1957).
5 From Edward Young, Conjectures on Original
This is the Hopwood Lecture for 1968, given at the University
of Michigan and later published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol.
VII, No.4, 1968.
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