These letters I print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning…
Smile, if only from politeness, at the one moment of
the world that concerns you.
—Jean Grosjean, An Earth of Time
The poet’s psychology, visible only to the poet’s friends, floats lightly over the surface of the poem. It discolors some words temporarily, but never quite settles into them—provided those words belong together. If so, they will eventually cast off this shadow; if not, it will eventually smother them. Thus, it is the poem, not the poet, that we love. Through it the singular becomes shared, the transitory eternal.
The eternal, typically a conceit standing in for the hope of civilizations, acts differently in poetry. The words of the poem, once happily configured, may wait a very long time for a reader to read them as they were meant to be read. This is the eternity of the poem.
A poet only needs one poem, a poem only one reader. Moving from singular to shared in this instance is a rudimentary economy. It is less affecting than a mortal kiss, more than a passing conversation. The poem will always provoke an acute desire to know its creator, “acute” because hopeless.
Disembodied, the poem provokes longing. Its incorporeity is inscribed in myth: the severed head of Orpheus adrift on the Aegean Sea. Though separated, the head continues to sing. The song it sings is either a lament of exile from the body or a celebration of freedom from its material prison, depending on the direction of the winds.
The poet’s emotional signature is retained in the poem. Aristotle, in his bipartite model of the soul, places the emotions under the obedient, illogical part, reason with command and logic. Yet both parts are cognitive and partake in the logos. Thought is the efficient cause of emotion. This is why a poem’s intelligence is more moving than its heart.
Just as ideas do not precede words, content is inchoate before form. Similarly, experience is inchoate before memory. This Proustian maxim holds true for the poem. Like us, words are ever-changing relics fighting for continued relevance. The poet’s job is to preserve this “fossil language” (Emerson). In exchange, the poem returns the illusion of presence, the gift of the now.
Poetic form is the temporal conduit between the past, present, and future. It organizes the senses so that they do not hinder the intellect in its lonely quest toward understanding and, in some cases, unity with something greater than itself.
What does it matter if there are poets or poems?
The idea of audience is a nuisance born of the need for spectacle. Poems haunting the precarious dialectic between existence and extinction do not need it. Their magic is dependent on the private experience of separate individuals.
Poets whose readings lead us to believe ourselves part of a spontaneous and instinctive consensus have left poetry behind. Perhaps for the better.
The poet who foregrounds the surface qualities of the word—sound, texture, look—must be especially scrupulous when building the poem’s semantic foundation. Effects should enhance complexity, not replace it, otherwise they risk giving complexity, which already struggles to justify itself, a very bad name.
In poetry, as elsewhere, nature isn’t what it used to be.
The poem resists. It resists coming into being. It resists eloquence. It resists transmitting unpleasant or embarrassing knowledge. It resists grammatical constraints. It resists moving away from simple utterance. It resists revision. It resists completion. It resists success. Hopefully, the poet resists as well.
The book is the means, not the end. It should conform to the poem, not vice versa. Otherwise the imagination becomes a small box, which thinks only of the larger box it wishes to resemble. An ideal book is a bed: a comforting place in which poems can sleep while awaiting illumination. Both poem and book, however, are subject to the capricious lens of human attention.
The poem is responsible for the knowledge it proposes. It cannot account for what the reader does not know, nor should it account for what the reader desires. Any attempt to do so panders to a temporary and insufficient knowledge. The poem is not prophetic. It cannot foresee its relevance to others. And yet still it wants to be loved.
The poet must understand seduction, because even capricious human attention is susceptible to courtship.
Poetry, in the abstract, offends no one.
Sleep, to whom Keats partly owes his “worthy rhymes,” has long been kin to poetry. Saint-Pol Roux affixing a sign that reads “poet at work” to his bedchamber is the most playful example of this alliance. Both sleep and poetry open a passage to the unconscious, one by nature, the other by artifice. Both create memories of astonishing wakefulness, one through dream, the other through imagination. It is almost impossible to reproduce or transmit such experiences by other means.
There are two kinds of poetic seduction. One is quick, content-based, and will tolerate no argument. The other is slow, formal, and easily deniable. The first may create wistful memories, but never a lasting relationship. The second, if successful, will become a part of you, a quiet attendant for life.
A momentary bewilderment arouses the mind. Many words, lines, and phrases may temporarily baffle without spoiling the reading experience as a whole.
Though it is true that before creation every quantum of content has infinite potential form, the successful poem will pass convincingly for the sole formal option, effectively erasing the memory of all other solutions.
A word can be a seed from which an entire poem grows, or it can be an integral part of a well-balanced formal arrangement, one leaf among many. Some words may act like birds and add a touch of color. But should they chance to flyaway the perception of the whole would not be altered.
Risks to the poet’s life: drowning from self-love like Narcissus, or becoming infatuated with death like Orphée in Cocteau’s retelling of the myth. Through the mirror lies the abyss in both cases, and thus it is impossible to tell them apart.
The poet is buried in the obliterated whiteness beneath the dark letters of poem.
The poem helps us to understand the mystery of the word. In the process the obvious becomes meaningless, the enigmatic revelatory.
Sometimes the poem has more friends than the poet.
Publication, popularity, and prizes. All three are unreliable measures of value. In fact, any indicator of poetic worth that is immediately perceptible to people who care nothing of poetry is likely to be, in some part, false.
There is a time in every poet’s life when the mention of other writers, even if dead, is intolerable. It is a necessary rejection of the known text in favor of the not-yet-written. If things go as they should, this allergy will be only temporary. The lively mind will eventually find such closed antipathy boring and opt for openness instead.
Poems demand a concentrated lingering to which we are unaccustomed. This is why they cause discomfort. When we stand still in one place, attempting to document and respect the details, we feel as vulnerable as a small creature in an open field beneath avian predators. Rapid and sequential page turning gives us a sense of progress and accomplishment, relieving us from the double threat of frustration and impatience.
Language has no weather, and therefore is not, strictly speaking, an environment.
Poets who have learned a lesson write poems that teach.
The hermetic poem is premised on a deep-held respect for an invisible knowledge already assumed to exist. It wishes to be like Hermes in Botticelli’s Primavera, shooing away the little clouds. Moving clouds with a wand, however, is a very delicate business. The poet who attempts it lightly risks becoming lost in a mist.
Inspiration is a matter of will, Imagination of mind. The former comes from forces outside the poet, whether they be divine or mundane, issuing from the Muse or the polis. Dull, meaningless environments dry up this faculty and put too much pressure on the Imagination, which arises from inside the poet, and can, if left without outlet, collapse.
A collapsed Imagination results in acute neurosis. And yet while all neurotics are imaginative, many poets are not.
I once wrote, “those who think poetry is working, are laboring under a misconception.” By which I meant that the mental activity of writing a poem sabotages the mechanized reproduction of culturally programmed cognition: work-a-day thought is put to a stop.
Poetry is play for very high stakes which, though the cause of an extremely competitive race, can never be collected.
Poets, once they reach a certain maturity, may begin to repeat
themselves. This realization can stultify, and, for a time, silence. But there is no shame in refining a well-constructed and meaningful design. Subtlety has authored many a shakedown.
The established poet who, fearing calcification, reverts to a quest for novelty, not only robs the youth of their one advantage, but risks looking the fool as well.
The trick with fashion is to sit it out.
I have about the same interest in jewelry that I have in horse racing, politics, modern poetry, or women who need weird excitement. None.
—Cary Grant, To Catch a Thief
You can learn a great deal about what people think of you by paying attention to the company they place you in.
The living language is intimately connected to poetic form. When Middle English went, so did “bob and wheel.” And yet, since in addition to floating on the air, poems now live in books, archaic words and forms can be revived and, if sparingly applied, provide a certain charm to an otherwise speech-based composition.
As with Shakespeare’s language, which is spoken nowhere but on the stage, we suspend our disbelief out of love for the fresh turns of phrase, outré diction, and elegant artifice. In this time of plain speaking some may also find that a moment away from “natural” speech can come as a great relief.
I have met very few poets who are calm about or accepting of the way visual artists use language in their work.
After a point, even the poem can grow bored with its own devices.
It seems as if the able use of metaphor has precipitously fallen off since doubt was cast upon language’s ability to represent the real, and yet simile, a far less interesting trope, somehow continues to thrive.
Poetry is not politically efficacious in countries where it is not valued as a cultural necessity by the general populace.
The poem occupies an invisible zone between the subjective emotional utterance and the objective reporting of fact. It is relative and universal, false and true. Negotiating this contradiction with finesse is crucial to the poem’s success.
A great deal of overlap notwithstanding, the poem’s knowledge is never quite identical to the poet’s. Poets understand the intention behind their poems, and may even recognize the outcome, but there is always a remainder they cannot foresee and, indeed, may never detect.
The poem’s life is not coeval with the poet’s.
The novice poet uses the poem in the service of desire, while the expert pressures desire into the service of the poem.
Poetry can intimate the existence of forces beyond the understanding of the individual mind, and yet, as a strictly human endeavor, reliant on the individual, it is a poor substitute for religion. The fiction it provides can neither be standardized, nor significantly shape behavior. In addition, belief has nothing whatsoever to do with the existence of poetry.
Still we might ask: in the absence of God is poetry the best vehicle through which to address metaphysical questions? No. It is one way among many, and has never, regardless of the relative state of God and religion, shied away from questions of the Soul.
It is easier to eavesdrop on and denigrate the compassionate, learned, and much interrupted conversation that makes up the history of poetry than it is to participate.
The most mysterious thing about poetry is that poets, even when lacking any prospect of reward or recognition, continue to find it satisfying to write.
Writing is the art of involvement. There is no real writing outside involvement. Writing is not a Persian rug on which the writer walks, as Jean Cocteau says; nor is it a seat covered in Aubusson, or a pillow of bird feathers into which our heads dive, or a private yacht on the deck of which we bask in the sunshine…and drink icy Dutch beer.
The writer has to remain in his depths a Bedouin dealing with the sun, with salt, and with thirst.
He must stay barefoot in order to feel the heat of the earth, its swellings and the pain of its stones.
He must stay naked like a wild horse, refusing all the saddles the regimes are trying to place on its back.
And once the writer loses his Bedouinness, his wildness, and his ability to neigh; once he opens his mouth for the iron bridle and grants his back to riders, he is transformed into “a government bus” forced to stop at all bus stops, and submit to the conductor’s whistle!
“Poetry’s buses” are well known in the history of ancient Arabic poetry, and the “garages” of caliphs are crowded with thousands of hypocritical poems which have, with the passage of time, become skeletons of tin plate and piles of scrap metal.
However, what surprises us is that this phenomenon persists in modern Arabic poetry, where we notice that some of our poets as well have been turning into “buses,” turning left and right to the capitals of the Arab world, carrying in their trunks acting costumes, make-up, and poems whose titles change according to “the requirement of the situation”!
The poet cannot choose ice and fire together; he cannot be in the forest and the city simultaneously; and he cannot be in survival and death at the same time!
Writing is a daily game with death. Thus Hemingway understood literature, and thus Kafka, Lorca, Camus, and Mayakovski, and others who have lived their lives and writings in the isthmus between life and death.
As for us, writing is “a government function” having all the comfort, obedience, fatalism, and discipline of an office position…
Three fourths of Arab writers are “civil servants” who write while holding in their pockets an insurance policy against poverty, illness, old age, and arbitrary expulsion…
For this reason they are unable to declare any strike, or walk in any demonstration, or distribute any poem or secret pamphlet not approved by the employer!
Thus the Arab writer is torn between his “civil position” as a man married to the government and his “artistic position” as a man yearning to cheat on his wife “the government,” but cannot carry out for the sake of the children’s future and the family honor!
Until we find the great courageous Arab writer who can tear out his certificate of marriage with the authority, and commit adultery even once, literature books will remain for us far from interdiction and confiscation, exactly like housekeeping books!