Thursday, November 12, 2009

What Would A Real "Poetry Of The Earth" Sound Like?

I promised ("threatened" is a better word, for many of today's readers) recently to blog more about reading poetry. Again, if you're not someone who enjoys poetry, skip these posts; they'll only convince you that poetry is "difficult" and "dry," when, in fact, good poetry grabs your guts and leaves you whirling, like a good, but mysterious, dance partner. Good poetry does what good ritual can do, picks you up, takes you "elsewhere," and then gives you the shock of realizing that "elsewhere" is "here," that the familiar world is en-chanted and in-spired. So first you should experience poetry that you like and, then, only later, much later, should you read about reading about poetry. It's like reading about reading about dancing.

Here, however, for those still reading (maybe she'll say something; one never knows, she occasionally does) are some thoughts from Adam Kirsch concerning why the poetry of our age is not "religious" poetry but, rather, "poetry of the [E]arth." I'd like to think that this is so, despite Mr. Kirsch apparently believing that only people with penises can write poetry.

Ours does not promise to go down in literary history as a great age of religious poetry. Yet if contemporary poetry is not often religious, it is still intensely, covertly metaphysical. . . . the rise of the poetry of earth. This poetry—our poetry—prefers to imagine the artist not as a creator, but as a witness. It has a strong sense of ethical obligation, holding that the poet must serve as a bearer of memories and perceptions that history would otherwise sweep away. Whenever a poet is concerned with giving things their proper names, or with remembering what everyone else forgets, or with seeing nature so intently that it seems to yield up secrets, he or she is practicing this sort of Heideggerian poetry.

What makes the poetry of earth so challenging to write is that poets are instinctive world-builders. The artistic imagination is instinctively imperial, seizing on things seen and turning them into occasions for symbol and metaphor. (Think of all the poems that have been written to wrest the bird's song away from the bird and turn it into a symbol of transcendence, freedom, or passion.) Clearly, resisting this tendency requires an austere ethical discipline. But for the poetry of earth to be more than a bare catalogue of things seen, for it to achieve the linguistic and emotional richness of great poetry, requires a specifically artistic discipline as well. The poet of earth must use language to make us notice what we usually ignore, the way Van Gogh draws our attention to a humble pair of shoes; but he must avoid constructing the kind of coercive, tendentious myth that Heidegger builds around those shoes.

In Seamus Heaney's great sequence "Squarings," the poet is constantly brought up against the difficulty of this poised restraint. From the beginning of his career, Heaney has been an earthy poet in an obvious sense. His poems are often set on farms or in the countryside, and his rich, saturnine, consonant-heavy style is designed to give spoken language a corporeal weight. But in "Squarings," as he tries to enunciate the metaphysical propositions that have always guided his work, he becomes a poet of earth in a specifically Heideggerian sense. The first part of the poet's task, he makes clear, is to remain attentive to what most people ignore. "Make your study the unregarded floor," he adjures, and the whole sequence is full of concrete, sensual images: "Scissor-and-slap abruptness of a latch./Its coldness to the thumb. Its see-saw lift/And drop and innocent harshness."

Heaney is unrivalled at this sort of "study," which carries out the Heideggerian task of bringing "beings to word and to appearance." But in "Squarings," he insists that capturing the sensual world is more than an aesthetic activity; it also has a spiritual significance. At certain moments, "seeing things"—the title of the 1991 book in which "Squarings" appears—means seeing through them and beyond them. Heaney's poem is a record of such epiphanies, moments when the sheer fullness of the earth seems about to overflow into spirit: "A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares/With pure exhilaration before death."

For Heaney, however, the poet can only be true to such exhilarating moments by respecting their strangeness. That is why the word "epiphany," which Joyce famously used, does not quite fit Heaney's conception. The word comes from the Greek for appearance or shining-forth; in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the appearance of Christ's divinity to the Magi. But for Heaney, a post-Catholic poet, it is by no means clear that it is God who is shining through the earth, filling it with His glory. All he can honestly say is that the earth itself appears to shine; recording that radiance is the farthest he can go in the direction of prayer. That is why the language of Heaney's epiphanies is consistently negative, a matter of warding off conclusions and explanations. His sacred moments are those when "Nothing prevailed, whatever was in store/Witnessed itself already taking place/In a time marked by assent and by hiatus."

"Nothing prevailed" might be the Heideggerian poet's description of paradise: an instant of perfect restraint, where every being is allowed to be simply and wholly itself. This sense that "nothing" is more than an absence—that it can be a positive force, whose advent is to be welcomed—appears again in the work of Charles Simic, another poet deeply indebted to Heidegger. In his early poem "White," Simic succeeds in capturing this paradox as well as any poet has. "Out of poverty/To begin again//With the taste of silence/On my tongue," Simic begins, immediately plunging into the paradox at the heart of the poetry of earth. For if the poet's calling is to let beings be, then anything he says about them is a kind of violation of their integrity; the best poetry would have "the taste of silence." Later in "White" Simic returns to this problem in a startling, homely, yet philosophically dense image:
In the inky forest,
In its maziest,

Murkiest scribble
Of words

And wordless cries,
I went for a glimpse

Of the blossomlike
White erasure

Over a huge,
Furiously crossed-out something.

The whiteness the poet seeks is an absence, but also the trace of a presence. It is the white not of void but of erasure, the silence not of muteness but of reticence. In these lines, Simic succeeds in capturing some of the genuine strangeness of Heideggerian poetry, with its self-cancelling assertiveness. It is a contemporary version of the medieval via negativa: only what cannot be said is worth saying.

If Heaney and Simic demonstrate the exigent power of the Heideggerian mode, Billy Collins demonstrates that mode's comfortable decay. The poetry of earth succeeds only when it manages to make the earth itself strange to us, so that we can perceive it in its aloof beauty. When the poet allows the earth to remain familiar, however, his praise of it becomes mere praise for the familiar—for everything that is undemanding and reassuring. That is the note Collins strikes in "Earthling," where, after imagining what it would feel like to be heavier or lighter on other planets, he concludes:
How much better to step onto
the simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity,

157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.

Collins turns the very name of earth, which was an enigma to Heidegger, into a synonym for all that is "simple" and "happy." But he too is drawn, by the common impulse of our poetic moment, to the question of how poetry can do justice to the earth. In their different ways, many of the best poets of our time are trying to make us not just understand but experience the truth Heidegger stated in "The Origin of the Work of Art": "At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary."

Read the whole thing here.

I'm not at all sure that either Heidegger or Kirsch understands anything at all about Greek temples. What do you think? And yet, of course, at its base, my entire life is composed of the simple, moment by moment experience of the truth that "[a]t bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary." You should, really, you really should have seen the dried weed/grass that I passed this morning on my way to work. I stopped, and it made the SUV behind me angry, it did, and cried, "You're amazing and lovely!" to that dried weed, sparkling in the cold Autumn rain. One of these days they're going to commit me; I know that they are.

Picture found here.

One wonders if Mr. Kirsch has never read Mary Oliver, , Adrienne Rich, Barbara Spring. They, too write Poetry of the Earth, and their poems are more involved with the Earth than with the weight of penised-Earthlings standing on scales, giving truth to theories of gravity.


Marya said...

How I agree with you -- the denigration of 'nature poetry' as a minor genre all through the 20th century has made my blood boil.

Not to mention the Aldeburgh festival debate on 'Men write poetry/women write female poetry'.

Cari said...

hello Hecate, I read this whole post; have some thoughts on my blog on pagan prayer books under this one, but for my vision of earth poetry at its most female, have a look at "Isn't She Lovely?", my response to Alice Walker's poem "We Have a Beautiful Mother."