The challenge, what is poetry, is usually grown-up skepticism, beneath which is the heart's-wish that Imagination did not end in childhood. James Agee went further than childhood, saying he felt adolescence is the last stronghold of poetry, that only subliminal youths persevere as poets. But no fear. Rolling out the heavy guns right away, Blake said on the matter, "The imagination is not a State; it is the Human existence itself."
Poetry is but a voice-child of Imagination, grandchild of Maya, changeful creation Herself:
The poem, both form and address, is the messenger on the streetway pausing to hoarsely whisper, I have much to tell you. Essential human sympathy makes us pause to listen, perhaps in remembrance of our own transports and auguries. Anyone who has even once lifted free into the phantazieren between drowse and sleep, or who has flung back onto a grassy field with the wild intoxicated joy that life exists at all, has the impulse of poetry.
Recreating rich, subtle imagined life with the sounds and ancient meanings of the mother tongue will always be poetry's work.
Tongue, larynx, breath-play musings are inherent in every infant being. Singing follows as natural progress from feeling the heart-pulses over and over, to hearing the wind cross through the trees just outside the window, the nightfall sob of the dog for his dinner, the mother's lullaby, all urging labial whimsies in the growing child. We take from, because we begin as, everything. We continually create from the instant of birth.
This descends from the eternity of animal-kind, (setting aside our Puritan pretensions to hierarchical evolution for the moment). Antecedents for soaring poetry remain ritualized in bird and insect after a rain, the whale's respired moan, the wolf-howl, the half-choked scream of the coyote, the doe's stark keening, each distinguishable in their respective variations, so how can song not rise also from the human breath?
But let's go beyond reductive proofs to language itself. The etymologies of language establish the ancestors knew breath is mingled Spirit, mediating with matter the invisible source of breath. In Hebrew, wind and the Spirit of God are one and the same word, Ruach; in Latin Spiritus is Breath; Pneuma in Greek means equally wind, air, breath, and spirit. Something mysterious and powerful from the higher realms passes unto us with the breath. As that returns, (we know not where), we depart. Breath and body don't fragment on earth, except during some fateful shock. Then you look down, spirit upon flesh.
While we are here however (in mother Madonna's Material World), we make breath our own by song. Marija Gimbutas once wrote that a half-million Lithuanian and Latvian songs were collected from their countrysides in the Twenties. And those were small populations. How many uncollected millions of Songs over the earth have existed, and existing created and imaginatively sustained humanity: songs of planting, reaping, harvest, chopping, cooking, carrying, building, grieving, traveling, hunting, returning?
How many Songs of Experience are there? I say never ending. That these wellsprings became suppressed, diverted, commercialized, under industrial conditioning is no cause for despair. The sacred groves, pools, streams, knolls, towers, and subterranean entrances may be vanished, along with worshipful communal life, but powers of the Word spring from indomitable natural causes whatever the conditions. Any historical condition is by definition temporal. Poets keep constant faith.
The Poet's Task
From a very early moment, Singers must have emerged in the bands, clusters, and tribes forming on the intoning vivid Earth. The root of the Greek word for poet means creator, composer. In that indefinitely past time, and we're talking about hundreds of thousands of years at least, certain of the tribe or the region carried the song-gifts into adulthood and so served the extended community in an important way. It was a calling, akin to being an oracle whose trance dropped down as grace from another realm. Hence the remnant fables about Bards, Mystery cults, the attendant Muse, inspiration threading down into Dylan Thomas's
...craft or sullen art exercised in the still night
Even today amidst the era of the mechanized psyche, we hear testimony to auxiliary aid, passages apparently written by themselves. With or without such Guidance, every voice can make a poem and a good one. Every baby cries on key. There is no telling how many insights, profundities as deep as Buddha's, and verbal flights of genius have occurred, do happen every day, all over the world, from the origins of the race to this moment. Everyone has felt insight and found form at an early age, a spontaneous enlightenment. Such experience is seed, carried in memory, that can be perfected in its own right some future day.
Moreover the Human (collective) past, not only the personal, is subtly near. The Greeks captured this truth with the Chorus, the Shades, the Spirit Guide. We might be more aware of their power at heightened moments such as birth and death, when the habitual emotional structures shiver, unable to deal with supernatural power.
In an era when death is brittlely assigned the end, birth the beginning of "life", I like to think that the ancestors have never abandoned us, nor are we so separated; their presence floats just beyond our shoulders, if only we are true enough to listen and be true. To listen into inexplicable depths could be called the poet's task. In that vocation the ego, the reasoning mind, are secondary. Call it the subconscious, call it the Muse. There is great power in receptivity, what St. Augustine referred to as the heart's understanding. Being breathes in Time for a while.
What is a Poem?
All the approved cliches lack to understand vision. The poem does not rhyme regularly; is illogical; we could say it is fanciful. It purports to bring God into matter. Love (for his wife Miriam) is bare, unashamed, almost painful to witness. Four exclamations follow close on each other. The last line repeats the first only five lines after. How is this a poem?
a very few seconds, our bodies and attention have followed a vision.
We may feel even that we know this man and trust and thank him. He
has not sung for gain or station, but from gratuitous awe. The poem's
voice reaches the universally human. Recognizing that, we recognize
ourselves. The spirit of the poem and the breath to voice it are
one and the same, through the composing blend of the poet.
Types of Poetry
My ad hoc standards for what defines a poem are not that original, differing little from Goethe's. He and Ursula le Guin specify, incidentally, that the occasional poem, i.e., the spontaneously conceived poem, like unhesitating lines in a Haiku's calligraphic sketch, is "the highest form", springing from the individual to the collective soul. It is an arresting principle. But considering the sweep of world poetry, it leaves out multitudes of epic and balladic creation:
The occasional poem presupposes a social frame in which occasions occur. The poet is moved to aesthetically respond, deepening the human moment. That presupposes a lot; it doesn't happen in every era. But I do agree in our era life is seen from an individual point, and most of modern poetry has been prompted by a death, a moving moment, a gesture, a mote of light over the table. Epic poems can seem contrived now. We are more inclined to the personal idiom and given to the sudden realization.
Spontaneous creation is almost always an ideal, not a norm. My efforts usually have hedges of crossed out and replaced lines. I strain to fill out the vessel of feeling that first occurs, without violating the original shape. The vessel arrives with its own requirements. Dylan Thomas wrote dozens of versions of the same poem.
In the ideal, perfected immediacy springs from the mind like Athena from the temples of Zeus, or an arrow from the master's bow. It can and does happen as part of the concentrated sincerity of a given form. I don't consider I have written a Haiku unless it is right at first thought and sequence. The failure rate is high. But I also stand with the painter Thomas Hart Benton, who wrote he would only personally fail if he quit work.
It takes integrity far beyond mechanical effort to express what rings true. Otherwise limericks would be great art. The poet's integrity overarches lives as well as daily efforts, self-requiring growth. To be true, to carry out what you started, changes through the stages of personal growth. Later in his life Allen Ginsberg broke out with spontaneous rhyming lines. Bob Dylan followed his lead, as Ginsberg had followed the spontaneous practice of Chogyyam Trungpa. Their faith in the immediate moment replicates the poetic tradition, aligning eerily across time with the Bards and Balladiers of our pre-Norman predecessors and the ancients before them. Freedom of capacity follows mastering the use of an assisting formal structure, manifest or implied, as the intuitions of Kabbalah can only occur in the matrix of almost unbelievable devotion to tradition. The wheel does not spin without an armature, nor is the animal of Life captured just by the lonely hunter.
Art, Trend, and Form
Up to this point, we have not encountered the term "art". Maybe we didn't need the trouble. We were doing okay. Artist is no other than the (previously lower case) creator called to his craft. In the modern era, partly because of profit and status motives, art may slip close to artifice, the construction of image. Advertising has seduced the cleverly artful to serve someone's profitable purpose, thousands of hours, billions in cash to advance gain. Rhetorical discourse has gone the same path, to propaganda.
But do trends, artistic or economic, last?; in their nature, no. The art-form reaching out to others necessarily keeps returning the "artist" to reference with his culture, because culture that lacks meaning cannot last. So, in illustrating what is a poem, we need not worry that our subject may genuflect to trendy opinion and no more. The More is indomitable human expression. Rap goes back to Toast goes back to Witness goes back to slave chant goes back to prophet's lamentation goes back to the eternally righteous child. Anguished or joyful experience compels expression as righteousness compels justice. Content then shapes its own form, and an inner sense says the form must be right. Begging the question, what is this 'right'? It is intimately unified with a communicating poem.
'Right' is always somehow in reference to a felt wholeness, a definite shape. A poem need not rhyme, count formally, follow traditional patterns, in short please the prevailing guild, since freedom of individuality is our birthright. But freedom from all linguistic form is unintelligible, and art presupposes appropriate form. The form may be either explicit or implied, and often is the latter. The one constant is that it comes from within and plys against inner limitation. For instance during jazz improvisation, the bass continues the tune's tempo and melody line. Even a syncopated bass line playing with the melody keeps its essential structure. The poignant wild verses of the Troubadours, the prodigality of the chanted Epics, couldn't have occurred without their symmetical Form, the very limitation of which channels the Muse's music, as the flute channels the shepherd's breath and frees his astrality.
The dead end of successful expression is paralyzing form, moral and verbal, 'the dread forms of certainty' in Blake's phrase. The controlling, constraining effect of ritualized form reflects dominative moods of the surrounding civilization. Elizabethan verse might illustrate. The intricate verse-forms and counts had their purpose, akin to precise dance forms, emotional Noh drama in miniature. Shakespeare, the man behind the pseudonym, disobeyed the Self-constraining structures. Language has to vary between its functions, now outlet now limiter of the human instrument.
The primary linguistic, ergo poetic, 'limitation' or I would say genesis, is any language's natural rhythm, in which is embedded the sense of being alive that particular language has created through speakers living and dead. To some indefinable extent the character of the people speaks from it.
In microcosm, an individual poem always has the character, the signature, the 'structure', of that poet's linguistic parentage shaped through his own heart and breath pattern. It even survives translation. Thus, anyone's prose and poetry are living brothers, fraternal twins, in the matrix of their mother tongue.
What Is the Difference Between Poetry and Prose?
Asked the question, what is poetry, Ezra Pound exploded (in the recesses of an insane asylum conveniently placed near our Capital city), "Indian Tales--That is poetry!" Except for a few songs, the book looks like prose. Yet Pound was right and readers agree, and not merely because of his literary stature. Jaime de Angulo's stories, originally told for his son and daughter, have not been out of print since 1953.
universal childish banter spoken in an archaic language faithful
to Native American manners, gives the passage compelling, elevated
charm. Here and in the book generally, de Angulo makes for himself
laconic poetry, sustained yet terse. It has emotional understanding;
we feel we are of the same imaginary world. de Angulo was ahead of
his time in creating such a poetic world — as
were C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the lionized romantic of the Beat movement,
"...and old Valencia [de Angulo] is gone, and all's left is his charming erudite daughter with her hands in her pockets digging the jazz — She's also talking to all the goodlooking men, black and white, she likes em all — They like her...the little thin body just faintly feminine and the low pitch of her voice, the charm, the veritable elegant oldworld way she comes on, completely out of place in the Cellar — Should be at Katherine Porter's cocktail--should be exchanging duet-os of art talk in Venice and Fiorenza with Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Compton-Burnett — should be in Hawthorne's novels — I really like her, I feel her charm..."
poetic, Kerouac drew from life and embellished as de Angulo did.
Respect for factual truth requires us to bear in mind that romanticized,
poeticized people are not living flesh and spirit. They are part of
the mix of the writer's imagination. At the extreme, such mythology
becomes idolatry. Idolatry is neither balanced humanity nor the basis
for lasting art. It is the province more of the morality plays of stage
or podium. Against these, what holds true in the poetical vein? In
answer, we return to our quotations. Both passages convey a certain
singing affinity for human valences, familiar faces, the eternal foibles
or verities of the race. Here at its most faithful, poetry lives and
Must Prose Be Unpoetic?
There are many novels other than Kerouac's with poetical semblances--heightened, inspired, living language--in an idiom we are accustomed to call prose because there are no line breaks. Narrative as imaginative flight is a version of the poetic. Novelists can get their groove on too. Leonid Tsypkin's Summer in Baden-Baden, Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, Cal by Bernard MacLaverty are full of lyric brilliance as is our immediate example, Ursula le Guin's The Beginning Place, a novel about adolescent transition:
"Now unafraid, awed but curious, she watched him, and touched his mouth and the hollow of the temple by the eye, as gently as she had touched the black bruise, wanting to know this pain and this desire. He held her to him, but awkwardly and timidly, until she put up both of her arms, feeling herself go as soft and quick as water. Then he held her and mounted on her, overcoming; yet her strength held and contained his strength..."
The pace and measure, the clarifying tenderness suffusing this passage place it alongside anything in poetic English. Feeling for the young in no way reduces the vignette to sentimentality. She conveys respect, even benediction. Ursula le Guin is greatly underrated as a poet. Her lyric virtues come through in language only arbitrarily labelled 'prose'.
Public and Private Language
The discussion of poetry informing prose leads directly to whether public prose, the language of commerce and power, with its definitional and dry insistence, crowds poetry and poets out. The poet constitutes a threat to public prose's linguistic conformity. And this is no slight detail in the battle for power. Conformity is a subset of power. Conformity is a primary crowd control mechanism of modern governments. The word of the poet has always been and should be feared by power. Word has power; its voice equally so. Conformist power, threatened, turns to violence. Why else would they chop off Victor Jara's hands before killing him outright?
Plato forbade poets for just those reasons; his Republic could not be "Just" if there were competing bases for the Republic's Real. Hence, today, with everything politicized, down to the life functions themselves, poetry assures there will remain a realm for the private emotions, human aspirations, the inner voice living in an eternal apriori natural world. The mystical always runs opposite the coercive. The shining vein in historical time that is poetry does not disappear but rather gleams fuller in dark times. Correspondingly, even when a poet wants to serve the purposes of a State, mercurial poetry must go its own way.
Taking as my example the lion of the Irish Renaissance to illustrate how fitfully the public and private parallel, William Butler Yeats had every intention to ply his craft for the enlightenment of his national group, to "serve the Nation", give it a history, a unity theretofore eclipsed or crushed out by exploitation. In the course of that effort, he asserted the mythic Celtic past:
The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
His Celtic imagination tells humanity much about love, tribal blood and the sacred land. It contains elements of the group-soul he wished to manifest. At the same time, the poem, so rich with the forest glade symbols of Druid magic — fire, the Feminine, alchemical transformation--has taken on its own subtle astral life, enchanting the imagining ear. Over time, the poet's ulterior national purpose for his poem cycle has filtered into history. The poem took on its own mythic life.
The territorial Nation remains as an historical human trend. It succeeds in some cases, fails in others; states stillbear and disappear. The Irish group-soul may not have been meant for statehood. It may instead extend forward what we call in general human understanding, as manifested in Joyce, Wilde, Singe, Heaney. Mythic Irish Song sings on mysteriously into Time; Yeat's poetry is a filing pulled along in that magnetic force.
The Political and Poetical
Can poetic language ever have immediate political effect, never mind so ambitious a poet's venture as creating the past of his race? I do not believe so. The spiritual is too subtle. Furthermore, the artistic and prudential modes are themselves in tension. Words mean something different when you're ambitious to persuade from when you are trying to unconditionally communicate. Churchill and Machiavelli were rhetoricians, not artists.
The industrial context is also antagonistic to poetic expression. Traditional forms, of which the poetical is one, break down when men no longer have the commonality of doing the same things. The industrial fragments, makes sameness a convenient virtue. Industrial conditions standardize men into things. Man's language becomes one of those things.
political entities specifically use language for widespread conformity.
Induced widespread conformity used to be called, in the 1940's, mind
control or propaganda. Such rebellious thinking now lacks respectability,
exactly in proportion as state monopolies of violence have succeeded
to super-redundantly protect property and power. The manifold meanings
of the words 'force' and 'police' reflect that. To lighten
the load of the constable, the ski patrol, the search and rescue,
and replicative reinforcements: the Coast and National Guards,
the Special Mountain Forces, the Army, Navy, and Air Forces, their
respective Special Forces, the Anti-Drug Force, the
Anti-Marijuana Force, the Anti-Terrorist Force, the
Anti-Riot Police, the City Police, the Highway Patrol Police, the
Seaport Police, the Airport Police, the Immigrant Police,
the domestic national police, the F Bureau of I, the
international police, the CIAgency, the Department
of Defense Police, the Defense Intelligence Agency,
the National Security Police,
the Combined Intelligence Police, the Military Police, and
myriad uniformed company and corporation non-military armories for
our own protection, frequently called the Security Police.
Distorting what is manifestly widespread paid violence into 'public'
service, the 'police', the language turns to lies; the primacy of
the human voice weakens. People won't speak the same language indoors
and out. Sanity requires actually inverting the public vocabulary
to determine fact. The Russian joke is, if you read it in Pravda,
(Truth), you know it's not true. In the modern industrial state,
to the natural world, the truth increasingly doesn't matter. The
poet cares for nothing else. Should the state disappear, either by
crisis or decadence, the grass and the song will spring back somewhere.
The Poet's Communal World
An almost unnoticed feature defining poetry's permanence is the overtone of other poets, or to put it a little differently the company of poets through history. When Joseph Brodsky wrote To Urania, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Milton, who had made his own prayer to Urania, the Muse of Heaven, that she might assist his exile and craft. Brodsky suffered as poet in national and linguistic exile, so he struck kinship with Milton the outcast rebel. Virgil referred back to Homer, Dante to Virgil, the classicists to the Roman pantheon, T.S. Eliot to Dante and to the Holy Grail authors as demystified in Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance. Allen Ginsberg became a poet through a Blakean vision he experienced in downtown New York City. Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" surely must have touched my own imagination:
...When old age shall this generation waste
...When all this is done and I am no one
WJ Ray, Song of the Road at Forty
It is a joy that these lines could occur a hundred and sixty years apart. Perhaps it is as Blake said, "Youth of delight come hither: And see the opening morn, Image of truth new born."
May it be so always.