Poetry as Surpassed Nature
Kant says the job of the poet is to reach beyond the limits of experience, to change nature into something that surpasses nature. Yet the world must be recognizable in its alteration. Nature must be present in surpassed nature, so the imagined is necessarily based in the experienced, the real. I try to highlight this duality because, for me, art exists in the realm of the everyday—we can see art, or the potentiality for art, in our most basic experiences and encounters. If we think of the lyric “I” as privileged, this can be a way of transferring that privilege to readers, who can look for poetry in the world around them.
The world is stunning and strange. We apprehend it physically—waves and molecules spark neural signals—but then our brains make connections to memories, to ideas, so that our responses to the world are both universal and unique. There’s something both relatable and individual in the way we see the world, and I think of poetry—especially first-person lyrics and lyric narratives—as a way of revealing these two sides of experience. In my poems, I try to blur the line between what’s real and what’s imagined, to imitate the coinciding physical and mental aspects of perception.
What does Kant mean when he says that poets “surpass nature”? For me, the idea of surpassed nature becomes translated into heightened perception, something more than typical experience, something active, rather than passive. I think of the “imaginative eye” that M.H. Abrams attributes to British Romantic poets—the belief that perception is liberating when it is more than just apprehending the things of the world, when the eye imagines as it sees. I’d extend this notion of the imaginative eye to all five senses, and particularly the sense of sound, which I find to be quite visceral, almost synaesthetic in the way it can be physiologically felt—gongs ringing in one’s teeth, the heart’s rhythm altering to match the tempo of a beating drum.
Perhaps this is why music and musicality are so important to my writing. I studied piano and voice for years; now language is my instrument. A poem uses language to make meaning, of course, but also to appeal to the senses. Language can be as heightened as perception, and I play on this so that, in my poems, form mirrors content. When I talk about sound in a bodily way, I’m also trying to use language to evoke an aurality that could be physical, at least in context. That is, I want the sound of the poem to get under your skin. I want the poem and all its heightened world to get under your skin.