Some Notes On The Gazer Within
When I began thinking about this a few months ago, I decided that what I would not talk about was craft. As Mark Strand states in a recent article in Antaeus:
“. . .[T]hese days with the proliferation of workshops, craft is what is being taught.” Well, talking is teaching: when Sandra McPherson or Donald Justice or Robert Hass writes about craft, such talk fascinates me, and craft becomes, rightly, that most private of dialogues between the poet and his language. But Strand is right, too. Often my workshop at Missouri (especially the graduate workshop) is involved with prescribing remedies for poems—remedies which have to do with the necessary, technical, and not at all visionary work of repairing one line, or weighing, as if in the palm of a hand, a caesura. Of course, I talk most about poems that are most finished. Then the multitude of formal decisions that are made are worth troubling over, worth talking about. But I am, then, talking about technique: when a poem is very poor, silence falls quickly, and there is little to say about that poem. There may be a great deal to say, however, about poetry itself, about the imagination, about vision. And I risk foolishness by talking about such subjects. I know, really, that if I don’t talk about it, someone else will. And I may not agree with what he or she has to say. So I must either talk about the imagination or be silent.
Of course, there is that as an alternate, and even absolute, stance; there is silence. Why say anything about the imagination at all? And if it is possible, after enough experience, for a poet to make generally correct formal decisions in the moment of writing a poem, why talk about poetics, about craft or technique? After all, the influence of a theorist like Pound has been deeply assimilated. Now, when most poets write, they do not have to admonish themselves: “Don’t be viewy.” They already know that they won’t be, and for this they can thank Pound for having entered, inextricably, into their own poetry and into their very culture. Besides, couldn’t there be something damaging to the poet, and something even unlucky, in trying to understand the principles of what must be, at some moments, a mysterious and sullen art? A poet as gifted as Margaret Atwood thinks so, or thought so in FIELD 4: “I don’t want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck . . . you may improve your so-called technique, but only at the expense of your so-called soul.” As a notion about poetry and about the psyche, this states powerfully enough the fear that the soul can be lost simply by talking too much about poetry. I could expect then, that Keats and Eliot and García Lorca were damaged by writing about such ideas as “negative capability” and the “objective correlative” and duende. And this is a possibility. But unless I am very superstitious about the early deaths of Keats and García Lorca, I could just as well believe that such ideas, in prose, helped the poets concerned, and helped their poetries, even when they broke the rules they made. It occurs to me also that one of the ways in which Pound entered our culture was by the public stridencies of his own criticism, his prose. That is, our century and our poetry didn’t simply happen. Pound happened to us.
What interests me here is a deeper poetics, one that tries to grasp what happens at the moment of writing itself—not a discussion that indulges in prolonging what Marvin Bell has called the pointless “dualisms” of form versus content; nor a poetics that praises one kind of poem as organic while denouncing another as artificial. Ultimately, the trouble with such classroom determinations is that they do reduce poetry to technique, to something stripped of vision, something which gives the illusion of being soluble through either/or choices; they make poetry harmless. And in doing so, they lie. We all know that poetry had better come, if not “as naturally as Leaves to the Tree,” then at least with something more alive and luminous than a servile, cynic’s technique. We know that a poem made to order from theory is slave labor, just as we also know that a poem, any poem, is artificial in one huge respect—if only because, as Eliot’s character so famously complained: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”
But if this circumstance is true, where do poems come from? It seems to me that any poetry, any realized “making,” comes almost directly from some kind of actual center, some location of energy. This morning, reading at random in Pavannes & Divagations, I found this in “Madox Ford at Rapallo,” an interview:
Pound: What authors should a young Italian read if he wants to write
Ford: (Spitting vigorously) Better to think about finding himself a subject.
Ford’s exasperated (or mock-exasperated) reply is simple and direct enough. But I would go further and stress, beyond the unwitting Ford, this: to find a subject is also, simultaneously and reflexively, the act and art by which anyone finds himself, or herself. A poet finds what he or she is by touching what is out there, finding the real. Yet the mistake I see made so often by beginning poets is that they want “to look into [their] hearts, and write!” But at nineteen a poet usually doesn’t have much experience to depend on. When such poets write “from the heart” they often doom themselves to trite poems, to greeting cards full of clichés, or to poems that are truly and entirely subjective; that is, entirely incomprehensible. The best beginning poets I know are also the most literary: what they demonstrate is a love for poetry rather than a love for themselves. Let me exaggerate and be at once overly literal and the mind’s peasant for a moment: to look into my heart is to look into a muscle. To really look inquiringly inward as Sidney advises or as the most well-intentioned guru advises, is to encounter, at least on some very honest days, my own space; it is to discover how empty I am, how much an onlooker and a gazer I have to be in order to write poems. And, if I am lucky, it is to find out how I can be filled enough by what is not me to use it, to have a subject, and, consequently, to find myself as a poet. I like to oversimplify Husserl by saying: Consciousness is always consciousness of something. I am no phenomenologist, and I know that such a “something” is different from the simple materiality of the world that I mean, but here I have misunderstood Husserl just enough for him to be meaningful, meaningful to me. His remark becomes, in its way, as possible for me as George Oppen’s lines: “Two. / He finds himself by two.” And of course “he” does, or I do; and how else could it, and “I,” have taken place at all: for example, that miracle of dawn or twilight along the road and me there, looking out of my skull, a witness to it? And this must occur many times, with regularity, or else the world would be nonsense, a mute noise.
What is “out there” is a world, a landscape. I don’t know what could be more unfashionable just now than the whole “idea” of landscape, but at times, for me, the world is a landscape, and I think of my own poems as if they were landscapes, or as if I could refer to them by virtue of their places. A recent poem, for example, is spoken by a ghost on the banks of the Missouri River; another has as its focus a cemetery in Granada, in Spain; still another poem remembers an orchard and then remembers consequently a small, decaying California seaside resort with its stucco motel, once a coral red, fading to an almost-thoughtful shade of pink. A poem I worked on last night is introduced by a few moths outside an asylum in a small town in Missouri, and earlier I was thinking of a line about a steel mill in Syracuse, New York, a place in which I once worked, and which was, I suppose, ugly and dangerous; its appalling, final meaning must be that republic of iron filings in the lungs of the men who have to work there. I did not, of course, praise the place in my poems. But it was human, a human landscape. I confess that the gazer inside me had a grave affection for the fire glaring in those furnaces from evening until midnight.
In fact, the landscapes I choose for my poems, often, have nothing to do with the landscape that surrounds me: when I look out my window I see my neighborhood, and I know that beyond it is a small, Midwestern university town. I find that I have very little desire to write anything about it, though its intimacy occurs, surely and obliquely, in my recent poems. But I wonder if my own neighborhood, some tract housing with lawns and trees, makes me uncomfortable as a poet. Do I merely choose asylums, steel mills, and cemeteries in García Lorca’s birthplace out of personal morbid fascination and depravity? Maybe . . . but such an aesthetics would be at once sentimental and cynical, and my poems are still not much like Baretta. It could be that I choose painful subjects because such sterility, human sterility and loneliness, is part of so many modern landscapes. By this I mean the shopping mall, the suburbs, the business loops, the freeways and boutiques with cute names. They are all part of a modern reality that I would prefer to forget, or ignore. To most people I suppose such landscapes are slight, and unmenacing. To me they are the death of the landscape, and the eye’s starvation. Therefore, the asylum, the steel mill, the cemetery, the ghost on the riverbank, the dying resort beside the unfading Pacific are locations, for me, of a human fertility within time.
But if any poet has tried, recently, to confront almost exclusively these most sterile landscapes, it is Louis Simpson in his two most recent volumes; his Searching for the Ox comes closest, I suppose, to that place where most of American living gets done, the suburb. And yet, the domestic crises detailed so beautifully, and documented with real grace in such poems as “The Stevenson Poster” and “The Foggy Lane” are poems of wealthy suburbs, and such wealth may be as necessary to Simpson’s purposes as it is to John Cheever’s. Yet even amidst such a setting, Simpson needs, if not Chekhov, at least the ghost of Chekhov’s irony, and Chekhov’s distance from his setting. All this affords Simpson’s poetry its romance, and such a romance is just what the suburb needs; it needs to be soiled by the human. This is, by the way, an explanation and an admiration of Simpson, not a criticism. Who doesn’t need Chekhov by now, and need him badly? To confront reality without a context, without this possibility of a romance, is, as Stevens phrases it, “to confront fact in its total bleakness.” This is so, essentially, because a wilderness of tract homes is a world without imagination, and a world without imagination is a lie. Such a world tries to assure its inhabitants that there is no death, no passion, no vision. This is, I think, what prompted Zbigniew Herbert to say, jokingly one day as we were driving through South Pasadena and talking about architecture, that the only “solution” to Los Angeles was to burn it. There is an early, and brilliant, and even vicious poem by William Stafford which is eloquent about this world without imagination. After telling his readers, “We moved into a housing tract,” Stafford, with all the proper rancor and customary modesty, closes his poem in an address to Bing Crosby, whose ranch he visits, accidentally, it seems, on his way west: “Every dodging animal carries my hope in Nevada. / It has been a long day, Bing. / Wherever I go is your ranch.” Who would have expected Stafford to strike such a Marcusian chord, and to sound it so clearly?
In his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” Wallace Stevens states that his phrase “the pressures of reality” means “. . . the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.” And though Stevens goes on to state that this is what the poet evades and escapes through the balance of his imagination which takes in reality, Stafford’s poem remains firmly affixed by the pressure Stevens has described. Somehow, in its design, Bing’s ranch is outside history, outside time; there are no deaths in the barracks of the suburbs, only disappearances. Outside time, the pressure of reality continues undiminished.
Such pressures and such landscapes have proliferated and become obstinate in recent years. Sometimes I believe that the one vast and wedded consciousness that was required to win World War II built, almost simultaneously, the tract home, the atomic bomb, and the Dixie Cup. I am not, of course, saying much here that is genuine sociological news. But my interest is personal: I don’t believe I can bear witness to such landscapes for long without feeling merely exhausted, drained, and spiritually beaten. In these places I must do all the looking, all the gazing. Because no one has ever died into such landscapes, it may be that no one can live in them, either; I don’t know. I do know that as I watch my eyes pay enormous taxes while the gazer inside me dies for a few moments.
This death has something to do with time. Tract housing, most suburbs, malls, and shopping centers on the perimeter of any city or town seem to wish, in their designs, to be beyond time, outside time. To stare for three hours at a Kmart is to feel myself rapidly aging, not Kmart. And this is not an experience of my own mortality, either. It is only a way of feeling how that mortality can be insulted. And though I am not about to try to stare down any buildings, I do think of those who must work there, and of the alienation, even from themselves, that laboring in such places will make them feel.
Yet the authentic experience of any worthwhile landscape must be an experience of my own humanity. When I pass fields, or pass the deserted streets of a small town in the Midwest at supper time, or pass avenues of closed warehouses, I am not alone, I think. Someone or something has lived here; some delicate linkage is preserved between past and present. I am filled by, looked at by, the landscape itself; the experience is not that of a mirror’s, but a true exchange, until even something as negligible as some newspapers lifting in the wind on a street, at night and before a rain, are somehow soiled by an ineradicable humanity, and by the presence of the dead, of the about-to-be-born.
The Terrible World
And yet Williams is right: anything is a proper subject for a poem. To deny this is to deny a central tendency in American poetry today. But this is not what I am doing, of course. The essential problem is always the poet’s not the theory’s. I agree with James Wright that Williams was able to do what he did do because of the truculence of his vision, because of his character. Williams could use anything in the world as a subject precisely because the poet’s imagination had contended so arduously with the pressures of reality (The Desert Music reaches the same conclusion as Stevens reaches regarding this) that Williams began to break down and demolish the bedrock dualisms that had kept Williams himself and the world, the world. Consequently, the usable world, the broken bits of a green bottle lying between the walls of a hospital on cinders, held under the magnification of the poet’s lyric, became an impersonal lyric, a lyric which the poet had evacuated. The poem was Williams’, of course; that is, he wrote it. But really, insofar as it was a moment, merely, of perception, it was everyone’s moment. And that is its problem, its availability. One student, writing about the poem on an examination, said it proved that one could find beauty anywhere. Does it do that, and if so, should it? I believe, as Susan Sontag states, that good modern art looks back with a stare; it doesn’t tell me what to feel or provide me with easy clues. But can a poem really stare back? Can words be things? Can they not mean? To what extent is my student’s interpretation verifiable? Doesn’t Williams tell us that the cinders are a place “where nothing will grow?” Is this poem both impersonal and corny? There is a way in which it may have taken all the lonely, later work of Williams, and the work of many of the best poets of our time, to recuperate the poet. This has been, I believe, one of the tasks of contemporary poetry—to recover the poet and the idea of the poet for our time. Such has been the constant example provided by such poets as James Wright, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, Mark Strand, and Margaret Atwood—to name only a very few who occur to me at the moment—poets who created the role and reality of the poet during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet it would be false to assume that this poetry has been concentrated wholly upon the Self, or exclusively upon the Self. In many ways it may have sought only to rescue poetry from some extremes, some abysses, of modernist impersonality. There may be a way in which the more contemporary poet has been engaged upon a recovery of an idea of a poet—so that his or her choice of subject reveals him or her as poet.
And certainly the pressure of reality exists externally for newer artists just as terribly as it did for earlier ones—or almost as terribly. I think against myself now and then, and think now of T.S. Eliot watching for German aircraft from the roof of Faber and Faber during the bombing of London, or of Pablo Neruda, who wrote of such pressures and of the power they had of embarrassing any motive for metaphor, or simile: “The blood of the children / flowed out onto the
”Neruda in midstride suddenly realizes that to make poetry out of this circumstance is to endanger his own humanity, but he is too honest, and too terrible, to back down. As Stevens also noted, in his Adagia: “As the world grows more terrible, its poetry grows more terrible.”
And yet the poets who have written of such a “terrible” world have done so, it seems to me, out of a memory of it, or at least at some distance from it. Or they have invented a subject through which such a world can be documented, felt, and reexperienced. Or they have introduced a new method or style into their poetry; a Japanese friend informs me that after Hiroshima haiku and tanka forms fell into disuse, surrealism became the ruling aesthetic. Do such devices, such methods, bring the poet closer to the world, or hold attention at a workable distance, or both? And what does anyone write about in such a world? That is, how do poets achieve that final invention, themselves?
Poetry and Animal Indifference
I'll only presume to answer, to attempt to answer, from my own experience, and from my own reading of others’ experiences. My most frequent problem as a poet is to have no subject, to have “nothing at heart,” an ailment that Stevens once defined as misery. The corollary to such misery is an extreme and moody self-consciousness, which of course prevents me from finding anything worth writing about. Once, after not writing anything worth typing up for a few weeks, I complained to a friend, a remarkable poet who is gifted with an unfailing intuition. His advice was simple; he said to try writing “about yourself at an earlier stage, or an animal.” I wondered, then, why he mentioned an animal. Now I think I know why. Animals are objects of contemplation, but they are also, unlike us, without speech, without language, except in their own instinctual systems. When animals occur in poems, then, I believe they are often emblems for the muteness of the poet, for what he or she cannot express, for what is deepest and sometimes most antisocial in the poet’s nature. The other thing that occurs infallibly when the poet places the animal in the world, or in the world of the poem, is the recovery of the landscape. It is no longer a world without imagination, or the world of tract housing beyond time. In animal poems the fox may live in the yellowing wood behind the service station; the hawk may be above the billboard. But if they are there, so is time there.
So many poets have written, recently, about animals, that I don’t feel now like making out a long and tedious list of them. What interests me is what the choice of such muteness suggests or openly testifies about poetry, and about the role of the poet. Seemingly, the poem sustains a paradox: the poet is speaker, of course, and yet the poet, evading the pressure of reality by a contemplation of the animal, also desires to express a mute condition. The poet wants to speak of, or to, or through, what is essentially so other that it cannot speak. The muteness or silence of the animal equals that of the poet. Perhaps there is some secret similarity between humans and animals, some desire to close the gap between species. Keats remarks, in passing, on this.
I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a field mouse peeping out of the withered grass—the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along—to what? the Creature hath a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.
In his poem, “Horse in the Cage,” Stanley Plumly notes how his father approaches a horse: “My father, this stranger, wanted to ride. / Perhaps he wanted only to talk.” These instances, in which the poets note animals and humans sharing characteristics, are rare, however. And perhaps D.H. Lawrence’s short poem about the youth and the horse attains the apotheosis of such contact—when the boy and the horse are “so silent, they are in another world.” They are rare not because the animals are not often given human characteristics, but because, in these examples, the role of the poet is extremely modest; the poet is never quite there, never blocking the poem. It is what Keats might have called, on a charitable day, “disinterestedness.”
In many poems, of course, the animal is not natural, because in a poem the beast may be wholly imagined, and therefore altered from the prison of nature, and paroled, briefly, by the poem itself, and by the poet. And sometimes a poet chooses an animal because the poet is mute, and also because, as in the poem below, the poet is prophet.
They Feed They Lion
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.
Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.
From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,”
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.
From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.
Philip Levine’s poem creates an entirely imagined beast, an unreal lion from the too real landscape. Against this place, the poet invents a voice which the Lion cannot, in its utter otherness, even recognize. As an imaginative act, this cat derives what power it has from the fact that it is unseen, and existent in an apocalyptic future. But it is a future produced by the dialectic of the present: the mute law of the Lion. The poet’s tone is not really rancorous; it is not even avenging. Such preciously ethical positions have withered here into prophecy.
And such prophecy (or what Ginsberg once called “spoken loneliness”) is Levine’s American inheritance. In earlier poems he confesses that his “page is blanker than the morning skies,” and that since he no longer speaks, he “goes silent among men.” But such muteness was not the death of the poet at all, it was only preparatory and purifying. It was only the necessary immersion into voicelessness, the prophet’s apprenticeship. So the poet who is “silent in America,” who has “nothing” to say, becomes the most formidable architect of himself and his place and his community, though it is a community of the lost. The contemplation of such a Lion must have been, for this poet, an inward, anxious, and prolonged gazing. And an outward witnessing. To invent such a beast is to recover, simultaneously, its landscape, to appropriate all memories of such places, to find oneself.
Why do I admire this terrible Lion? Because, though it may stare back with a blank look, it will not lie; it will not be “reasonable.” It is this lack of response, this honesty and taciturn otherness that fascinates me. Whitman noted this, but contrasted it almost satirically to human society, so that his leaf beginning “I think I could turn and live with the animals” remains a lyric complaint about human society, and only ostensibly about animals. But poem animals, like the Lion above, are something more contemporary, and something much different. They are entities without any specifiably inherited significances:
Bull or world that doesn’t,
that doesn’t bellow. Silence.
This hour’s so huge. A horn or a sumptuous sky;
black bull that endures the stroking, the silk, the hand.
Beyond all the clichés about the bull, there is the bull Vicente Aleixandre includes here, an animal of possibilities which makes the hour “huge” rather than banishes time. It exists before it means, or can mean, anything. That fact, the mute bull, is the subject of the poem. In some way, that fact is the poem.
Ted Hughes suggests this even more clearly. For him, poems “have their own life, like animals, by which I mean that they seem quite separate from any person, even from their author, and nothing can be added to them or taken away without maiming. . . killing them.” Hughes is fascinated by the indifference of the animals he chooses and by their power, which is like the poet’s.
Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living—a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Twiggered to stirrings beyond sense—with a start, a bounce, a stab
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
No indolent procrastinations and no yawning stares,
No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab
And a ravening second.
Is it their single-mind-sized skulls, or a trained
Body, or genius, or a nestful of brats
Gives their days this bullet and automatic
Purpose? Mozart’s brain had it, and the shark’s mouth
That hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own
Side and devouring itself: efficiency which
Strikes too streamlined for any doubt to pluck at it
Or obstruction deflect.
With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback,
Outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk,
Carving at a tiny ivory ornament
For years: his act worships itself—while for him,
Though he bends to be blent in the prayer, how loud and above what
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness
Of black silent waters weep.
Hughes praises the “efficiency” and even the “genius” of the birds’ instincts and contrasts this, in the poem, to the doubtings and “head-scratchings” of ordinary humans. And yet this instinct is related to art and sometimes manifested in it: “Mozart’s brain had it.” This may be the only poem in any language in which Mozart shares something with the self-devouring shark, and in which neither composer nor shark is afflicted with anything as naive as ethics. Both are totemic and equated, really, with the inhuman, the other which Hughes envies, and in whose presence Hughes is terrified. The only general solace offered to “a man” in the poem is that “his act worships itself.” And the acts, carving, writing, or the contextually moral “heroisms on horseback,” are only a dismaying mimicry of both instinct and heaven’s or hell’s “Furious spaces of fire.” The only way in which Hughes can come close to the innocence, indifference, and terrible perfection of his bestiary is by a persona, by disguising himself as an animal, and finding himself and his landscape shamanistically.
Increasingly, it becomes evident to me that poets are not fascinated by what is, in animals, like humans. And certainly no modern poet would be found sentimentally detailing such phenomena. No. Poets thirst after what is pure and other and inhuman in the animal, in the poem animal, anyway. D.H. Lawrence’s snake, for example, retreating from its drink of water at Lawrence’s trough is “thankless.” The eyes of Elizabeth Bishops’ fish in her famous poem “shifted a little, but not / to return my stare.” And Cesare Pavese, in “Atavism,” writes of an inertly self-conscious adolescent who gazes after a horse trotting by and admires, of all things, its nakedness: “It seemed forever— / the horse moving naked and shameless in the sun / right down the middle of the street.” These animals are thankless, or shameless, or unaware, and they are praised for that. But this is very different from the ultimately ironic envy of Keats: “O for a life of Sensations over Thoughts!” Rather, in each example, the poet makes enviable that animal which is not him or not her. The animal stands for, if anything, its poem. Of course these are poems about animals as well, but somehow each animal is translated into something neither adequately a symbol nor, any longer, an undisturbed animal. Each beast, in fact, seems a criticism of what Hughes called the “general lifelessness” which surrounds all poems.
It is no wonder that such animals are often a source of fear; they may be too “alive.” Robert Lowell’s skunks, at the close of his famous poem, seem to represent a pure and disinterested instinct, which is incapable, unlike Lowell, of fear. And the bees in many of Sylvia Plath’s poems are animals that inhabit an impermeable, somehow distant world. Otherness is what Plath avidly pursued, and she could, in some of her later moments of writing, feel that she could pick up her genius as if it were an instrument of some kind—as if it, too, were other, and in a late poem she could call words “indefatigable hoof-taps.”
But what happens if a poet should attain a kind of oneness with his animal, become it, however briefly, in a poem? This is what goes on in Galway Kinnell’s poem, “The Bear.” Strangely, the poet at the end of this poem is impoverished by his own revelation: “what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?” As the poet Marcia Southwick has noted, if the animal means poetry, then by killing it the poet has effectually ended his poem, or the life of his poem. And she is right: it is all past tense; the poet’s ability coincides and evaporates with his vision because he invades the animal. The experience, repetitive and regressive, which Kinnell dreams inside the bear offers the poet a spiritual access which is both liberating and appalling. What the poet learns is that the body of the bear is the body of the poem, of “poetry.” Everything is made of words after all, and asleep, beyond anyone’s will, words dream, as Gaston Bachelard says they do, just as intensely as the hunter in this fabulous poem. By restoring and broadening the senses this poetry does accomplish one thing—it ignores and bypasses the praised and envied animals of Hughes, what Kinnell would call the “closed ego of modern man.” The poet in “The Bear” is really hunting a larger, buried self, a mute self. Therefore, when the poet and hunter journeys this outrageously, when he pursues the poem, the animal, this ruthlessly, it is as if the “unconscious”—accustomed to being lured out quietly and obliquely in poems, or present in personae, is suddenly and simply there: body alone inside a bear’s body, both gestative and dead.
The Moment of Writing
But can a poet take on, if not the body of his or her animal, then at least its spirit? Can a poet imitate in mind the grace of an animal’s body? James Dickey desires this:
It seems to me that most animals have this superb economy of motion. The instinctual notion of how much energy to expend, the ability to do a thing thoughtlessly and do it right, is a quality I esteem enormously. I want to get a feeling of instinctualness into my poetry. How to do this linguistically is a difficult thing. That it can or should be done might be an illusion. But it fascinates me to try.
A “feeling of instinctualness” must be close to the kind of thing Hughes admires. And I remember Philip Levine once saying that a poem began, for him, with an almost “visceral” sensation, as if the poem, in its otherness, or what Levine called “the animals I am not,” originated at once in body and mind and wanted to reject neither.
To acquire the “instinctual” in the qualified sense of its usefulness above is also, I believe, to perform at least one ancient and liberating act: it is to go beyond whatever shallowness inheres in the daily ego, to concentrate upon something wholly other, and to contemplate it—the Muse taking the shape, momentarily, of deer, mole, spider, whale, or fish. As the poet attends to these shapes, he or she goes, as Gary Snyder says, “beyond society.” For some time now I have been puzzled by another notion of Snyder’s in Earth House Hold: “Outwardly, the equivalent of the unconscious is wilderness: both these terms meet, one step further on, as one.” I suppose, therefore, that the real wilderness is, like the unconscious, what is unknown; and it is also, increasingly, what is meant by the term nature. Traditionally “wilderness” has had connotations of the unlimited, the unmastered, an inexhaustible source—and even now it remains the favored preserve of what, in nature, may be wholly other. So a poet, no matter what his or her subject may be, and no matter what the landscape, goes “beyond society.” And so this is what happens at the moment of writing: the wave takes the shape of the fire. What is “out there” moves inside. The poet becomes threshold.
To write poems that come back out again, into society, to write poems that matter to me, I must become, paradoxically at the moment of writing, as other as a poet as any animal is in a poem. Then true craft, which is largely the ear’s training, can occur. Before this, my ear can hear nothing—or it plays back whatever rag of a tune it caught that day since its true desire and purpose is to thwart the world and hear nonsense, which it will do in the end. Unless this absorption into the other occurs, I am condemned to be immured within the daily ego, the ego that lives in the suburbs.
This was my problem when I began a long poem, “Linnets,” in 1973. Basically, I had nothing to say—so I had to find a way to say that with finality, with a stare, with style. At least, this is what I thought, anyway. So I chose the least likely incident possible for a poem: my brother shooting a small bird with a shotgun in his adolescence, in my childhood. I thought that by choosing such a subject I would learn how to write about nothing at all, which seemed to be my lot. But then, as I mentioned earlier, I become exceedingly self-conscious when I am not writing. It is this that prevented me from seeing what I could write about, what subjects there really were, and how I could be moved by them, feel them. The more I thought about the absurd subject of my poem, the more possibilities it began to offer. To begin with, there was the bird itself, and the story. The more I thought about it, the more I forgot myself, the more I became immersed in the other. Luckily, I had problems right away, problems of form. I had to tell a story and establish it as a frame and do this quickly: it all took some thinking which may have saved me, suddenly, from myself. (Coleridge, in a journal entry on the boat to Malta, notes some sailors teasing a bird on deck, a pelican, and scolds them in his handwriting. Then he remarks that it’s not their fault: it’s lack of thought that leads to lack of feeling. Not the other way around.) After deliberating, I fashioned the story into prose, where it belonged as a narrative, and cast it as a parable of sorts, or fable. But a fable with no values. Any ready-made significance would have made my poem pretentious, and silly. I quote below the second section of the poem, the fable of some kind of wild justice done to my brother.
But in the high court of linnets he does not get off so easily. He is judged and sentenced to pull me on a rough cart through town. He is further punished since each feather of the dead bird falls around me, not him, and each falls as a separate linnet, and each feather lost from one of these becomes a linnet. While he is condemned to feel nothing ever settle on his shoulders, which are hunched over and still, linnets gather around me. In their singing they cleanse my ears of all language but that of linnets. My gaze takes on the terrible gaze of songbirds. And I find that I too am condemned, and must stitch together, out of glue, loose feathers, droppings, weeds and garbage I find along the street, the original linnet, or, if I fail, be condemned to be pulled in a cart by my brother forever. We are tired of each other, tired of being brothers like this. The backside of his head, close cropped, is what I notice when I look up from work. To fashion the eyes, the gaze, the tongue and trance of a linnet is impossible. The eyelids are impossibly delicate and thin. I am dragged through the striped zoo of the town. One day I throw down the first stillborn linnet, then another, then more. Then one of them begins singing.
One major lesson I had to learn was to become empty and dumb and trusting enough to write every day. For this I needed, at times, blind patience, no theories about art. I worked more or less steadily on the poem from March of 1973 to June of that year. I was, throughout, relatively untroubled about what the poem might mean to anyone, or what it should mean. One thing led to another, bird to bestiary:
Whales dry up on beaches by themselves.
The large bones in their heads, their silence,
is a way of turning inward.
Elephants die in exile.
Their tusks begin curling, begin growing
into their skulls.
My father once stopped a stray dog
with a 12 gauge, a blast in the spine.
But you can see them on the roads, trotting through rain.
Cattle are slaughtered routinely.
But pigs are intelligent and vicious to the end.
Their squeals burn circles.
Mice are running over the freezing snow.
Wolverines will destroy kitchens for pleasure.
Wolverines are so terrible you must give in.
The waist of a weasel is also lovely. It slips away.
The skies under the turtle’s shell are birdless.
Certainly, the poem meant nothing very clear to me: it only satisfied me, and in many ways I stopped caring about what it meant at all. I only tried, as Forster said, to “connect. Only connect.” It felt better to connect than to know anything in advance, and besides, what did I care if it made sense? The only friend I showed the poem to in rough stages, David St. John, was too kind to do much but praise it. What I wanted was to write it; to feel myself become suddenly steeper and more daring every day I worked on it. I say “steeper” because that was how I felt or how it felt. I confess I don’t remember much of those moments of writing the poem—which is to say I don’t remember much of those months, or the days of those months. I remember my desk, how the light would fall on it, the colors in the room. It seemed to me that I could feel the almost palpable solitudes inside the grain of wood in the desk, or inside the ink in the fountain pen. Aside from that I was anyone forgetting himself inside a task: the only other thing I tried to do in the poem concerned craft. I tried to break a rule in each section—do something I’d never done before. And that was enormously pleasant. I’d begun to love going to the poem each day, as a child loves going to a secret place, inhabited by a secret love, speaking to that intimate No One. And after all, isn’t the hermitage of the poem like that place. The words appear: the wave takes the shape of the fire: the trees turn green again for some reason. When I remember writing “Linnets” I see myself staring out at those trees, late at night, when they are illuminated by street lamps. I watch myself bend to the poem again. I am at peace.
At the High MeadowIn March the arthritic horses
stand in the same place
A piebald mare flicks her ears back.
Ants have already taken over
the eyes of the house finch
on the sill.
So you think someone
someone already passing the burned mill,
someone with news of a city
built on snow.
But over the bare table
in the morning
a glass of water goes blind
from staring upward.
it’s not so easy.
You begin the long witnessing:
Table. Glass of water. Lone crow
You witness the rain for weeksYou think of God dying of anthrax
and there are only the two of you.
You divide yourself in two and witness yourself,
and it makes no difference.
in a little shed, of a matinee
in which three people sit
with their hands folded and a fourth
coughs. You come down the mountain.
Gazing within, and trying to assess what all this represents, I find I’ve been speaking, all along, about nature, about the attempt of the imagination to inhabit nature and by that act preserve itself for as long as it possibly can against “the pressure of reality.” And by “nature” I mean any wilderness, inner or outer. The moment of writing is not an escape, however; it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.