UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
Alison Pick. FALLING IN LOVE WITH POETRY, OR, FALLING IN LOVE WITH NOTHING, first published in The New Quarterly, vol. 94.
To write poetry is to remove oneself from poetry's way. It is to get very quiet, to clear a space and let poetry come through. Even in a narrative poem, one that ostensibly tells a story about "something that happened," language transcends logic. A good poem, the kind that makes us gasp, does so with a leap into the realm of metaphor and magic, outside of the narrow borders of "I." To write about one's relationship to poetry, however, requires first locating oneself, so please forgive this starting point.
The first time I fell in love – with poetry – was in the final year of my undergrad degree. I was taking a creative writing class, with the intention to focus on prose. I don't remember what inspired me to try to write a poem; it wasn't a requirement. I probably did it as a lark. My teacher said, "This is bad. But keep going." As chance would have it, I was living with a friend who had a large poetry collection, mostly contemporary Canadian. While the leaves fell that year, and later the snow, I devoured her books in rapid succession. It was as in Sue Sinclair's poem ‘Torbay, December 2001' – my spine, a pawnshop appliance, was plugged in and proved to be working. Simile was a revelation. I remember reading a line of Karen Connolly's, something very close to: "We touch all down each other's lengths, like mirrors reflecting the light." The perfection of this image kept me awake at night. Think of all the possibilities! I fell in love with Bronwen Wallace's poems about her work in a shelter for abused women; I was equally astonished by Sharon Olds' ability to make the seam of her daughter's pajamas jump off the page and engulf me.
Five years later, with a first collection published, I'm a very different reader of poetry than I was then. While the seeds of that first seduction are still alive to me, I approach poetry now the way I'd approach an abstract painting rather than, say, a short story. The poetry I love best these days is circuitous, non-linear. Its trajectory, like the best way up a mountain, is circumlocutory and lacks any row of man-made rungs to guide me. It is as though, having entered poetry's door, I can kick away the ladder of narrative that first allowed me access.
I do not mean to suggest there aren't footholds of plot in the poems I now love. There are. In fact, in some of them, plot carries the reader elegantly and effortlessly from opening to end. Nor do I mean to advocate the renunciation of clarity in favour of convolution. What I do suggest is that, rather than depending on a solid vessel of language to carry a story, these poems exist almost in spite of language. They assume a fraught relationship between signified and signifier, a stormy affair. Meaning is loaded into a linguistic boat, and here's where the magic appears: it is transported by language despite all of language's leaks. The poet manages, through methods elusive and unknown, to ferry us to the far shore before the boat sinks.
The inadequacies of language are highlighted in these poems partially because of what I'll call, for lack of a better word, their content. Like silent hunters, they circle something outside the human, something extraneous to language and culture. But what to call this thing. To stay in the Canadian tradition, Robert Bringhurst calls it the what-is. Dennis Lee calls it cadence, and Stan Dragland Presence. Appropriately, this poetry is preoccupied with this very impossibility of finding the right word, with Barthes' "zero degree," whereby any ultimate reduction of meaning is unachievable. The preoccupation has the flavour of acceptance rather than struggle. Poetry agrees to provisional tools because it has no choice. It uses language – a set of dull chisels – to fashion an image of that which is not language, not easily represented by language, and perhaps fundamentally unsayable.
If I could slide into a deep sleep,
I could say – to myself, without speaking – why my words
Nothing regenerates us, or shapes us again from the dust.
Nothing whispers our name in the night.
Still we must praise you, nothing,
still we must call to you.
Our sin is lack of transparency.
November is dark and doom-dangled,
fitful bone light
And suppuration, worn wrack
In the trees, dog rot and dead leaves, watch where you're
Illegibility. Dumb fingers from a far hand.
Charles Wright, in Black Zodiac
While poetry can sidle up to an unknown Other, it by no means has exclusive rights. Poems are just one of many outward manifestations of the same inner process. Jane Hirshfield says it like this: the search for a pure language, "one simple word," eludes us "because its existence would refute what we already know: underlying the mind of language is the undeniable interconnection of each thing and being of earth." Robert Bringhurst describes poetry as "a quality or aspect of existence." "Poems are the tips of the icebergs afloat on the ocean of poetry," he tells us, suggesting that Math and Music know as much about poetry as English does.
Why is this? Because the quieting of the self, the deep looking and listening foundational to a successful poem, can be brought to any human or cultural endeavor. The poems I'm in love with now are ones where I can hear the poet's ear to the ground. They are characterized by a palpable, active receptivity. This is Keats' negative way, Simone Weil's decreation. Weil says we should "go down to the root of our desires in order to tear the energy from its object." The poet must surrender the familiar, jump ship on the known. She has to be willing to wait in the lacuna between hope and surrender, desiring, but with no move toward ownership.
If this is a helpful or requisite approach, it isn't necessarily an easy one. Language is fantastically bright and shiny. Who wouldn't want to play with it? For those with an aptitude, the temptation is strong. A poem that indulges in language for its own sake can take us to unexpected places; it can thrill based on any number of technical leaps. There are, after all, so many beautiful words, and so many possible combinations! These are not the poems, though, that I'm interested in. I'm after the ones that are the residue of a certain kind of engagement with the phenomenological world. They don't necessarily have a guiding metaphor, or clever line-breaks, or visually pleasing stanzas. These poems fall under a different heading in the Field Guide. They often defy categorization altogether.
The river is a hiddenness, mud-green tree smoking from first darkness you
could spread out the camp of your life in.
No limit: hold it in your mind and you are weeping.
A grip, a posture of bells.
Coyotes move in the stopped valley, fox through snow,
one lit judder of prints a plume lifted in the middle of the
Later a husky moon, loose bone of a moon.
The world became the world when the light of adoration fell in it
and it could not stay aloft in invisibility.
Now the river is here, a hand the spirits move.
Tim Lilburn, in To The River
Emerson thought that all spiritual "facts" are represented by natural symbols, and that nature is the metaphor for the human mind. If the poetry I'm falling for tends toward that ever-problematic word ‘spiritual,' then perhaps this is why its setting – both physical and psychic – is often (again, the problem of nomination) wild. Another reason, I suspect, is what is required in order to quiet the self. If you want to achieve poetic receptivity, a good bet is to get out of doors, away from the clamour of industry. My own relationship with poetry deepened after moving to a city that allowed easy access to "wilderness." Perhaps this was just a natural progression of my engagement with the oeuvre in its broadest sense. In any case, the two coincided. As a newcomer to Newfoundland, I was overwhelmed by the ocean, by its sheer size and pull. There is no geographical equivalent in my childhood home. The sea seemed so large as to be a symbol for anything and, simultaneously, a symbol for nothing. I will say this, though: its voice is different from an Ontario forest. A forest is a whisper of words, all possible words being spoken together. If what Emerson says is true, then the ocean, in contrast, might stand for absence. It might be about longing, or emptiness. Like poetry, it can be plundered or respected, romanticized or disregarded or companioned. Like poetry, it "makes nothing happen." And, like poetry – and like that other ocean out of which poetry peaks – it resists colonization, figurative or otherwise.
While "nature" is a common backdrop against or through which poetry unfolds, it certainly doesn't have a monopoly on the poetic voice. Deep looking and listening can happen any time, any where. As Don McKay says, "The first indicator of one's status as nature poet is that one does not invoke language right off when talking about poetry, but acknowledges some extra-linguistic condition as the poem's input, output, or both." Wilderness is observed through a set of perceptual glasses. Looking through them, the wilderness in a skyscraper is as clear as the wilderness in a sand hill.
POEM FOR KING KONG
Smoggy day. The sky's soft palm. Skyscraper
in it, so high, it unrolls a shadow blocks-long
and broken over rooftops. Gulls snicker up there;
say har-dee-har, haw haw haw.
Poor voyeur like us – nervous, a little turned on.
Is it the corner ledge's view, so tall and far,
and far, that knocks the breath right out of you?
A drop like that won't fit the body well.
Open wide, say ah. It's going to hurt a bit,
this fog of love, homelessness, a hundred floors of metal,
glass and carpet you're dropping past. Oh peripheral
nudged-aside being, count them as you fall.
David O'Meara, in The Vicinity
So where does this leave us? Tumbling through the open air of homelessness, of no guarantee; peripheral, nudged-aside beings, waiting in an unnamed gap. Once the ego is attached to an identity (brick-layer, composer) there's pressure, both internal and external, to produce the corresponding artifact. For a writer, publishing creates this expectation. You can't very well offer yourself up in passivity, though, with an investment in a predetermined outcome. If you are a poet, if words rather than equations or symphonies are the concretized byproduct of your receptivity, then after a month or six months by the sea you might end up with a poem. Or, you might not. In the poetry I am falling in love with – Lilburn, Wright, and O'Meara are examples – there is a sense of deep engagement with the world, of notation being taken. There is also, paradoxically, a kind of detachment. Clearing the path of desire comes into it. So do attention to detail and technical competence. Trying does not. A poem that tries too hard, almost anyone would agree, is a poem that ultimately fails.
But here's another one of poetry's lovely paradoxes: failure is a part of it too, and a crucial part. Without it, we'd lose the longing for that perfect articulation. There is a constant desire to better say what has already been said. This is because whatever poetry is getting at – the bottom ninety percent of the iceberg – exists in indifference to language. It is shrouded in mystery. We can barely see it. We get glimpses.
Alison Pick's works copyright © to the author.