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Djelloul Marbrook: Poetry as Lightning

Poetry is by its very nature subversive.

Poetry is the lightning of a society. In its flashes the demons of a society glow.

The copper-wired job of the critical establishment is to lead that lightning safely to ground, drawing it away from the changes it might animate. The press is society’s lightning rod. It seeks not to illuminate or animate with lightning, not to charge the elements of change, but to ground the lightning. In the name of our security the press seeks to preclude us.

The press is our surge protector, insulating us from illuminations that make dark corners visible, that light up the nooks and crannies of the psyche. The press and the church contain the message because it is so radical, so hair-raising, so unpredictable.

Before a storm the air is ionized. The air smells different. Poetry is the storm, the message, the light. Jesus said, I am the light and the way. The press and the church exist to make sure we don’t spot that way in a dark shattered by lightning.

This is why some pundit is always writing poetry’s obituary. Such obituaries are more about the intent of the press than about poetry. Whenever the press arranges a funeral for the undead you can be sure some evil is at stake, some swindle is being hidden from view. We saw this clearly, as if in the flash of lightning, when the press wrote Occupy Wall Street’s obituary while the occupiers were still in the streets. The press couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. The Occupiers were pointing out something the press occluded.

Poetry and art are the news of a society while what the mainstream press produces is bottled fog. Poetry talks about war-for-profit; the press does not. Poetry is a real and present danger. It is by its very nature subversive, dangerous; it doesn’t know how to be anything else, just as the press doesn’t know how to tell us anything but the world as advertised, not the world we live in. The press wants us to think we live in a Lexus/Harry Winston/JPMorgan Chase world, but we live in a calamity of underwater mortgages, wage theft, disgraceful wages, exorbitant education and crippling health care costs.

Poetry if it does not always inhabit the real world is at least always on the verge of showing us Dorian Gray’s portrait in the attic, not Dorian Gray dressed for the ball.

Nothing the press has ever told us about anything cuts to the chase like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Nothing the press has ever told us illuminates like Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations or rocks us like his Le Bateau Ivre. Nothing the press has ever conveyed conveys the malaise of J. Alfred Prufrock, the poignance of W.H. Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats, the rapture of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the rhapsody of Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

But that’s not the job of the press! you say. No, it’s not, and in that case the press should stop pretending that it tells us what we need to know. It tells us, at best, an iota of what we need to know, and then it spins the iota.

Poetry works the cracks between dimensions. It hurls light into them and reveals their inhabitants, their bestiaries. Poetry, like the Christian message, is so impossible we fall in love with it out of sheer perversity, out of a desire to thwart a pedagogical world that has beaten all our vestigial gifts out of us and made us malleable. Poetry orders the clay to escape the potter’s hands. Poetry binds the potter in his pursuit of errant clay.

Generation after generation, century after century poets like Gerard de Nerval have told us that anyone who seeks to tell us how to live must first kill poetry. Not ban it, because that enhances it, but kill it. This is why the dominant white culture deplores rap. The rappers are not only telling that culture what it doesn’t want to hear, they’re shaking it, they’re blasting it with light. This accounts for an intelligentsia looking down its nose at country music; it’s telling us about hard luck, heartbreak and the simple pleasure of love. The intelligentsia wants to hornswoggle us with spiels about winning and losing, about trusting a society that stinks like a two-week-old corpse.

Lightning operates much like Luminol, showing us what previously eluded the eye. Similarly, it’s a kind of night vision. Poetry operates the same way. It lights up the caverns of the mind, it sends creatures scurrying. It makes us aware of our situation. It’s not always a perilous situation; it may in fact be a heavenly situation whose dimensions we’ve failed to discern.

The lightning flashes of a poem confirm our suspicions that we know more than we cop to, more than we dare to say. Everything that is illuminated is changed, everyone who is illuminated is changed. Sometimes we exult, sometimes we can’t bear it. Usually people who say they don’t get poetry get it in a certain way more than those relish it, because they know it’s fearsome, dangerous and unremitting. They’re clinging to a buoy in a storm, they’re holding onto what they’ve got for dear life because they know poetry may take it from them and give them foreign riches too hot, too electric, too transmutative to hold. They’re commonsensical, and poetry passes them by because poetry blesses fools and makes them divinely mad. Its benedictions are unalterable.

The impulse to make a poem strikes the landscape of the brain as lightning illuminates an unfamiliar terrain. From then on we’re trying to describe, to recapitulate what we saw, what we apprehended. If we ourselves are struck, electrified, we may in a frenzy sketch an entire creature and send it off bounding into the dark. But usually we’re waiting for lightning to strike again, hoping we’ll see the thing we did not quite see. The air smells metallic and we’re panicked by the fear of what we saw disintegrating in our heads, losing the shape we so clearly saw, losing our hope of describing it.

Everything depends on our energy at the moment, the arrangement of our psychic furniture, the light that lingers in the channel of our mind, the channel from  light to eye to mind. We pray that what we know, what we’ve experienced, won’t get in the way. We pray we won’t trip on old ideas, preconceptions, prejudices, concerns about how the poem may eventually be received. The question is how we receive it, not how some imagined critic will receive it.

The French poet Paul Valery coined the term ligne donnée, meaning that expression, often the first line of a poem, that is a given, a gift of the gods. But lightning precedes the donnée, and everything depends on what the poet takes in at that moment, not the moment between flashes, but that first moment. This is the tragedy of the poet, that he or she must live without filters in order to be prepared to see and to know as much as possible in that unendurable light, that murderous light not unlike orgasm but a thousand times more devastating. Then comes the donnée, and then the wreckage; every poem is wreckage because it can’t possible live up to that moment. The poet is a salvor, trying maddeningly to salvage of that intuition as possible.

One feels intuitively about lightning that nothing can be the same once it strikes, and that sense informs the poem. Everything depends on it. The poem is a transformative engine, as is Victor Frankenstein’s monster. It discovers everything anew and is utterly reckless of what it encounters, reckless and ruthless. That is why it has so many enemies.

We must stay in the moment, but we’re surrounded by allurement and beguilements, by scents, sounds, noise, murmurings, movements, signals. They must be held at bay until the hand is done transcribing for the mind, and that is the limbo into which most poems, perhaps all poems, fall. No other limbo—the critic’s, for example—is half so perilous.

For the poet, life is choreography. The poet must be in the right spot at the right time and not budge. The poet may stand, sit, walk, drive, blather gibberish, somersault, whatever serves to become the receptacle of lightning. The poet desires, lusts to become lightning in a jar. The poet’s discipline cannot be prescribed, no matter what mentors say. It must be as unique as the work. It reflects the poet’s understanding of place, of belonging, of being, the poet’s understudying of moment. The poem is all about moment, respect for moment, awe. Without awe there is nothing, the poet is nothing.

A poem is a child of a certain meteorology. From a scientific point of view, Lightning occurs when liquid and ice particles above freezing collide and build up immense electrical fields. In poetry, the eye, which is the one human organ made of the same material as the brain, and the brain collide with objects, people, ideas, memories, and set up electrical fields upon which the poem then plays out.

Sometimes the collision is profane, a subject the poet would not have dared mention to a parent or a loved one. Sometimes the collision electrocutes the poet, changing the poet forever. We never quite see what the poet saw, but that’s not necessarily a failure in the poem. The poet is entitled to redress the initial vision. But often the scent lingers, the blood spatter remains traceable, the burned-out landscape is discernible.

The poet is God, but the role is too terrible, the responsibility too great, and so we are always sorry, but perhaps not as sorry as the poet, that each poem bears the mark of its failure. It may have soared, it may have seared, but it didn’t soar or sear as much as the poet hoped, and this is not only its tragedy but also its glory, because the bravery of the attempt heartens us, uplifts us, whereas, if it had wholly succeeded, there would be nothing left to desire.

It is for this reason, with this vision of poetry in mind, that I entertain qualms about poetry when performed. I understand and fully appreciate its value, but I can’t help but sense the odor, the depreciating odor, of hype. I don’t make a case for this quirk in my own thinking. It’s just there, and I’ve not been able to re-educate myself.

Like many boys, I used to catch fireflies in a jar, hoping to make a lantern of it. More recently I’ve been fascinated by jars that store up solar energy and shed its light at night. Poems strike me as lanterns to help us find our way, whatever way we need to find. They retain a certain amount of their energy and are renewed by the heat and power of our interest in them.

The poet is not the lightning rod of a culture—critics perform that function, bringing art to ground—but rather its up-reaching longing, attracting lightning to harness the authority of the heavens to illuminate humankind’s way on earth. Like Frankenstein’s creature the poet is made of accrued parts, earth’s experiences, and when struck by lightning is animated and goes out into the world not berserk but berserking what he encounters.

Frankenstein may argue with his creature, but he has lost control. He is not God. The creature knows what he has been up to, the creature has been listening, waiting for the moment to stand up. The creature discovers the world for the first time, although he is made of it, made of it but no longer bound by it. He will destroy. He will be hunted. But he is a divine iconoclast, ripping off the veil, the guile, of things. He destroys not beauty but guile. He transcends his creatureliness moment too, all too much fulfilling Frankenstein’s dream and now threatening him. The poet is a threat to society, because whatever we see he may not see it that way, our way. Whatever we say, he may not believe it, not because he has figured it all out in equations and parables and formulae, but because a current is running free in him, like Saint Elmo’s Fire in a ship’s rigging, illuminating and turning everything green, fresh and ripe for reconsideration.

Here is the reason, here in this view of the poet, that the popular press is always writing poetry’s obituary. The press seeks to indecently bury the creature because the creature illuminates everything between the lines, everything the press does not say and does not wish to be said. The popular press knows its enemy, and to the extent critics succumb to this pettiness they fail.

copyright 2015 by Djelloul Marbrook writing for Vox Populi

5 comments on “Djelloul Marbrook: Poetry as Lightning

  1. Stone Poet
    June 10, 2015

    My goddess. I feel better now. What I’d love to experience is a poem in the poet’s head–before the pressures of what it “should” be, the way it “should” sound to be acceptable to the masses the press has rendered tone deaf. Even my own poems don’t make it to the page as naked as they were born.
    Keep making it real, Mr. Marbrook.


  2. wanderlustress786
    January 5, 2015

    Loved this line: “the popular press is always writing poetry’s obituary.” So glad I came across this blog. The combination of politics and poetry is interesting to me. Looking forward to reading more.


  3. Marta Stemberger
    January 5, 2015

    The process of writing a poem is rapture that can be anything from painful to joyous. But the words on the page are just dots, which perhaps will conjure up some simile to the image, inspiration, thought, light, that triggered the poem. A poem, written down, is only a physical mark, words on a tombstone, reminding us of an experience, of what was.
    But we can resurrect a poem. We can bring it back to life, or rather, give it a new life by speaking it, by moving it. Not performing it, not showcasing it, but tasting its sounds in our mouth, in our ears, in our limbs, and then letting its vibrations move us. And perhaps we can let others observe the process of resurrection.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chard deNiord
    January 5, 2015

    Terrific essay, Djelloul.


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