A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.
With your permission I’d like to take a few minutes in this time of war and ruination and buying and selling to sing literature’s praises. That’s because I want to remind myself, probably, that metaphor, or the primary means by which writing gets written and moves, in some cases, into the realm of literature, says, in addition to the many other things that it says, that we are not alone. Here’s a masterful poem by the masterful Southern poet Rodney Jones:
These fulsome nouns, these abbreviations of the air,
Are not real, but two of them may fit a small man
I knew in high school, who, seeing an accident,
Stopped one day, leapt over a mangled guardrail,
Took a mother and two children from a flooded creek,
And lifted them back to the world. In the dark,
I do not know, there is no saying, but he pulled
Them each up a tree, which was not the tree of life
But a stooped Alabama willow, flew three times
From the edge of that narrow bridge as though
From the selfless shore of a miracle, and came back
To the false name of a real man, Arthur Peavahouse.
He could sink a set shot from thirty feet. One night
I watched him field a punt and scat behind a wall
Of blockers like a butterfly hovering an outhouse.
He did not love the crashing of bodies. He
Did not know that mother and her three children
But went down one huge breath to their darkness.
There is no name for that place, you cannot
Find them following a white chain of bubbles
Down the muddy water of these words. But I saw
Where the rail sheared from the bridge—which is
Not real since it was replaced by a wider bridge.
Arthur Peavahouse weighted a hundred and twenty pounds.
Because he ran well in the broken field, men
Said he was afraid. I remember him best
At a laboratory table, holding a test tube
Up to the light, arranging equations like facts,
But the school is air over a parking lot. You
Are too far away from that valley for it to come
All the way true, although it is not real.
Not two miles from that bridge, one afternoon
In March, in 1967, one of my great-uncles,
Clyde Maples, a farmer and a Commissioner of Roads,
And his neighbor, whose name I have forgotten,
Pulled more than a hundred crappies off three
Stickups in that creek—though the creek is not
Real and the valley is a valley of words. You
Would need Clyde Maples to find Author Peavahouse,
And you would need Clyde Maples’ side yard
Of roadgraders and bulldozers to get even part
Of Clyde Maples, need him like the crappies
Needed those stickups in the creek to tell them
Where they were. Every spring that creek
Darkness with the runoff of hog-lots and barns,
Spreading sloughs, obscuring sorghum and corn.
On blind backwater full schoolbuses roll
Down buried roads. Author Peavahouse was smart
To turn from the huge tackles and unthinking
To throw himself into that rolling water
And test the reality of his arms and lungs.
Many times I have thought everything I have said
Or thought was a lie, moving some blame or credit
By changing a name, even the color of a lip or bush,
But whenever I think of the lie that stands for truth,
I think of Arthur Peavahouse, and not his good name,
But him deciding, as that car settled to the bottom,
To break free and live for at least one more moment
Upward toward light and the country of words
While the other child, the one he could not save,
Shrugged behind him in the unbreakable harness.
There are, of course, vast and unarticulatable gaps between our experience of the world and the language we use to describe it. Poems are miraculous for this very reason: when they are good, they are able to say what can’t be said. “The Bridge” illustrates how the gap between what can and can’t be said can be bridged with metaphor, which speaks of one thing in terms of another.
All the best literature—that roller coaster, that high-rise, that meadow, that boat—works in this same way: by insisting that nothing in this world is what it appears, at first, to be—by saying that everything in this world is, in fact, much more than it appears, at first, to be—literature says, in addition to the many other things that it says, that we are not alone. Instead, we’re “a steady storm of correspondences,” as the poet Theodore Roethke says: we are the Fuji apple, the weeping willow, the horse, the tomato, the Canada and Mother and wee-baby Goose. We’re balls of string clinging against the universe itself, that kitchen sink. If we read fiction and drama as well as poetry, we’re also Othello, Desdemona, Huck Finn, Ishmael, Lena Grove, and Joe Christmas. We are, to quote that double-great genius of the rhythm of the phrase, Walt Whitman: “The pure contralto…the carpenter…the married and unmarried children…the pilot…the mate…the duck-shooter…the deacons…the spinning-girl…the farmer…the lunatic…the machinist…the half-breed…the newly-come immigrant…the squaw…the connoisseur…the deck-hands…the one-year wife.”
How copious are we, says the magic of metaphor. How plural and profuse! Don’t be lonely, says the magic of metaphor: you are among your neighbors. Come here and sit a spell and marvel at the spine-tingling phenomena that’s us and everything of and around and within and above and below us.
Then comes that Great Nay-sayer American Consumer Culture in its long, black nay-saying-cape. That imp and spoilsport, that partypooper, that bore! It wants to know why you spend so much time reading. Right? You’ve heard this question and felt the shame that accompanies it, I am sure. Put down that copy of The Iliad, the Great Nay-sayer American Consumer Culture Imp and Spoilsport and Partypooper and Bore has its adherents tell you, and do something useful. Start a company! Mow the yard! Put some money in the bank, and buy a car!
Even we, taking so much pleasure out of what the imagination can do with words, think sometimes that something must be wrong with us—that we’re word gluttons and rhythm sluts: book letches and paragraph drunks.
I’m here to remind us that there’s nothing wrong with us at all. Instead, we are not only right but wise to read and keep on reading (and write and keep on writing). We’re wise to understand that the Rodney Jones poem we just heard seeks to comfort us, even as it deals, at least in my opinion, in death. We’re wise to understand that Louise Gluck also gets an awful lot right when she says, “The lullabies—they all say / don’t be afraid, that’s how they paraphrase / the heartbeat of the mother.”
In Nathaniel West’s novella Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Loneyhearts—a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch—receives letters depicting trouble like this:
I am writing to you for my little sister Gracie because something awfull happened to her and I am afraid to tell mother about it. I am 15 years old and Grace is 13 and we live in Brooklyn. Gracie is deaf and dumb and biger than me but not very smart on account of being deaf and dumb. She plays on the roof of our house and don’t go to school except to deaf and dumb school twice a week on tuesdays and Thursdays. Mother makes her play on the roof because we don’t want her to get run over as she aint very smart. Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She to’d me about it and I don’t know what to do as I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being lible to beat Gracie up. I am afraid that Graice is going to have a baby and I listened to her stomack last night for a long time to see if I could hear the baby but I couldn’t. If I tell mother she will beat Gracie up awful’l because I am the only one who loves her and last time when she tore her dress that loked her in the closet for 2 days and if the boys on the block hear about it they will say dirty things like that did on Peewee Conors sister the time she got caught in the lots. So please what would you do if the same happened in your family.
Because Miss Lonelyhearts is unable to cope with the genuinely distressing trouble that comes to him in the form of the letters he gets from the world, he dies, I hate to tell you, at the end of his book. That is, Miss Lonelyhearts the novella is a tragedy that ends in death because its protagonist seeks a revelation that does not come except—and this is important—to us.
By absorbing Miss Lonelyheart’s struggle and even his death—by enlarging ourselves with it—we increase not only our understanding of the tribe, but also, and more notably, our capacity for empathy for the tribe. This capacity for empathy, which is linked, if we’re paying attention, to a contempt for the ways in which the tribe often fails others and us, helps us understand how we might live: it is “a cubic piece of burning, smoking conscious,” as the Russian poet Boris Pasernack says. And metaphor, or the major means by which the human imagination invents everything it invents—“this splitting…this into that…is Energy,” the poet Tony Hoagland says. This energy becomes our “defense against hysteria and death,” as Theodore Roethke tells us.
So, the next time anyone questions the purpose of your passion for words throw the napalm bombs Gluck, Wright, Pasternack, Hoagland, and Roethke at them. Tell them that you, like the speaker of Rodney Jones’s “The Bridge”, have decided to spend your lives believing in “the lie that stands for truth.”
That is, tell the advocates of the consumer culture that you’re full enough already without a new car. Tell them that you’re bursting at the seams, that, to take Plath more than a little bit out of context, you’re:
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue.
Tell them you’re a flood, in addition to being a fruit basket and a limestone collective at the edge of the bank—tell them you could not be more plural if you got pregnant with triple triplets—tell them you’re on a journey so big it couldn’t be completed in a whole century of journeys, that you are, yes, a word glutton and a rhythm slut—a book letch and a paragraph drunk. Hold out your hand. Say, come here and sit a spell and marvel at the spine-tingling phenomena that’s us and everything of and around and within and above and below us.
Smile, shake, boogie, and just go on and glow, you word gluttons and rhythm sluts—you book letches and paragraph drunks. You are not alone.
Copyright 2015 Adrian Blevins. An earlier draft of this essay was delivered as the 2004 Phi Beta Kappa address at Lynchburg College. ‘The Bridge’ by Rodney Jones is published here by permission of the author.
Wassily Kandinsky: Yellow, Red, Blue (1925) The original hangs in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France