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A crucial point in the making of some poems, especially long ones, arrives when the poet must decide whether to push through a kind of caesura in the process. That’s the poem’s making or breaking point, and there is no patent answer.
The poet can move on, push through, go around, go under, go over, work around, arguing within that momentum must not be lost, impetus must not be allowed to decay.
But that’s not the only strategem, nor should it be. Some energies, some impulses must be allowed to lie spent until that one thing happens to electrify them again. Some initial summons must be allowed to sink in, to integrate with the psyche that has uttered them, to engage that psyche in dialogue.
Let’s get this done, let’s seize the moment, let’s take advantage of this opening, this vision—all those calls to action may beguile the poet into cobbling together a poem that should have been quicksilver. If those clarion calls are heeded the poem may look, feel and sound stitched, jury-rigged, patched, even in the hands of a skilled poet.
If the rider drives the horse beyond its limits he may arrive on time at his destination by killing the horse. Maybe the end justifies the means, but will the end honor that exquisite vision that inspired the venture? Yes, it may have been a fleeting vision, and the poet may have wished to capture it before it vanishes, but it’s very likely that the secret to the rest of the poem lies in what has already been written, waiting to show the way, to prove that the vision was not so fleeting after all.
Ego wants to drive a poem to its finish, but a certain priestliness in the poet may conclude that the vision once held out by a donnée that lost its way may return more illuminating than before if only its sanctity is honored, if only the poet cares more about the vision than career, than recognition, than product.
Many writers have said, Let a poem or a story or a fragment lie for a while, come back to it with a cold eye. That clinical approach has its charms. But I prefer to think that what has been glimpsed, the words already put down, hold the key to the rest of the work and deserve the study, the contemplation of their author. They weren’t stolen from the cosmos, they were perceived, observed, because something in the writer was ready for them.
It’s all very well to talk about prosodic mastery, craftsmanship, but if they’re deployed to finish something incompletely apprehended, if they’re deployed in some kind of intellectually smug sense of discipline, rather than having had their very cores pierced, the work suffers. The poet must come to terms with the gifts of the cosmos. And sometimes that means examining every facet of the donnée.
I can tell—well, I claim to be able to tell—when a poet decides to force a poem, to molest a donnée. It’s rather like what happens to a warship forced to make flank speed for a prolonged time. Rivets pop, pipes break, seams open, untoward noises afflict the ear. The poem turns clever rather than trustworthy. It turns cunning, tricky, and if those devices work we may be distracted from the loss of its essential integrity.
It usually happens when lines are driven to after-the-fact breaks, having lost their way. At this point the poet piles on the pyrotechnics, but the poem is wobbling on its axis and much of it becomes anticlimactic, finding ways to repeat itself without being noticed. Now artifice has supplanted fire from heaven. The poem may be celebrated for that, but it has lost what it might have had from T.S. Eliot’s famous enjoinder in Ash Wednesday: Teach us to sit still.
Recollection is the word that comes readily to mind when I cast about for an antidote to this prematurity, this kind of macho compulsion to get on with it. Poetry is among other things an act of recollection, a drawing upon our experiences to enlighten us, to illuminate what’s ahead, to enable us to carry that high note that has always eluded us, the one that cracks the cathedral’s windows.
What the poet does at this juncture is the measure of that poet’s ethics. The poet will either win us over or tell us the truth, the risky, harrowing truth. There is no insurance policy for the outcome, but if the poet has bullied the poem to push on, it may win ephemeral approbation at the cost of its soul.
The donnée is the entrance to the would-be poem’s temple. The poet as high priest enters with a waist cord leading back to the moment the donnée arrived . The cord is woven of experiences, skills, memories. Into the holy of holies the poet goes, perhaps to return, perhaps not.
If the poet returns without having reached enlightenment, or merely turns back at some point because the darkness has become too thick, because the will has failed, because others beckon, the adventure then may become a saga, like Erik the Red’s, a saga sung down through the ages in celebration of bravery. But if the poet returns transfigured, perhaps having dispensed with the cord because the poet’s own light shows the way, then we will see something like George Chapman’s The Shadow of Night or William Butler Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium and The Second Coming or the entire oeuvre of William Blake.
But if the donnée, having heralded some event, falls silent, and we shake it into song, then we have a thing that may pass for ephemeral greatness but will in the poet’s inner ear always croak and grunt and sputter. Why? Because the elemental being who for an instant chose to take shape in our dimension did not encounter in the poet, the priest, enough humility, enough respect, enough patience.
We will always know the difference if we’re honest with ourselves. The Shadow of Night will always strike us as the most enigmatic, mysterious poem in the language. Blake’s Tyger will always roam through the darkest chambers of our minds. But many another poem, for all its drama, its skill, its pyrotechnics, will trouble us with the knowledge that it could have been something more excellent, more daring. Perhaps something like that troubled Arthur Rimbaud when he gave up writing poems. Perhaps poets who fell silent, poets lost to us, found something greater, more consoling, more inspiring, by spending their lives listening rather than rattling their talents into song. Poetry is not, after all, about recognition, at least not recognition of the poet, but it is about recognition of another kind. Poetry is prayer, even for atheists: prayer and light. And it may be that the great Sufi Ibn al Arabi had this in mind when a disciple asked him, Master, what is the job of the dervish (the adept)? And the master replied, To disappear.
Copyright 2018 Djelloul Marbrook