Poetry is a Presence

From John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out. Poems are nearer to prayers than stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry words are presence before they are a means of communication.

Yet poetry uses the same words, and more or less the same syntax as, say, the Annual General Report of a multinational corporation. (Corporations that prepare for their profit some of the most terrible battlefields of the modern world.) How then can poetry so transform language that, instead of simply communicating information, it listens and promises and fulfills the role of God?

That a poem may use the same words as a Company Report means no more than the fact that a lighthouse and a prison cell may be built with stones from the same quarry, joined by the same mortar. Everything depends upon the relation between the words. And the sum total of all these possible relations depends upon how the writer relates to language, not as vocabulary, not as syntax, not even as structure, but as a principal and a presence.

The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.

If poetry sometimes speaks of its own immortality, the claim is more far-reaching than that of the genius of a particular poet in a particular cultural history. Immortality here should be distinguished from posthumous fame. Poetry can speak of mortality because it abandons itself to language, in the belief that language embraces all experience, past, present, and future.

To speak of the promise of poetry would be misleading, for a promise projects into the future, and it is precisely the coexistence of future, present, and past that poetry proposes. A promise that applies to the present and past as well as to the future can better be called an assurance.

During the 18th and 19th centuries most direct protests against social injustice were in prose. They were reasoned arguments written in the belief that, given time, people would come to see reason, and that, finally, history was on the side of reason. Today this is by no means clear. The outcome is by no means guaranteed. The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality. All this means that the resolution – the coming to terms with the sense to be given to life – cannot be deferred. The future cannot be trusted. The moment of truth is now. And more and more it will be poetry, rather than prose, that receives this truth. Prose is far more trusting than poetry; poetry speaks to the immediate wound.

The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity, even a term of endearment; the word is impartial: the usage is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience – everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable. In this sense one can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man. For prose this home is a vast territory, a country which it crosses through a network of tracks, paths, highways; for poetry this home is concentrated on a single center, a single voice, and this voice is simultaneously that of an announcement and the response to it.

One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god. Yet it’s very openness can signify indifference (the indifference of language is continually solicited and employed in bulletins, legal records, communiques, files.) Poetry addresses language in such a way as to close this indifference and to incite this caring. How does poetry incite this caring? What is the labor of poetry?

By this I do not mean the work involved in writing a poem, but the work of the written poem itself. Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry. And the task of this unceasing labor is to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart. Physical pain can usually be lessened or stopped only by action. All other human pain, however, is caused by one form or another of separation. And here the act of asuagement is less direct. Poetry can repair no loss but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered. Three thousand five hundred years ago an Egyptian poet was writing:

O my beloved

how sweet it is

to go down

and bathe in the pool

before your eyes

letting you see how

my drenched linen dress

marries

the beauty of my body

Come look at me.

Poetry’s impulse to use metaphor, to discover resemblance, is not to make comparisons (all comparisons as such are hierarchical) or to diminish the particularity of any event; it is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the individual totality of existence. To this totality poetry appeals, and its appeal is the opposite of a sentimental one; sentimentality always pleads for an exemption, for something which is divisible.

Apart from reassembling by metaphor, poetry reunites by its reach. It equates the reach of a feeling with the reach of the universe; after a certain point the type of extremity involved becomes unimportant and all that matters is its degree; by their degree alone extremities are joined. Anna Akhmatova:

I bear equally with you

the black permanent separation.

Why are you crying? Rather give me your hand,

promise to come again in a dream.

You and I are a mountain of grief.

You and I will never meet on this earth.

If only you could send me at midnight

a greeting through the stars.

To argue here that the subjective and objective are confused is to return to an empirical view which the extent of present suffering challenges; strangely enough it is to claim an unjustified privilege.

Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor, the result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.

From where does Pain come to us?

From where does he come?

He has been the brother of our visions

From time immemorial

And the guide of our rhymes.

. . . writes the poet Nazuj ak Nak’-ika.

To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is of course at the origin of prayer, and prayer – as well as labor – was probably at the origin of speech itself. Of all uses of language, it is poetry that preserves most purely the memory of this origin.

Every poem that works as a poem is original and original has two meanings: it means a return to the origin, the first which engendered everything that followed; and it means that which has never occurred before. In poetry, and in poetry alone, the two senses are united in such a way that they are no longer contradictory.

Nevertheless poems are not simple prayers. Even a religious poem is not exclusively and uniquely addressed to God. Poetry is addressed to language itself. In a lamentation, words lament loss to their language. Poetry is addressed to language in a comparable but wider way.

To put into words is to find the hope that the words will be heard and the events they describe judged. Judged by God or judged by history. Either way the judgment is distant yet the language, which is immediate and which is sometimes wrongly thought of as being only a means, the language offers obstinately and mysteriously, its own judgment when it is addressed as poetry. This judgment is distinct from that of any moral code, yet it promises, within its acknowledgment of what it has heard, a distinction between good and evil – as though language itself had been created to preserve just that distinction!

Photo by SSH

 

 

 

 

Inspired by Stephen Hawking . . .

From The Universe in Verse

SINGULARITY
by Marie Howe

(after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.
   Remember?

There was no   Nature.    No
them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

This Hubble image gives the most detailed view of the entire Crab Nebula ever. The Crab is among the most interesting and well studied objects in astronomy. This image is the largest image ever taken with Hubble’s WFPC2 camera. It was assembled from 24 individual exposures taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and is the highest resolution image of the entire Crab Nebula ever made.

All Writers Are Vain . . .

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”  – George Orwell, “Why I Write”

Photo by SSH

 

The Power of Memoir

A faraway relative wrote me at Christmas to say she had read Letters from the Pacific and liked it, and that she had keyed particularly to things relating to family. “We have more in common than I thought,” she wrote, and it struck me forcefully that she and I – who haven’t seen each other in 30 years and who write only at Christmas – were able to connect across time and space through the telling of a very small part of my personal journey.

It also struck me that she and I, while experiencing such similar feelings, have arrived at such different places. I had written:

Day Three, at Sea: I am remembering, as I look out at an almost full tropical moon and smell the sweet night as the sky begins to pale over the Pacific, that my father was in these waters at the end of the war. It was from a ship somewhere out here that he wrote that horrified letter to his Admiral after the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the letter, he sounds like an outraged, disillusioned youth – almost as if he hadn’t yet seen Omaha Beach, with the bodies rolling in the surf and the shells screaming overhead. Maybe with Hiroshima, he finally had enough of killing and death. When I was growing up, he never talked about the war. Being here reminds me of this Pacific connection to him – pacific connection, after all the rage at his abuses – and it occurs to me that I would like to go through his papers once more. After he died, I could only skim them, didn’t even want to touch them. Now, here, another notch in my ability to forgive him seems to have clicked into place. I go up to watch the sunrise from the observation deck. All alone out here, with nothing but the balm of a peaceful sea.

Writing this was the first moment on that amazing journey when I was able to look back with calm, past the anger, and realize that forgiveness was what I was really searching for. It’s taken me a long time to find it, but feeling the faint tectonic shift on that peaceful dawn established me on the path. Out there on that wide ocean, I was beginning to discover the healing power of memoir.

And now I see that the power of memoir to touch the hearts of others is a testament to the commonality of human experience; that each of us, however, has a special “take” on that experience that, in the expression, can draw us closer; and, finally, that none of us is as unique as we think we are.

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

 

© Sandra Shaw Homer

Traveling to Write

This essay first appeared on Allyson Latta’s www.allysonlatta.com, Memoir Writing and More. Reprinted with permission.

In the roomy bottom drawer of my desk are three generations of travel journals, my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and mine.

My grandmother’s are strictly reportorial: “Spent entire day in my room with diarrhea. Missed tour of Santa Maria Novella.” My mother’s style is livelier and more descriptive: “Went to Les Halles at 3 AM and had some onion soup, along with a couple of glasses of brandy, and then irresistibly bought an entire crate of the most beautiful peaches.”
For years my mother kept the ship’s logs as she and my father knocked around in small yachts. These make pretty dry reading — position, wind, currents — but every once a while something interesting happens, the anchor dragging in the middle of the night, the dinghy painter separating mysteriously from its cleat, and these call forth my mother’s seemingly endless talent for limericks, small bright “literary” moments of sheer entertainment.

My own journal style has tended to follow my mother’s and I have found that describing things adds immeasurably to the pleasure of travel. I never wrote specifically for entertainment, however, until I took a forty-nine-day freighter voyage around the South Pacific.

“But what are you going to do all day?” my friends asked.

“Write about it, of course. You want to be on the mailing list?”

And as I sailed along I set about writing my first full-length travel manuscript, Letters from the Pacific: Forty-Nine Days on a Cargo Ship.  The original idea had been simply to describe what was happening and send it back to friends and family in installments whenever I got to an Internet café in port. But very early in the voyage it became clear that I was taking this trip for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with adventure, and I started working on a parallel journal, my feelings opening up in the presence of all that wide, wild, empty ocean.

I began to discover the power of memoir — and the fact that travel, removing yourself bodily from your daily life for extended periods of time, offers a wonderful opportunity for reflection and truth-telling.
It also offers the perfect chance to practice one’s writing.

Description:
Cruising along the north coast of Honduras at 257˚, west by south, at 11.5 knots, winds so light that the sea looks wrinkled like the skin of a pachyderm. A torpid haze hangs over us, deadening the light, turning the nearby Bay Islands into amorphous humps rising out of oblivion.

Characterization:
The Captain’s Dinner Diatribe tonight wound up with, “Media, politics, all just a circus.” He took a forkful of salad and then looked at us both intently over the rims of his glasses. “Like the Romans — give them bread, give them circus. Keep the people happy.”

“But, Captain, you’re so cynical!” I protested.

“And the world is not cynic? What about Iraq and the so-called weapons of mass destruction? Three days after invasion they are saying, no weapons of mass destruction. That is not cynic?”

I countered, “The western powers were supporting Saddam Hussein for years. I would call that invasion hypocritical.”

“And what means hypocrite?” Rodolfo and I were obviously expected to wait for the answer. “Hypocrite, Greek, it means actor.” And he lifts his hands from the table, palms up, in that international gesture, What more to say?

Humor:
The morning after my first night in the room, I reported to the Signora the foul emanations of sewer gases from the bathroom. Unable to sleep, I had sniffed around until I identified the shower drain, no doubt squeezed into the old building without a trap. I threw a towel over it and went back to bed. The Signora told me that “these smells always occur in the bad weather,” and then she suggested that next time I use a wet towel. I recognized in her insouciance about the plumbing something wonderfully familiar, and it felt just like home.

Reflection:
It’s incredible to me to be passing Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in my transit to Malta, these places having been nothing more for me than bad news in the daily paper. Now the shadow of the coast, sometimes visible, sometimes not, haunts me, because I know I’ll never go there and its mysteries will remain forever locked in the realms of fantasy and horror. Incredible also are the stars; we are somewhere around the thirty-ninth parallel, not that far south of where I grew up and lived half of my adult life. Could it be that this is the same nighttime sky?

Travelling is a little like losing your identity; everything familiar that defines who you are is gone and you open up more fully to your surroundings, emptying yourself of the quotidian so as to fill yourself with the new and strange. In such open-hearted states experience becomes more intense, and this lends great power to the pen. Somewhere I read a quotation that I wish I could ascribe: “Great stories happen to the people who can tell them.”

Someone asked me recently where I ever acquired the dream of freighter travel, and I couldn’t pinpoint it. I love the ocean, certainly — many happy times spent on small boats, and the romantic idea that must be hidden away in some nook in our culture, of climbing on board a freighter and writing a book, destinations be damned. And I had always loved tales of ships and the sea. If you have read any of that rich literature (Conrad, Melville, Dana), you know that there’s plenty to describe out there in the middle of nowhere: people, conversations, subtleties of relationships in close quarters, movements of the ship, weather, and the ever-changing sea and sky.

One freighter voyage was not enough, as it turned out, and my latest voyage took me to Europe. While the first had not been at all about destinations (more like jumping off a cliff), the second one was; there were a few people I wanted to see and things I felt I had to do before a looming major surgery that might have made any future such trip impossible. Facing my increasing physical disability made this trip a great deal more poignant, and I determined that it would be an active search for the joie de vivre.

So this time I was writing with a special purpose, and that was to focus on all the things that gave me joy: the vivid colors of a fishing boat in Malta, the first taste of a seafood ravioli on the Italian coast, the silky perfection of a Michelangelo sculpture, sharing a day in a remote Alpine village with the family of a dear friend, holding my sister’s hand in Paris as we both felt the tones of an 18th-century cello pierce our hearts … There was all this and so much more, and I realized that writing about it helped me to find what I was looking for.

Excerpts from the unpublished travel memoir, Journey to the Joie de Vivre

©Sandra Shaw Homer, 2014

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