Authority and the Nature of Poetry

Suppose that in fact the poet were giving in his poem the very equation (or imprecatory formula or invoking or enacting agent)—something akin to the equations of Einstein for the physical world—of the perfect metaphorical (but invoking, enacting) microcosm of the entire objective order of things, of the will and nature of the Prime Mover (including its silences and unspeakables)—the DNA of its "formal" essence. A true and perfect utterance and formal expression that is not descriptive merely, but is in fact presentational, the thing itself. The Word of God, say. The poet feels and knows this to be true, to be the case—even though there is no scientific or philosophical or mathematical or linguistical or aesthetical proof of it that is possible, because it is qua itself, the thing itself. As there is no proof of the universe. The poet may be a lunatic, and many lunatics have thought such things, but if he were right and correct on the other hand, we would only have his word for it—other than to glean through our own prowess a sense of the truth that this is the case. But why would the poet know something so esoteric, that others are not privy to, that science and philosophy are not privy to? You might ask at the same time, why is the poet able to write such beautiful, such evocative poems (whose aesthetic mysteries are hard to define) while you or others are not able to. Why, when so many people might wish to be poets of the first order, would history only bequeath us the very smallest number of such poets in whom we recognize the highest greatness (without necessarily understanding the full nature or implications of that greatness—just as T.S. Eliot told us that great poetry may often communicate before it is understood)? It would seem to be logical and reasonable to assume that the poet must be in possession of some especially refined and sensitive understanding in order to be able to do what he does, and that it has been clear to the poet that it is the medium of poetry only which has the capacity to communicate and express such an understanding (otherwise would he not explain his works or ideas in prose?), that other mediums of communication fall short of the expressive capabilities of poetry and cannot handle the complexities or depths of poetic utterance, and it would equally follow that as such understanding is only privy to the poet, qua his poem, no amount of application will guarantee the non-poet admission to the sophistication or abstraction or authenticity or authority or full measure of import of his poem. In fact, the probabilities will tell us that just what in fact does happen is what will happen: something is communicated to the reader without understanding, and the reader therefore is likely to have any number of different, partial, incomplete and subjective responses to, or levels of appreciation of, the poem. Hence, multiplicities of interpretations of something which is objective and solid and the very essence of truth. We can't proceed much further in this investigation. "Whereof you cannot speak, thereof you must not speak."—Wittgenstein. But what is this perfect, objective, perhaps one might use the word divine, understanding of the poet? A question which human curiosity must be subjected to ask many, many times, but for which no answer is forthcoming. For the poem itself is the answer, and in fact the poet's only answer. We cannot be so submissive and lacking in pride (and reason?) as to accept the poet's insistence on his authority simply on his say so, though we might be swayed somewhat towards a temptation to do so based on the probabilities that the poet possesses some special gift of thought or feeling or understanding or expression that we do not. Yet if we were to take the poet at his word, encouraged by the fact that his poem moves us so, and incites in us such wondrous and mysterious and powerful flights of imagination, association, thought, and emotion, we might allow ourselves a doorway in to the fuller beauty and truth of the poem that is outside the sphere of our full cognizance, and that would be a start. Let the poet, since he is so convinced if it, and has thought about it so deeply (more deeply than we can know), tell us that he is giving us the gift of a very special order of expression—which defies ordinary reason but encompasses the entirety of divine truth and order. What might he tell us about this? What might we observe of it ourselves? Well, history has not given us many consistent answers, in addition to not giving us many poets of the highest order (less of these than in perhaps any other sphere of human activity or achievement). We must grapple with the poems, though we possess insufficient tools to do so. They tell us something, if not everything we would like to know. Like nature, we might assume that the poem possesses an authority that we can entrust ourselves to.


Of course there is a God. This part of the argument is easy to dispense with. It is the definition of God, which makes this so. And it is quite easy to define, and the definition is simple to understand. God is the unity of the universe, and the simple fact of the existence of all things. God is the nature and essence of existence, and the fact of existence. God is present in everything. It is the Prime Mover of all motion, and the specific texture of all detail and particularity. There is nothing but that it is not the creation and essence of God. There is no point for my purposes of making a great exposition of this. I move on. There is a truth—filled though it may be with lies and deceptions—and hence it is God.

Now the poet. As suggested above, the poet—I am positing in this special theory of mine—is in a unique relationship to God. The poet—by an innate inclination—has an extraordinary access to an empathic understanding of the nature, workings and essence of God. He sees, as it were, the larger picture. And he understands the ideas of its limitations and complexities, its unity and form, its appearances of motion, texture, and particularity, as exercised not only in specific example, but as pervasively present throughout all that exists. His awareness is empathic and wholistic. He does not need to enter the sphere of action, for his capacity of observance is much wider, as wide as can be. What he doesn't know in particular, he already understands as essence. In any part he observes and is cognizant of the whole. Its essence and spirit. Its nature. He possesses what I would call the empathic imagination. He is in a sense removed from life, inasmuch as life is too removed into particularity to know the essence from which it portends. To the poet these things are obvious—the very substance and quality of his thought and imagination. He is what we call a Knower. Now the poem. Let us be honest about the creation of the poem. The poet does not create the poem anymore than it is created by the reader, or the audience, or by any other function of the world. The poem is the essence of God itself disbursed through a kind of imprecatory equation into the poet's mind and feelings. The poet is merely the vehicle for this dispensation. You might say that God reveals itself in all things—but in other things God reveals itself in particulars. In the poet God reveals itself in prime essences. One drop of such an essence tells the whole story, to those who can read it. God chooses its spokesmen, and above all the poet, for the revelation of the full clarity of God's spirit. And that is the mythical form of great poetry. The poem is thus, in effect, and in fact, the Word of God.

How can others be attuned to the same insights—having led examined lives (or innately in childhood)? Well, they may very well, without necessarily disbursing evidence of it. A good test would be their response to the distilled essence of God in the great poem. Do they share the poet's insight, the poet's feeling? Do they grasp the existence of God with clarity? If they must, they may well keep it to themselves. Literary Criticism would be a good test of the capacity of others to divine the nature and essence of the poem. Such empathic consciousness, where it exists, often evaporates with the end of childhood. But not in the case of the poet, with whom it is persistent, the most driving force of his imagination.

How is God itself like the poet. (The world as manifestation of this.) Those cityscape skylines which move us with their sense of inevitable form, of a commanding real existence in the midst of us, are an indication of the works and existence and "mind" of God. This by way of particular example. Inevitability of form in the constructs that surround us—a sense that only out of God could they have arisen, and that therefore they express God's form. That all the elements partake of God. It is the province of the poet to see this, to know this. God is like the poet in being composed of the substance of what the poet sees and knows. The poet has a special in, as it were. God has chosen the poet to reveal its essence and spirit—from a fuller perspective than the isolated particularities of nature or of the many other varied constructs of man. God is in the knowing, encompassing all these things. And in the ability to move all other things with the essence of its spirit. To catch a small glimmer of this is not enough. In the poet it is a totality, irreducible to particulars except inasmuch as they radiate a conception of the whole.

HOW DOES THE POEM WORK. God speaks through the poet. The words are God's.

Postlude to the Prologue

The words just come. They come fully formed, and you don't know how they come or where they come from. But the profound significance which they are imbued with is viscerally apparent, both extraordinarily complex and extraordinarily dense and pointed in its fixing in the most densely compacted way immense resonances of significant meaning, far beyond in scope anything one could have deliberately contrived, miraculous in their precision which conveys such immense dimensions of significant implication, and they flow with an irrepressible music—melody and color and harmony—until the poem has ceased and ended. One is thrown into the fullest possible experience of the poem's form and meaning and music—all at once—so that for a few magnificent minutes one is experiencing the poem in the fullest capacity possible in the witnessing of its creation, and one is indeed, entirely and emotionally and significantly, the poem.

What is this strange coded language in which the poem speaks, and by which it induces its effects and resonates its significances, symphonic, rhapsodic, sonatic? There are many elements at play and it is necessary to understand that they exist in a fusion in which they are unified and do not have their effects apart from each other. Yet to even attempt to speak about or describe them, one would have to isolate their particularities one by one, and describe them serially, with the understanding that the isolable elements do not exist apart from each other but in unity.

And where do they come from? They come from an immense intelligence which has much considered many aspects of life and of the world, of philosophy and history and art, of people and psychology, of the vicissitudes and concerns and rituals of power, of the nature of the physical world, and of the drama and respite of the emotions. They are hence imbued with wit and incisive and prescriptive insight, with concrete interpretation risen to the sublime and the prophetic.

I am thinking, the poem stands apart from mimesis. It is in fact the truth it describes.

I am concerned with, and shall concern myself with, certain types of epiphany. Peak moments which carry the most weight in the poem, and upon which the whole poem turns. Moments which carry the whole weight of the poem . . . the whole weight of poetry . . . It is not ambiguity alone I am after. It is the impact of the poem. Its impact on the thoughts and emotions. The total effect—and its workings—of being hit by it. How the emotions reach a pitch of rapture which seems to drench the whole spirit with a calming radiance, an absolute tranquility, a sense of timelessness and inevitability. Of something that was waiting to be revealed. Of an inner voice within the concrete voice. A trans-fugal train of thought and emotion elicited by the train of thought and emotion of the words. A second voice. Choral. In fugue. In counterpoint. The brink of sensation—the brink of revelation. A sense (temporal) of the accumulated meaning. Yes—the words filled out by an ancillary train of thought that runs between and around the words. The full range of possible reactions existing at once in the mind—inciting release of multiple missiles of emotion. The definite quality of poetry. That its meanings do not deviate. That they are static. Even whilst being complexly, richly multiple, oceanic. Full range of meaning deployed at once. Including the primal effect of the words. A parallel text in the senses. Implication: the whole world. The poet as detective in the world.

The text is static. Its meaning is static. It won't become stale because it is profound. The readers may interpret all they like. The poem does not change. All the possible interpretations are there already, independent of the reader. There is no meaning in the poem that the poet did not put in the poem. And the poet's meaning is the occasion of the poem. Poets do actually mean something when they write poems. The poems don't emerge out of billions of interpretations. They emerge out of the thoughts and feelings of poets. Interpretations are not the poem. The poem holds its forces together against the storm of interpretation. They will be what they are no matter what is thought about them, what is felt of them. And they will not change. Because they mean something. The multiplicities of interpretation shall have their place in the life of man, in the wayward byways of history, but they shall not partake entirely, nor precisely, of the poet's meaning, of the experience of knowledge which the poem represents. That which belongs first to the poet, or to what informs the poet, and then to what the poet has infused into the poem, as definite and unwavering as DNA. It is the audience that must come to the poem, with the greatest of respect and caution, and not the other way round. The poem will speak to those who are prepared or given to understand it, to experience its meaning. One will be surprised by the unexpected interpretations which shall arise. But these will not be the poem, nor the fact of the poem. And this fact, the fact of the poem, is what might be called an atomic fact.


I will not give a complete exposition of the passages or fragments of verse which I have selected as examples for consideration. I want to touch upon a few salient and exemplary points, is all.

Eliot ("Gerontion"):

Signs are taken for wonders. "We would see a sign!"
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
* * *
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted

Eliot does not state what it is that would be forgiven. What is unforgiveable is such knowledge itself—of the isolation Fraulein von Kulp, of Madame de Tornquist, of Hakagawa, of Mr. Silvero: of the separable apportioning of the components of the world. This is unstated, and operates as a secondary (or even primary, though fugal in its counterpoint to the lines themselves) voice incited in the reader of the poem, or/and in the imagination of the poet. This is amplified in the next lines, The many passages are separable and isolated, cunning in that they are deceptively separable, upsetting knowledge by their intangibility, and by deceptive aspects of their discourse in relation to truth. And they are cunning because they were set up that way by the actors of history who did not reveal (or did not know) their full motivations, actions, or objectives, leaving only hints and clues ("whispers"), subject to interpretation and misinterpretation, seized upon by the historian or by the student of history. Deception being in fact the mode of strategic action on the part of the players in history who had objectives at stake which remain unknowable to us, and only objects for conjecture, for the temptations of interpretation without the possession of the whole of the facts. These players, and the historians who succeeded them, contrived passageways of conjecture or deceit, red herrings and errors of issues, protecting and sealing history from the world's own knowledge. Only hints or whispers or suggestions of the ambitions and objects of the players are available or discernible to history, and they may lead one far astray from the truth. They "guide us by vanities" both because it was the players' own vanities that led them to cover their tracks and conceal their actions and motives, and because our interpretations of such indeterminable evidence such as they have bequeathed history, such as history has bequeathed us, are propelled by our own vanities. To vainly assert what cannot be known. "Think now"—an apostrophizing imprecation, making the world and history—even in its unknowableness—whole and present, that what we are given by history that is in fact true, and in a sense always present, for being true, fails the distractions of our attention: our focus on what is misleading and deceptive. For we cannot discern truth itself with any certainty in the midst of all which we are cognizant may be deceptive (or all which we are in fact deceived by). The passage proceeds by an invoking of falsenesses, silences, absences, lacunae, misleading appearances, statements not made. By forces of antithesis. By a relationship between universals and reversals. Content is a metaphor. An extended metaphor—expressing silences and antitheses. What is implied ("After such knowledge") is a unity, that of God, of Truth, evidenced even in its betrayal. Content is metaphor. Implied in all this negation and unknowing is the fact of its antithesis—the wholeness of truth, the unity of God. A very great deal resonates in unknowing. Hence "The word within a word, unable to speak a word". Signs are taken for wonders.

Donne ("Song."):

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,

The word "borne" means both "arriving into the world at birth" and "lifted" or "carried", "brought to". "strange sights" that are "invisible to see": again, as in the example from "Gerontion", an antithetic cognizance of what is unknown or unknowable. The poet's special province. His mystical or divine sense of the abstract or universal ideas which make up the whole of the universe, or the conception the whole of truth. "Ride ten thousand daies and nights" a wonderful and visceral way of saying "travel or live through thirty years" (the exact number hardly seems to matter), made wondrous or marvellous by the sense of motion induced by the word "Ride" which sets and initiates the motion of the line. Time is also wondrously compacted here: a life's journey is condensed into a very quick montage of transitions taking place over a great length of time, but here sensually experienced as an abrupt sequence of rapid changes almost defying, or hinting at a (profound) defiance of, the existence of time itself. It is the whole of truth that the poet sees, or recognizes: the entire compass of God, with much that is antithetical (all that passes in thirty years) sensually evoked in the thoughts and the emotions by implication, back of the poem; "Till age snow white haires on thee": the changes of a lifetime are perceived in a condensed sequence as abruptly rapid (by ordinary, not "strange", comparison) as the change of the seasons, most sensually realized in wondrous winterous snowing of white color into the hairs (individual hairs, like snowflakes) of the individual traveller's head (the locus of his perceptions and knowledge). Conclusions (selected): Again the poem proceeds by silences, absences, implied antitheses, lacunae, statements not made, universals apposed with reversals. With unknowing as something in fact gleaned by an implicated projection which is empathic. Content is a metaphor for the unstated, the unsaid. The texture of God. The motion of God. An invoked but unstated secondary voice back of the poem which is the special province of the Knower. The unknown, the unseen, is invoked by that which is known and stated. "Things invisible to see".

Shakespeare. "The Phoenix and Turtle".

In this poem, set in the rhythm of a threnody, or solemn and ritualistic funeral march, a great many birds of different species are gathered together to mourn the death of the Phoenix and Turtle (Turtle dove). It is a poem in which animals are given human-like characteristics, not unlike the various characters that inhabit Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo. This introduces a rare and wondrous comic element into the tragedy of the two love-birds' demise, thus having a peculiar effect of heightening the sense of the tragic by permitting us to unconsciously partake of the scene while possessing a double-sense of both participating in and distantly observing a reflection of our own tragic lot in life. The birds heighten our feelings for ourselves, while the ambiguous comic element comforts us and makes the tragedy bearable, much as, and mirroring how, our own funeral rituals permit us to partake of such a double-sense of grief and comfort. This double-sense is projected into a heightened form by the use of such a substitution: shielding us from grief, while intimating grief. The meter and its pace are immensely effective in stylizing grief to the point of ritual, which is in itself meant to serve as a catharsis for our overwhelming feelings. We are able to project ourselves entirely into the scene, without being fully conscious of it. And most peculiarly effective is that the poem is not "The Phoenix and the Turtle". but rather "The Phoenix and Turtle"; that is to say, the locus of our grief for not two isolated and separate birds, but rather for two birds joined in twain in a love so supreme that it is of immortally mythic proportions. The two birds are one, "Co-supremes and starres of Love", indivisible in love and death, and it is for this that they are so specially loved and mourned, especially carry the weight of the community's tragic feeling and that the tragedy of their death is further heightened. They are stand-ins for our own deepest fears, griefs and desires. It is a very formal occasion of grief:

Let the bird of lowdest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herauld sad and trumpet be:
To whose sound chaste wings obay.

Be thou shriking harbinger,
Foule precurrer of the fiend,
Augour of the fevers end,
To his troupe come thou not neere.

From this Session interdict
Every foule of tyrant wing,
Save the Eagle feath'red King,
Keepe the obsequie so strict.

Let the Priest in Surples white,
That defunctive Musicke can,
Be the death-devining Swan,
Lest the Requiem lacke his right.

The account of the two birds' perfect spiritual union is most formal and ritualistic: stated in a very formal account, as formal as a mathematical theorem, a display of fine logic, of wondrous love, confounding Reason. Reason which pays the birds homage by authoring the threne (or threnody) that is the poem.

So they loved as love in twaine,
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, Division none,
Number there in love was slaine.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seene,
Twixt this Turtle and his Queene;
But in them it were a wonder.

So betweene them Love did shine,
That the Turtle saw his right,
Flaming in the Phoenix sight;
Either was the others mine.

Propertie was thus appalled,
That the selfe was not the same:
Single Natures double name,
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason in it selfe confounded,
Saw Division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded.

(Notice how these last two stanzas echo the very double-sense of the poem's enacting of grief upon us.)

The poem closes with a Threnos grouping tetrameter lines in stanzas of three lines rather than quatrains, rushing and condensing the formal march rhythm so that the tragic feeling for the birds' demise—so very like our own feelings for ourselves—is driven home in sadly-seeming truncated units. Death leaves little to say. Observe the last stanza:

To this urne let those repaire,
That are either true or faire,
For these dead Birds, sigh a prayer.

It is ourselves we sigh for. Commentary: none.

Myself ("Epilogue"):

where grace walks through the bridal foliage
and no one could mistake you for another.
After that, they are only leaves to burn.
And when the flowers burst upon the rain
the roofs shall keep their solemn gentle witness
far from the young men who travel far
to fill their noses with the autumn air.
Daybreak is decent as awakening.
And love is gentle, though he is no scholar.
What if I filled my notebook with his words
sketched suddenly with no least hesitation
would she return to him when it came fall
or would she sink into a bitter winter
not even counting the blossoms that are gone.
How many times the autumn rain recurs
to wind about the river in the evening
or fall like one great ocean in the dawn.
No matter, he has had enough of her
and leaves his youth in hope of something better.

Although unstated, the setting of this poem is Chicago in 1920. It is not at all necessary to know this to appreciate the poem, but it is a fact that is not without implications or atmosphere. The poem is not given in its entirety here, but rather in an excerpted passage from the middle of the poem. "where grace walks through the bridal foliage / and no one could mistake you for another": well, grace is obviously a lovely young woman personified by a quality, and "bridal foliage" are the lovely flowering trees of a lovely spring evening. It is implied that there is a young man present, and that he is infatuated with this young lady, whose singularity of beauty is unmistakably exceptional. The "bridal foliage" also carries unmistakable overtones of the young man's visceral and enraptured longing for this lady. They are hauntingly beautiful lines—and they came as a pure inspiration, the poem having been written in the dawn of a sleepless night, and in a great rush or flooding of words that were not even comprehended by the poet as he wrote them, and whose meter he was in fact entirely unaware of as he merely recorded without deliberation the words that came into his head in an almost unreadable scrawl before passing out in exhaustion after a night of rapturous ecstasy due to the tremendously resonant silence and solitude of a night of lucubrations and sensitive (and sensual) cognizances. In the wake of this rapture, reflected in the couplet, the next line comes as a shock: "After that, they are only leaves to burn." This is expressive of the young man's failure in obtaining his longed for objective, marriage to the young woman, and illustrates the waste and autumnal dirge of emotion which afflicts him with bitterness and regret over lost chances. The next lines describe how with the coming of autumn there is nothing for this young man but to leave his hopes behind, as inanimate features of the familiar landscape of his youth grow animated enough to witness his defeat and his departure upon travels which he hopes will allow him to forget his loss. "Daybreak is decent as awakening": I have no idea what this line means, but it certainly means something, and above all, perhaps impressionistically, expresses a mood of having arrived at being decently enough at last only existing in the presence, though possessing nothing in particular but the fact of being itself. Yet the capacity for love is still present, though there is no great justification for why this should be so: "And love is gentle, though he is no scholar." Again, there is a sense of shock in the line, as if in inclinations of love there were little of worldly value to recommend itself. It is a forlorn situation. The author of the poem then wonders, as he himself writes his poem "sketched suddenly with no least hesitation" if that might repair the situation and bring the young woman back to him, or of alternatively she may sink without further regret for her own abandonment of intentions of love into a bitter funk leaving her too absent of mind to even register the details of life and nature around her. Autumn brings its rains, and more rain, which are more cognizant themselves of their surroundings than she is, who has excluded herself from love, and which accumulate to a point of breaking and dashing upon the earth in the primeval and pregnant dawnings that persist through their separation. "No matter, he has had enough of her / and leaves his youth in hope of something better."—the couplet is again shocking, to the senses, and to the young man's very human desire, for he has betrayed himself by turning away from all he has felt for this young lady, for whom he yearned so passionately and previously without parameters or hesitations. They are genuinely tragic lines, in that he has left behind his true desire, thus betraying himself and the lady, and in that he has done so for nothing more than a vague and unjustified hope that by forgetting her he may supersede his feelings for her by new experiences. Also, he is bitter enough to feel that a sense of hopelessness which he interprets as an advance over what he sees as his foolish infatuation that must be killed off along with an entire part of his self, in a determination to be reborn, yet with nothing of substance but a vague hope to find a substitution for what he now holds in his thoughts cynically as a wasted episode of misguided objectives, cancelling out his cognizance of his true feelings for the beautiful and lovely young lady whom he yearned for so badly. Commentary: It is the motion and spirit of God that moves through all of these transitions of feeling, and which observes these events with an unshakeable objectivity, Hence the poem is truly tragic. It is what doesn't happen, and what doesn't flower, come into existence, or reach fulfillment, that is the full cognizance of the poet's superior position from which to observe these events. Absences, unfulfillments, antitheses to the unacted upon possibilities of definite action, of unstated and abandoned love: once again the province of the poet, the Knower. The unfulfilled action exists only in a world of possibility of which the poet, like God, is aware.

BEN MAZER's recent collections of poems are Poems (Pen & Anvil Press, 2010), January 2008 (Dark Sky Books, 2010), and, in India, Tales of the Buckman Tavern (Poetrywala, 2012). His latest collection, New Poems, will be published by Pen & Anvil in April 2013. He is the editor of a forthcoming edition of the complete poems of John Crowe Ransom (The Un-Gyve Press). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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