The poem escapes the clock because it is water and it grows with the wind. —Luis Alberto Ambroggio (transl. C. M. Mayo)
i. Funny Things Happen on the Way to the Forms
Many years ago I was invited to ply my trade at a weekend poetry festival celebrating “The Limits and Shape of Language.” Right down my alley—but a few hours before I was due at the lectern I discovered that the theme had been changed. Only one word was changed, but the change seemed to me an indication of something that is sadly wrong in our culture’s dealings with poetry. Somehow it was decided that we could better spend the weekend thinking about “The Limits and Shape of Meaning.” Not language; meaning . . . .
I’ve just read Marianne Boruch’s essay, “Line and Room,” from her book In the Blue Pharmacy. It’s a fascinating excursion into the many ways that linefunctions in the total makeup of what a poem is. We understand how poetry’s pressure and classical restraint are strengthened by lines which use punctuation marks at their ends, letting sense and meter pause between lines so that each line functions clearly as a unit in a structure. But—much more excitingly—Boruch demonstrates the gain in breadth, movement, and complexity when a poet breaks lines using enjambment, letting lines flow or jerk, hush or clamor, set up tensions, surprise us as they run on through the end-stops. She freshens an old truth: that the line is a unit not of sense but of attention. . . .
iii. The Tyranny of the Accessible Out in the wilds beyond the lands inhabited by readers of journals like Poet Lore, there has always been, and probably still is, a silent tribe of teachers and readers and non-readers who dare not venture beyond what they call accessible poems. Their safest poems can be found in anthologies with titles like Best Loved Poems or 501 Poems of Courage and Inspiration. Such anthologies protect them from the embarrassment of their expected confusions with strange or “difficult” poems. Some of us might view this attitude as a retreat into cheap-perfume sentimentality and easily memorized plink-a-plonk verse—whereas these people see themselves as the upright conservators of real, no-nonsense,direct talk. . . .
"Making poems is my way of clarifying and seeing."
The present custom is to publish poetry collections as “Selected and New”or “New and Selected”poems. This book does indeed select older poems and contain new ones. It is called “Collected” poems because I have gathered into it from earlier books only those poems that I now know were on their way to forming this one unified book. Its fifty new poems, a kind of rounding off but in no way a “conclusion,” helped me to explore and see and then extend the book’s wholeness.
The many poems from my earlier books that I have kept out of this collection were often stepping stones toward it but finally not part of it. I like that my“collected” is unusually slender.
What kept needling me while making poems after forty was a growing insistence from somewhere within them that these poems must refuse to rocket-thrust the experience of soul and spirit heavenward into the mists and gasses, beyond sight, into pure unstained light, away from the good heft of the physical.
Making poems is my way of clarifying and seeing. As a teacher I needed that. I have been watching how our culture has trivialized the mysterious image of light, so much so that its ubiquitous glare blinds us to our need for some positive darkness. In the same way, I mistrust the tendency, gaining favor presently in our culture, to regard physical objects, things, bodies, as inferior stuff that we must transcend. To struggle as we aspire toward spiritual enlightenment is to put aside the other possibility: that the spiritual takes the initiative, comes down to us, dwells in our time and history and flesh. In many mythologies as well as in Christian belief, the eternal Divine descends, assumes human form, and thereby sanctifies time and the physical. This is a clear choice: whether to appropriate and enjoy and conserve the world or to flee it.
"More and more, my work has come to be celebratory."
More and more, my work has come to be celebratory. Good fertile darkness and lively physicality are often the subjects celebrated. If this seems unusual, I hope it is so for the unusual moments of discovery, the jolts of surprise. Darkness, after all, is not only ignorance, fear, and evil; it is the mystery in which we dream and imagine and create; it is, science tells us, 85% of the stuff of the universe. And the physical is not just “carnality” -- wickedly alluring fleshpots or sensual distractions from white light and pure spirit; the physical is the astonishing home in which spirit lives.
I like the effect of reversing now and then the values of light and dark. I also like the effect of celebrating human bodies, graceful motion, nature, and I am fascinated by the ways in which literary writers and other artists can incarnate their perceptions and their vision into the physical stuff of print, paint, and music. So I see this book as a kind of carnival, a festival of the sort that James Thomson defined in 1744 as one in which “the glad Circle. . . yield their Souls to festive mirth.”
"I see this book as a kind of carnival . . ."
I’d like my carnival to have the zest and color and blaring of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras or the old Carnival of Venice. Let it hum its praise for the surprise of God-made-flesh that endows all humans, and mix that with its celebration of standing ribs of roast beef served with burgundy wine. Hallelujah for carne. Let hot carnival lights shoot in vain for stars far off into the embracing, cool darkness.
But unlike that rush of carnival days before Lent (indulgence before the ritual of abstinence), this is a lasting carnival, for all time, giving thanks for the astonishing realization that spirit, “the breath of God,” is in residence here and now. But there is also this: the need for the soul’s lamentations from a corner of the beribboned tent, noting what is absent, noting the sad confusions and misunderstandings among us about things carnal and things incarnate.
I have to use a rare, seldom used word for what I see and miss and celebrate: Incarnality. It gradually became the title of this book. The few theologians who use the term mean something profoundly philosophical; I mean it to suggest all the hungry, thirsty, leaping excitement of carnival-time, but this time as a year-around and forever celebration of the temporal, physical, finite, material world. That world is created as an expression of and a container for the timeless and spiritual. Just as the infinite is within us humans -- reflected as idea, vision, thought, imagination -- so it is embodied by the physical world, giving us glimpses of the wonder and life-force that are enfleshed in it.
"Incarnality is about seeking and traveling until you get to a strange place called home and discover you belong there."
That’s what Incarnality is about. It’s about seeking and traveling until you get to a strange place called home and discover you belong there. Necessarily, of course, it also tries to catch the feel of a world in which that way seems missing and is sometimes longed for. But I like absence, the very presence of absence. Likewise, in an age which honors bigness, I have been catching splinters, threads, narrow light rays, flashes – moments of awareness of forces that we see only partially. In an age of glitter and glare, I try to sense the healthy need for the mystery of darkness. In an age that creates, for its pleasure or distraction, the unreal heavens of sentimental pop songs and TV, and the cloying honey of sympathy cards, and the childish cartoon heavens afloat in puffy clouds, I try to see in the here-and-now pieces and fragments of a very physical Eden. It wants rebuilding.
The book is not an argument in the service of a thesis. It strings together moments of experience or awareness that took shape as poems in the process of my making them. Willa Cather’s phrase is right: “touch and pass on.” I hope they are a lively reminder that making poems is simply an alternate way of seeing. Take a look and pass on.