My attitudes about poetry can leave my students a little confused. But I’m not sure this confusion is always genuine. It seems sometimes a kind of resistance, which insists on a holding fast to a belief long after it has been revealed to be unsound or inadequate. This resistance stems from two possible causes: 1) immature powers of reasoning, which for most adolescents is developmentally appropriate, and 2) a desire for mystery. Obviously—or maybe not so obviously—the second of the two causes is less harmful than the first. Everyone must cultivate a desire for mystery, and finding it, defend it even against reason. But in a student both of these attitudes are self-defeating. Teachers of higher education work diligently to help students develop sufficient powers of reason and some, perhaps incidentally, encourage the feeling of wonder, which may be more essential to happiness, assuming happiness and not understanding is the chief end of life. I’m not so sure happiness alone is enough, and we may do better to be a little more forceful about the necessity for inquiry and, ultimately, inquiry whose aim is to change students from the things they were to the things they still might be.
If this language sounds religious, it should. There, too, a great misunderstanding lies. People turn to religion for comfort, and for many it provides exactly what they want. For some, though far fewer, it provides exactly what they need. But the promise of religion, in the highest sense, doesn’t guarantee happiness any more than it promises miracles. What it does promise is to bring a person closer to God, and when I use the word promise here I must do so loosely or perhaps it is more accurate to say strictly, since the word promise is related to the word mission. A promise is that which is sent before the desired object arrives. For too many the promise becomes confused with the mission. They follow John the Baptist into the desert and leave before the miracle arrives. One goes into the desert not to find the desert, though one’s life may be made better there than it otherwise would have been. One goes into the desert, or wilderness, to find God. And the same is true of church or of the bible. If you go to the bible to find the bible or to church to find the church, you may be successful and you may be happy, but it will not be the truth, and therefore, will not be what you need.
A student studies to find something, too. In the case of poetry, whether led to it, dragged to it, or attracted to it, the aim isn’t simply to read poetry and figure out the puzzle of patterned language. The verse techniques, which independently mean little or nothing, are as far as most students and teachers are likely to go. Many of them go this far only to discover they are as confused as they had been before and many prefer it this way. A similar phenomenon occurs with math. Students taking courses in mathematics find it difficult. Some find the equations impossible. And so they give up, and thereafter are made satisfied by accepting, as if it were a fact, that they are simply no good at math. The difference between math and poetry—and I’m not certain why this is—is that students often blame poetry for their confusion and not themselves. It is because of this that I try to emphasize not the verse techniques of a poem, but something else. I ask: Why would someone learn to do something so difficult and, according to your experience, so undesirable? Certainly, I say, it isn’t so that a teacher of poetry like me might torture you with learning it.
I ask myself the same question. I have been asking it now as long as I have been writing poetry. Why do it? The answer has changed over the years, and I suspect that the moment I can answer the question satisfactorily I will cease to write poetry. (I definitely will cease to write essays about poetry.) What I have concluded so far is this. Poetry is always a question in search of an answer. And, as each poem begins with a question, each poem offers an answer. The better the answer, the more successful the poem. The purpose of a poetic career or, one might say, a poetic life is to come closer and closer to a real, true and genuine answer, which causes one to be satisfied with what is. It is, therefore, the aim of poetry to reconcile one to the truth. It is to move one’s heart closer to the center of being. If poetry, or some other way, doesn’t do it, it will not happen. Many would be just as well off if this centering never occurred. Consciousness for them remains dim and weak. Their condition, then, parallels that of animals. If resistance to poetry comes from the desire not to know, it may be better that a teacher doesn’t fight against it. Who would be willing to move a sleeping child from the darkness of its room to the harsh and noisy light of the world?
Yet it is exactly this, which teachers are asked to do. “Wake up” is the call each student hears, whether he understands or not. There is no danger either of waking up and finding the mystery of existence vanished, as if it were always and only a dream. The wider one’s eyes open, the more mysterious the world appears. Poetry’s one message may be this and this only. One increases the accuracy and the toughness of one’s reason, as a poet or a reader of poetry, to conclude that reason isn’t enough, that what one finds through experience is wider than perception, and that each of the world’s ten thousand things is shot through with marvel.
Until this process begins for an individual, he acts from ignorance and whatever he claims to love or hate, respect or disclaim remains for him half in darkness. Indeed, he himself remains half in darkness. What he knows about himself is the least one might know. What he understands about himself is almost nothing. Of his weaknesses he thinks too little, and of his strengths he thinks too much. He is in error about the world, and concludes it is a malicious place or a paradise without knowing what this might mean. He looks once and finds this aspect of his life wanting, but what can he do about it? He tries to find fulfillment in his relationships only to experience frustration and disappointment. Poetry reconciles error. If the teacher tells us to wake up, poetry tells us that we wake to dream. Even our pains are illusory. Nothing touches what is essential in us. Could we align our consciousnesses with that essence, then we too might stand aloof from the comings and goings which distress us and match every disaster with serene detachment.
Every poet’s career leads him toward this center and away from the periphery. A student might read a poet’s work from first sonnet to last song and see how he progresses. In this way, the student understands the possibility of his own journey. His life, which seemed before a calamity, suddenly transforms. These errors weren’t errors at all, but something better, truer. If his will weakens, that is good. If he drowns, this is better. His still body will be carried away, and soon it moves over the falls and follows the current where it dumps into the sea. There he discovers what wonders lie to be found, and how he might have missed them all had he clung to some rock or root to be pummeled by the choppy waters and assaulted by debris. These things came to loosen him from fear and error. They are much more his guides than the people safe on the shore, who called and urged, Hold on! What could they know of his condition, whose feet are planted in sand?
Poetry isn’t religion, but it does engage the spirit. It is in poetry that one might find the humility necessary for true happiness. Our frailty and weakness are revealed to us in the long struggle with the art or poetry, and the strength and power of the world, of which we are a part, is measured and felt most by the perceptions poetry inspires. I said above that the aim of religion is to bring one closer to God. Here I will say the same is true of poetry. Poetry neither confirms nor disconfirms God’s existence because it isn’t philosophy or theology. Rather, like the monk, the poet comes to love God, and not the God of one denomination or another, but the God, whose love moves the universe. Having confirmed this love and perhaps having redefined it as a result of his experience, the poet returns to us, his arms full of that bounty though his wings may be a little singed and his limp more pronounced.
One goes to poetry not to find poetry, but to find that which poetry invokes. I am saying here that that experience is the experience of the divine, and it is in us. The poet, like the hermit, retires from the petty concerns and worries of the world, so that he might conclude finally that this world is the only world, where he might fare so well. His disappointments are his only. Where they become another’s, they aren’t disappointments at all. Rather, each new failure is also an opportunity for consolation. From the center of one’s being all is one, and we see how fortune’s wheel moves and that nothing whatsoever can be wrong. Even death, when it comes, comes as a mercy. What hell is there for those who know our lives begin and end with an act of love? Search for it, and it appears everywhere. Fail to search, and still it finds you, whether or not you are ready for it, whether or not you recognize the angel and find the strength to say, Here I am! What could be more mysterious, more useful, than the notion that our prayers are heard and answered? What you have called love has only been self-regard. Let the scope of love widen and soon even the meanest days shine as brilliantly as a star, and the deeds, which seemed like inconstancy or cruelty, are just what one needs to be set free. This is the joy that finds us, when we live a poetic life.