I’ve been meaning for weeks now to write a post here about becoming a poet and never was the urge more strongly felt than after reading a poem by Edward Thomas two weeks ago. The poem, called “Adlestrop,” ends like this:
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
It’s hard to say what moves me about this poem and about this stanza particularly, except that when I read it it reminds me of Frost’s work and specifically it reminds me of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Thomas and Frost knew one another before the war, but I don’t think that their relationship accounts for the uncanny resemblance I sense in these two poems. Rather, it seems to me that these poems touch on an essential something, which good poetry must to be called good and which must be present to inspire would-be poets to become good poets.
It may be impossible to look with fresh eyes at the last two lines of Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods,” because most of us were introduced to the poem at a time when we are least open to poetry’s real influences and those who were open to those influences then–the sensitive, the strange, the broken-hearted–find the explanation they receive, regarding the poem’s significance, falls far short of how the poem makes them feel. Borges, in a lecture on metaphor, says all that can be said about Frost’s couplet, when he says, “we are made to feel that the miles are not only in space but in time, and that ‘sleep’ means ‘die’ or ‘rest.'” And yet, however accurate Borges’ explanation here is, still more happens when we read those last two lines than merely substituting sleep for die and miles for some larger measurement of time, and it is this more which connects Thomas’ poem to Frost’s.
Another poem comes to mind now–this one by William Blake–which possesses a similar quality. The first stanza is one that I repeat to myself frequently, when suffering through a horrific traffic jam or walking the mall with my wife during the holidays. It’s called “London,” and it goes:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
The strength of this poem lies not in its trick (this is what Borges calls Frost’s repetition at the end of his poem), but in how straightforward the poetical statement is. For all of Blake’s prophesying, his greatest strength as a poet may be the simple observation. The obviously true is sometimes hardest to see. On the road to Emmaus, for instance, Christ’s disciples don’t recognize him at first. It isn’t until he breaks bread with them and says a prayer that they see their savior seated at the table with them. Monks, when they greet visitors to the abbey, wash the feet of their guests and treat each as if he were Christ himself. The message these gestures underscore is not that you never know where and when the lord will appear. Rather, the opposite is true. You always know: he is your neighbor; he is the stranger come to ask for a bed for the night; his are the eyes you refuse to meet, when walking wherever you go.
Wallace Stevens says something remarkable about poetry in his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” which when I read it recently recalled to me why I began to call myself a poet in the first place. Stevens says that poetry
isn’t an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.
It used to be the last statement moved me most–the idea that poetry helps us live our lives. But now it is the suggestion that poetry is part of human nature. I am of the opinion that the best part of us isn’t natural. Consciousness, such as we experience it, is an unintended byproduct of language. Therefore, whatever evolutionary advantage language possesses must be shared with all animals who communicate, from the lowly ant to the magnificent chimpanzee, but poetry and the awareness which poetry engenders surpasses these advantages and reveals something more. Maybe what scripture means when it says we are made in God’s image comes closest to answering the question implied by this distinction. Or maybe poetry reveals to us not our divinity but our limitations, a far more useful understanding and far more likely to help us live our lives.
No would-be poet begins his career searching for the precipice beyond which human powers can’t reach, but necessarily this is what he finds. That he would call that experience something else, that he would be tempted to say that where consciousness ends there meaning begins, is forgivable. Stevens’ assessment of poetry is heroic, but ultimately untrue. One becomes a poet precisely where one’s consciousness ceases to be merely human. Self-preservation, therefore, has nothing to do with what poetry offers. If poetry first creates a self, it finally annihilates that self. The uncanny is the beginning of terror and the end of meaning.