Poets, perhaps unlike poems, are born not made, but they aren’t born in the womb so much as they are born in the world–maybe even as the result of the world. Stevens often referred to the world as the mother, and others have made much of the substituting of father for mother in prayers like the Lord’s Prayer. It makes more sense, the argument goes, to ask our mother for our daily bread than our father, who is absent anyway. Perhaps this is what Jesus found, finally, when on the cross he feels forsaken. Pietas tell us that, ultimately, he is unforsaken by his mother, who holds the earthly part of him one last time, even as she carried him to term. I read an argument the other day, I can’t remember where, that suggests Jesus’ identification with the father is a swerving away from some animal fact, typical of Christianity and the religion of progress which follows. The question itching in a poet’s ears is: How can I be only this flesh and blood and hair and bone, when inwardly I sense something greater?
If poets are neurotic, anxious, mad or inspired, these are merely terms which suggest a distance from the mundane, that is, the earthly. Stevens’ poetry, for instance, which aimed for plainness, which desired to avoid illusion, wanted to be not the poetry of heaven – we’d had enough of that already, he said – but a poetry of earth. One’s illusions and one’s animal nature must be integrated and admitted and not rejected for this to happen. Jeffers’ poetry attempts this too. It is the mad, he says, who need truth. But truth here is ironic, where irony means there is a distance between saying and meaning. There will always be such a distance, must be such a distance, unless language reconciles itself to the truth unlike any truth masquerading as truth now. When D.H. Lawrence praises Whitman for being the only American writer not only to challenge the morality of the past, but truly leave it behind – and this is where he parts from his contemporaries – he means just this. Whitman doesn’t set aside some special place for humanity outside the web of other things. Jesus’ exhortation to consider the lilies amounts to this, too. What makes you so special that you should worry? Still, the anxiety we feel, however ineffectual, is us, and we can’t be divorced from it anymore than we can from the notion that there may be something better for us, whether rapture or revelation, apotheosis or annihilation.
The poet’s first utterance is an urge. I suppose this urge arrives long before the would-be poet can be aware of it or know what it means. Bringing this urge to consciousness requires a rendezvous with an accomplished poet–someone who has managed some degree of eloquence. Eloquence has two meanings: to say something with flare and originality, and, as Stevens puts it, plainly to propound. This final elegance is the aim of all poets and all poetry. Our first attempts at eloquence amount to finding our own style. Our last attempt puts aside the illusions of style and commits itself to meaning. Many poets achieve this first eloquence, but only a very few are able to refute their former selves and, more, embrace a clarity approaching vision.
*This post was written on June 4th, 2012