The poem does not originate with the poet,
but rather, the poet is the medium through which
the poem passes from a higher sphere to the world.
--Plato, paraphrasing Socrates
Here in the farmlands of Indiana and, for that matter, in the corridors of my employer -- a large corporation where we sell pre-computer hardware, as in hammers and post hole diggers -- poetry is not scorned as once I feared. Instead it is tenuously respected, by both farmers and executives, as one might respect a proctoscope -- they're certain it performs some valued function, but they'd rather not get too close to the topic.
I accidentally made a small fortune in the hardware business. I call it accidental because no one who knows me would ever ask me to fix a screen door since I am inept at actually handling hardware. Still, they would most likely come to me first if they were ever in need of a poem, although this has yet to happen. And where hardware has almost nothing in common with poetry, it can provide a starting point.
Poems come to be born, like the cotton gin came to Eli, as seminal gifts emanating from outside the conscious. Any inventor will tell you about the value of intuition or the flash of insight bestowed while one stands in the shower.
For myself I call poems reverse prayers, in that real prayers go forth from one who beseeches outward to the Great Beyond; poems, on the other hand, emanate from the Great Beyond back into the receptor poet.
Quite proud of this term, reverse prayers, I walked around satiated for many months until I read in a Richard Wilbur essay that Emily called them bulletins from Immortality. This gave me pause. I didn't know if I had stepped on the power-rail of poetic luck or not.
Later I learned Jack Spicer used to refer to poets as little radio receivers. No doubt in the future some essayist will think to call us ion beam receptacles.
There's that old joke about the redneck who puzzled over a thermos bottle. He pondered how you can put coffee into it, and later the coffee comes out hot. Or you could put soda pop into it, and later the soda comes out cold. Mystified he asks, "How do it know?"
Poems are like those rare moments at a crowded seashore when, by capricious timing, there are no waves breaking and the brief silence alerts everyone to the succinct importance of introspection. Quickly the waves continue.
The best stance for a poet to learn -- like a bizarre literary bio-feedback, void of conscious thought -- is the poetic equivalent of 'how do it know?' The best lines of the poem sneak between the foliations of the unsuspecting mind. One truly does not need to know them at the moment of birth; one simply needs to be able to recognize them later, on the re-write.
Such poetic success, I should point out, is the opposite of business success, which depends so much upon conscious endeavors and unshakeable wills. And where many executives might profit from increased reliance on the ability to intuit, no poet is going to benefit by trying harder and harder. When poets try harder, they quickly become afflicted by writer's block.
Quoting Stephen Dobyns quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, "Ideally, [an artist] should be unconscious of his insights...all his progress should enter so swiftly into the work that he is unable to recognize them in the moment of transition."
Yet not all poets see these little gifts as benevolent. Some go on to give them spiritual bodies with devilish characters, so throughout poetry we find the duende or dybbuk or recalcitrant muse disquieting the minds of poets. These particular spirits are less like radio signals, and more like waves of dyspepsia.
Lorca once wrote, "The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible." Edward Hirsch pivots from that to "Duende, then, means something like artistic inspiration in the presence of death." Or perhaps one could say sometimes these tricksters spring from the dichotomy between messiah and predestination.
Hirsch again, this time on Rilke: "There are in truth any number of such uncanny moments in Rilke's poems when the mind seems to give way before an incomprehensible mystery and, out of a long foreground, the lines on the poem seem to be forming themselves, as if dictated by a force from without that is also somehow a voice within."
Lorca says, "It is a struggle, not a thought." But I have no fight with it, and secretly hope these tricksters do not exist for me. I have never been so afflicted. Knock on wood for me. Instead of fighting, I usually try to achieve a reverent clearing of my mind. "Don't think," I caution myself...then I simply wait to see what comes on in. So far it has worked pretty well, including the middle of this paragraph. At the moment I'm on a jet heading for Dallas. Writing always seems to flow well for me at thirty-thousand feet.
Time for Emerson to weigh in. "For poetry was all written before time was," the greatest essayist points out. And, "...but the poet knows well that it is not his; that it is as strange and beautiful to him as to you." It would lead one to believe -- indeed all the above leads one to believe -- that there's a celestial reservoir, something like a personal cistern, floating above the heads of the elected ones.
I can see the choice of the word cistern has minimized the topic. Perhaps I'm writing my own heresy when I minimize, for I have always been a believer and have frequently stated in the past that one does not select poetry, poetry selects you. I do strongly believe that one's childhood grants the evidence. Elisha Porat once put it, "Artists are born with a different framework for their soul...perhaps some flaw...as alluring beauty sometimes comes from differing from the norm."
Whenever I tend toward the metaphysical, I self-correct, then cast an aspersion or two on the topic. I drag myself back from the mystical towers of my most cherished fantasy. Yet how do it know? Just where do these seminal nuggets come from?
All of these quoted poets have experienced the motion beyond intuition, the achievement of the sense that allows one to poetically intuit, and all have felt the actual words and phrases come rolling in so fluidly. All of these poets have accepted the presence of poetic thought somewhere beyond their own conscious. Indeed I have never known a poet who does not get a little wistful when discussing these matters, and have never, never, heard a poet brag, "Hey, I just make it up as I go, man."
So where do I come down on the topic? Are they reverse prayers or not?
Yes, they are reverse prayers. I think our souls entertain the stuff of the poem. I think the soul can intuit back to the conscious. I don't think these poems come bubbling up from the unconscious, as the more pragmatic of us would have it, but rather I can feel, or I can intuit, these little revelations emanate from the very soul, the soul who already has one foot planted solidly in death (a nod to Seňor Lorca) or, if you will, the afterlife. Of course, I would very much like to prove it...but I can't.
Instead, I will say this: even though I think the soul entertains the stuff of poetry, I do not, however, believe the process is metaphysical. Indeed, I think it will be found to be physical.
To paraphrase Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we readily believe that our arms are in the physical world, that our skin and bones are physical, and that our very brain is physical, but we quickly balk at believing that our souls are physical. Most of us would say, "No, no, our souls must be ephemeral, wiffy, spiritual." But why? Perhaps our souls are physical, too. Who would say their consciousness is not a part of nature? To quote the good Jesuit directly: "To think we must eat." and "In the last analysis, somehow or other, there must be a single energy operating in the world. And the first idea that occurs to us is that the 'soul' must be as it were a focal point of transformation at which, from all points of nature, the forces of bodies converge, to become interiorised and sublimated in beauty and truth."
Throughout the past five thousand years of the written word, it is clear that as science progresses and explains more of the physical world, the metaphysical world has retreated from what it once termed concrete truths (for example, Adam and Eve) to more allegorical truths (the Big Bang was perhaps instigated by God).
Maybe science has not yet invented a strong enough microscope or telescope to discern the human soul. Yet I have a great faith in the future of science. And in the end I believe we will discover that it is indeed physical not metaphysical. Although I do not expect this to happen tomorrow, or for that matter, within the next hundred generations. In the meantime, I recommend reverse prayers to you. They're not quite as scientific as a microscope, but they're all the evidence we have right now.
©2002 by Ward Kelley