“Feeling from the Inside: In the act of writing, a transformation occurs: the direct data of consciousness, our feeling of ourselves from inside, is changed into an image of other individuals , similarly feeling themselves from inside, and thanks to that, we can write about them and not ourselves” – Czelaw Milosz, from Roadside Dog
When a rapturous storm swept and turned and turned me in its gyre last year, I decided to start a project. This is untrue. I didn’t decide: I had no choice but to practice alchemy and transduce the terrifying gushes of emotion into writing. I called it, fittingly and retrospectively, “The Noah’s Ark Project” for Rumi admonished: “Start a foolish project like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you”.
Writing was the ark that curtailed my drowning in the rough and muddy waters. That transformation of which Milosz speaks is so real, and so beautiful. My darkness, as obsidian as the ink with which I wrote, was so full of light (T.S. Eliot address this gloriously somewhere…The Four Quartets, maybe? ah, yes “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing“), I just had to search for it. So, I wrote whenever the impulse possessed me (which was always). A pressure cooker of emotions and thoughts, I felt I would explode if I didn’t write. And so write I did: scribbled on receipts, jotted in my journal, typed into my gmail drafts. I wrote until I felt I was breathing air and not sucking in salt water. I wrote.
One such instance was when I sat reading Milosz’s, Ars Poetica?, and could do nothing but pour out musings about the poem. It was as though I had been possessed by a poem about the possession of poetry. In the metalanguage of his work was my metamorphosis. In “feeling [himself] from the inside”, Mr. Milosz was speaking my conciousness In response, I arced out thoughts, in a stream of (my) conciousness until I was close to tears. Beauty was happening to me.
Below is the verse by verse exegesis I penned in that flurry. But first, a note on “Ars Poetica”:
Ars Poetica is a latin term that translates to “the art of poetry” or “on the nature of poetry”. Writers of Artes Poeticae range from Horace and Aristotle to Archibald Macleish, Milosz and Pablo Neruda.
Poetry as Possession/ Indecent Exposure
I am reading, again, Milosz’s “Ars Poetica?” and it is as though I am possessed and all I can do is write (about it).
There is something that comes over me when I feel the inclination to write…inspiration some call it… being breathed into…possession may be the word that captures the process most succinctly and Milosz gets (in both senses of the word) that. Perhaps this is why I have always been so private about my poetry, because as he puts it, it’s obscene- the whole idea that something thrusts within you that you don’t even know about and suddenly it bubbles to the surface as molecules sublimate through effervescence into evanescence. It is carnal and raw and lewd and crude. Neruda expresses this (in his poem, Poetry):
And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
“and it touched me”: suddenly I feel the nauseated as though watching an unsuspecting being being “touched” inappropriately. Of course it can be read that it “moved” him also– only Neruda can make room for such duality–but certainly, in my mind, the calmly violent and sexual truth of the nature of possession by the poetic muse is thrashing in those lines…and as one reads on, though not quoted above, the description of poetry’s effect can be likened to crescendoing in orgasm. This image captures the idea that writing poetry (and reading it) is like having mad sex; being possessed by wild spirits as in Milosz’s experience. Who wants to do that out in the open? As with the uninhibited sexual experience, the possession ends in creation: there is a birth.
(complete tangent: Neruda’s “open planets” which he mentions in the aforementioned poem brings to mind Keat’s “a watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken” and an interesting six degrees of separation: Keat’s was talking about the joy of finally understanding Homer and Homer is famously mentioned in the original Ars Poetica by Horace…the well known phrase ‘bonus dormitat Homerus’)
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies
The first idea conveyed here is that poetry is reaching out for understanding from others. As an autistic child cries or bangs their head against a wall or a baby wails (or even we sob) because they (we) have no other means to communicate their (our) ineffable emotions and oceans, so does the poet transmute into poetic form, device, space, emptiness whatever it is that they are possessed by which will have no way but out. The writer has no other language but poetry. Poetry is their tears, their repetitive head-banging…and who would be proud to reveal such nakedness? Indeed there has to be a form that allows the author to communicate without languishing in “sublime agonies”…without, in essence, dancing on this precarious precipice between sanity and madness (cue Schopenhauer’s beauty–sublimity spectrum). And so he continues:
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
Ahh how expertly he does it! He aspires not to write poetry but he shows above that it is not within his control simply by penning the metaphor of the tiger springing out. The image is within him and it will have no way but out and so he writes it, thus doubly, and at once, making his point about the nature of poetry: employing metaphor as a device to make his point and the existence of the metaphor in the first place as proof that it poetry is an outing of something within us that is not of us for in using the metaphor he is doing something that he does not want to do: write poetry!
That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
Though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
When so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty
Yes, I skipped a bit ahead of myself. It is here that the poet reveals the idea that poetry is dictated –such a wonderful choice of words: dictated as in recited but also dictated as in mandated, again capturing the idea of the poet’s inability to control the possession– by a daimonion. Diamonion: good or benevolent “supernatural beings between mortals and gods, such as inferior divinities and ghosts of dead heroes”. A muse if you will. The quiddity of what he is saying though is that the pride of poets baffles him given that their existence as a poet and the existence of the poem betrays that fact that they must succumb to the muse: “they are put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty”. And since frailty makes us human, the pride of poets is even more of an enigma, given that writing poetry proves them to be just like everyone else: human. Perhaps this is why I am no true poet or artist, a mere dilettante I remain because I am too strong for full possession (this is of course, a tongue-in-cheek excuse for my mediocrity as a writer). Perhaps also it is because I realise that I am not the one speaking in the few times I write poetry that I am weary of “cleaning it up” too much. I may very well be expressing my emotions, as I always am, but the words are not my own and so it belongs just as much to the muse. In the improVISation is life. “Towards an impure” poetry is the direction in which Neruda suggests we should travel.
I should also say that the lines above bring, loosely, to mind Eliot’s assertion that “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things“. The general consensus seems to be that Eliot was saying true poetry is not confessional poetry. From his words, I see a reiteration of Milosz idea that in writing poetry we seek refuge from the oppressive muse and that muse may very well be our own emotion; or own personality. The key idea here, for me, is escape.
But back to Milosz:
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
Is not poetry akin to speaking in tongues (becoming possessed by the holy ghost I believe that is)? Is not poetry speaking in tongues? Mumbojumbo gobbledygook jabberwocke jargon that exists in the black and the white (think for instance of the power of the cesura or of enjambment) of the page. I may be mistaken but I do believe the concept behind speaking in tongues is that they are intelligible to someone somewhere on the planet and when the poet speaks in his language, someone somewhere swears they understand him (as I am doing in this instance). What Neruda describes as:
faint, without substance, pure
And to some the gift is given to speak in tongues and to others the gift of interpretation. And so we say in our hackneyed way that poetry (art) “does not belong to he who writes it, but to he who understands (needs) it”. As Gibran put it (albeit in a different context) “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” And so it is that the poet taps into the “spiritus mundii” and does to others the salacious thing that the spirits do to him: he touches them. And, as with a parent, his destiny is thus forever changed.
It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with thehelp of irony.
There was a time when only wise books were read
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
One has to smile at Milosz’s wit. Poetry (even if he says he does not want us to): the ramblings of crazy intoxicated people. Poetry can then be described as WUI (writing under the influence). Why , in our time, do people subject themselves to the fantasmas, trees and rabied waves of a clearly crazed psyche, he asked? I, for one, would certainly like an answer 🙂
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will”
I become possessed all over again everytime I read the preceeding stanza. How can one say so many things in four lines? It is not human to say so many things with one mouth at one time. Surely it is the work of a diamonion. Poetry reminds us of “how difficult it is to remain one person”. Our house, that body and mind that we are enshrouded in, is indeed open and forces far greater than ourselves; these “invisible guests”, these spirits, come in and out at will. Spirits such as those that force us to write and spirits such as those that force us to love. We are, in those instances, more than one person and trying to remain so is as feckless as containing the wind. We are more than one person because in us we house the spirits and share with them our flesh and our blood. We are more than one person because in that moment we tap into the soul of the universe and speak in its mother tongue and the moment we share in that collective consciousness we are no longer “a single man”. We are more than one person because even when we read poetry that resonates we are shown and reminded that if someone can write the secrets of our very own heart; sounds that resonate at the same frequency of our heartstrings, then somewhere in this universe there is shared understanding: we are not alone. And always, poetry reminds us how simply difficult it is to remain one person in the mundanely glorious physical (and not just carnal) sense. Quite literally, this poem may have saved my life for in many ways I do consider myself a single man.
and so he ends:
What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument
Here he is, in all the glory of this glorious work, still trying to deny his mastery of the art. I have often said I only write poetry when I must because if I don’t I will spontaneously combust. This, thankfully, happens rarely and so I am by no means prolific. And as I have written all of this (this pointless and hurried analysis) under “unbearable duress”, unable to focus and dancing dervishly to the clicks of the clavier, is this then a poem? Is this a poem because I am embarrassed to share this deep frailty and senseless prattling? Is it a poem because after every couple of sentences I had to pause to catch my breath? Is it a poem because my eyes are filled with tears? Is this a poem because now that I am done the spirit of Milosz has left me, calm and able to face the rest of my anguish? Or is this the poem (which I was mandated to write somehow before and after the rambling exegesis above):
(dedicated to Archibald Macleish and Cselaw Milosz who breathed into me ; to Pablo Neruda because “he gets it/me” but most of all to CVN: hopefully good diamonions all)
I broke all the glass
Sea of lustruous mirky clear
shards of precarious sublime
spot of red
and it was poetry
I painted the page black and blood
stream of salt
streaks of precarious sublime
spot of white
and it was poetry
Io sono l’amore
and it is poetry
“When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. But if you have not a pen, I suppose you must scratch any way you can” ~Samuel Lover