The Cortland Review


Richard Jackson
  "Language-Driven Poetry: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PRINCIPLE OF GENERATING POEMS" begins with Dante and Petrarch and walks us through poems of Wordsworth, Keats, Robert Frost, Andre Breton, Cesare Pavese, Richard Wilbur, Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, all the way to Heather McHugh to demonstrate that the imaginative vision possible to us through poetry exists not in the dressing up of ideas, feelings or events that the poet tries to find words to describe, but in its exploration of language, "not merely a record, but a gesture always trying to escape itself, escape our human condition towards something universal…"

Richard Jackson

"Place Message Here",
"Letter From Slovenia",
"Letter From Tuscany",
"Letter to Stern From Arezzo",
and "If I Can't Love You", all new poems by Richard Jackson

Robert Bly

An interview by Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, a special audio program of The Paula Gordon Show.

Christian Wiman
"A Darker Shade of Grey: Christian Wiman’s Hard Night," a review by Chelsea Rathburn points to Wiman’s work as expression of the poet’s awesome responsibility to the power of language. "What words or harder gift/ does the light require of me," Wiman writes, "carving from the dark/ this difficult tree?"
HARD NIGHT Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

Richard Jackson

Richard JacksonRichard Jackson is the author of 9 books of poems, most recently Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004), Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland Poetry Press, 2003), Heartwall (University of Massachusetts, 2000), winner of the Juniper Prize, Svetovi Narazen (Slovenia, 2001), a limited edition small press book, Falling Stars: A Collection of Monologues (Flagpond Press, 2002) and Richard Jackson: Greatest Hits (2004). His own poems have been translated into a dozen languages. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry: The Fire Under the Moon and Double Vision: Four Slovenian Poets (Aleph, 1993), is editor of Poetry Miscellany and Mala Revija, a journal of Slovene culture and literature as well as an eastern Europoean Chapbook Series. The author of a book of criticism, The Dismantling of Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews With Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award), he has had essays and reviews in Georgia Review, Verse, Contemporary Literature, Boundary 2, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner aamong numerous journals and anthologies. In 2000 he received the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans, awarded by the President of Slovenia. He has Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, Witter-Bynner and Fulbright Fellowships, 5 Pushcart Prizes and awards for excellence in teaching from UT-Chattanooga and Vermont College's M.F.A. program.

Richard Jackson - Language-Driven Poetry


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The process of language in the poem, then, leads to redefinition. One poem that enacts this is Richard Wilbur's "The Writer." The poem opens with a three-stanza analogy—stolen ultimately from Petrarch—of the writer, here his daughter, as a sort of sea captain "in the prow of the house," with her typewriter keys rattling "like a chain hauled over a gunwale." Then he waxes overly poetic: "the stuff / Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy." The figure has carried him to the sentimental because so forced and artificial: he has been forcing the language as Wordsworth warned, and the "counter spirit" of language subverts his poem. How can he save the poem, his vision, her? He resorts to silence, a pause, and critcizes his "thought and its easy figure." In fact, the idea of thought carried by a figure of speech rather than the figure of speech revealing the thought is precisely the problem here. When she starts up again, he almost falls back into the boat image with the pun on "strokes," but again resorts to the silence in contrast to his own prattle. It is from this silence, finally, that the poem naturally emerges, and the images of passage and life also shift to their opposite, an image of death—the bird trapped in the room being a traditional image for that. Once again, however, he could be stuck in a cliché, but he allows the image to progress in a more personal way, with no immediate intention of linking it up to any analogy, and gradually the story--the language--tells the emotion he has for his daughter. Her thoughts in writing, his own writing, too, is like that bird, which finally clears "the sill of the world."

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

The poem, then, enacts a process of gradual defintion and self correction: the cliché of the opening is rejected for silence, a step back, and then an opposite image presents itself and is allowed to carry the poet to a more complex and unique analogy.

A different process of redefinition, more image-oriented, occurs in Keats's "To Autumn:"

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The poem opens with an overplus of sensual imagery—even the sounds of the words, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," cause the reader to say the words slowly, and the syntax, with its anaphora based on the preposition "to," its sense of "more, / And still more," provides the sense of "o'er-brimmed" excess. In stanza two, the images keep intensifying until there is no place for them to develop except a sense of indolence of autumn personified and, like one of Breughel's drunken, pot-bellied farmers, "sitting careless on a granary floor." The image of the "hook" suggests not only the harvest but the grim reaper, though that is supressed for a few lines until we sense that the indolence, the lack of activity, does indeed suggest death in the form of "the last oozings hours by hours." So the pattern of images, the language, has swept the poet to a point where excess of life has revealed a form of death—another reversal of images as we saw in "The Writer." But on the other hand, the poem itself is building a vocabulary where the two opposites are associated, and so in the last stanza, where the poet seems to be describing the barren landscape of death, of winter that follows autumn, the oxymoronic language could just as well describe spring. For example, the "clouds bloom the soft-dying day," and the "stubble plains" have a "rosey hue," both images blending ends and beginings. Moreover, the gnats are "borne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies." The "full-grown lambs," of course, hold the opposite qualities in the term itself, an impossibility except in language. Finally, the crickets are singing, the birds are singing, and the swallows are "gathering" rather than dispersing as one would expect in describing an end. Simply by following the impulses of the language, by listening to the language as it develops, Keats is able to redefine time and mortality, to restructure his world, to create, as Wasserman said, an "independent reality."

Cesare Pavese was one of the most narratively-oriented lyric poets of the century, and what he called "image-narratives" present us, as Keats's poem does, with a futher good example of how language drives the poem.


A garden between low walls, bright,
made of dry grass and a light that slowly bakes
the ground below. The light smells of sea.
You breathe that grass. You touch your hair
and shake out the memory of grass.

I have seen ripe
fruit dropping thickly on remembered grass with a soft
thudding. So too the pulsing of the blood
surprises even you. You move your head
as though a miracle of air had happened around you,
and the miracle is you. Your eyes have a savor
like the heat of memory.

                          You listen.
You listen to the words, but they barely graze you.
Your face has a radiance of thought that shines
around your shoulders, like light from the sea. The silence
in your face touches the heart with a soft
thud, exuding drop by drop,
like fruit that fell here years ago,
an old pain, still.

He begins with a garden that is "bright," and the brightness is constituted by the color of the "dry grass" and the "light," a physical thing and an intangible thing, two elements that will continue to dictate how the poem evolves. Pavese uses the language as it unfolds in the poem in an imaginative way, allowing terms usually assigned to one object to be used for another. The light, not the heat, bakes the ground—and yet, borrowing from the dry grass image and its sense of smell in the heat, he leaps to "The light smells of sea." That leads to the image of breath, then with the grass image, to hair, and so touch—and the hair holds, then, all these images of the garden: heat of passion, breath, light, in its "memory." The hair holding the memory of grass becomes metamorphosed into "remembered grass," another scene, really, where fruit drops, but that "thudding" is associated with "pulsing of the blood," the passion earlier. At this point, the woman's whole head becomes the subject, as it exists in that air which holds the smell of hair and grass, and of fruit, too—and from the head he goes back immediately to another part of the head, the eyes, but then combines two elements from earlier to arrive at "heat of memory." The poem is starting to create a new vocabulary—as all good poems really do. The words in the third stanza are the words of the poem, but also what fills the air, and they fall like the fruit and "barely graze" the woman. When he then says that her face shines "like light from the sea," we remember how the "light smells of sea," and the image becomes one of synesthesia. In a moment the langauge pulls him in another direction: the words and their opposite, silence, are both like fruit, and so the silence in her face can "touch the heart with a soft / thud." The word "thud" here resonates with the notion of fruit dropping, words and silence, pulsing blood of passion, hurt (the graze). Now the language has developed a vocabulary where the conclusion can simply associate the images on the next plane: the falling fruit, bruised, and the graze, suggest pain, and the language of memory earlier combines to give us the sense that the silence is like "an old pain" that "still" persists. I have traced this poem in detail to suggest how the poet, letting the play of langauge dictate the progress of the images, arrives at an unexpected conclusion: what began as a description of a bright garden, almost edenic, ends with a sense of pain and loss.

The poet tries "to catch the sacred seed of everything, what is at the center of the fruit, and open it up. The poem goes for the inexpressible, a kind of hidden God's space...."
                                                  --Tomaz Salamun

The Slovene poet Tomaz Salamun describes this process of language in a recent interview:

The poet is a hunter, not an expressor. You express what you already have. The inexpressible is like the beast in the woods that the hunter always knows only by its tracks. The very fact that we can't describe it adequately now, searching as we are with various metaphors and similes, shows what a powerful thing it is, what attraction it has." On a more nuts and bolts level, he says: "Basically, what I'm trying to do is—with a word or phrase—to catch the sacred seed of everything, what is at the center of the fruit, and open it up. The poem goes for the inexpressible, a kind of hidden God's space.... One word then gets carried to another word, tries to pry it open or hit its center, but it hits not at the middle but a side—so there are ambiguities, too, the inexpressible.

His poem, "Birthdays," is a good example:


For my twenty-fifth birthday in the army
I got: a mirror with a specially nice frame,
Encrusted with seashells, deer, and a brook;
Furlough, a kremschnitte, a glass of wine.
I watched a movie about Jean Harlow who died
A victim of excessive bleaching of her hair.
Men who give much to mankind are tired,
Lonely at the end. Sometimes all bleach comes
Back, and kills them.
Four years later on my birthday I thought:
New York City is a lot like the National Army.
A lot of people you never met before.
Rauschenberg showed us Twombley's paintings
Of the early fifties. Everybody has gone
To Long Island. It was hot.
Tatayana Grosman showed us the street
From the terrace where she lived two years
After the war without documents. Nobody
Believed that she was Tatayana Grosman.
If anybody had killed her, it wouldn't
Have been possible to prove that he had killed
Anybody. Then I came back to 34th street, lay down,
Smoked, and listened to Tommy, the Who.
Maybe I am writing this because it is so rainy.

The poem is opportunistic, turning digressions into temporary main subjects, and then linking all of the subjects under death, loneliness and isolation. It begins with images of his birthday presents—a sort of random list that mixes concrete and abstract images, and the image of the mirror with its border of outdoor images already starts, with the idea of furlough, to give the poem an expansive feel. That expansiveness suggests an ease, like watching the movie, and while the image of Jean Harlow is funny at first, the more somber aspects come out in the generalization about lonely men, only to be undercut again with the bleach reference. From there the poem leaps to New York, another art world and a person he met there in a series of very quick associations linked simply by images: it is crucial that the links seem accidental, or not related to the essences of images. The army and New York, for instance, are linked only by population, Harlow and Rauschenberg by their two arts of cinema and painting. The Tatyana Grossman lines are all related to the notion of identity and so link back to the idea of the birthday and mortality—she, in a sense, doesn't exist because she doesn't have papers. He leaps from that, though, back to his apartment, to music, and to question even why he writes the poem. Of course, the images are working to reverberate off each other: the reference to Tommy suggests something about Tatyana's isolation, and also, we must now see under all this, to Salamun's own loneliness. After all, the only sentences in the present tense here are the lines about lonely men, the line "Everyone has gone to Long Island" and the last line—all suggesting, uncovering, really, the poet's isolated and melancholy condition hiding under the pretense of the comic, almost manic assertion. One wants to read the last line by borrowing from the other two present-tense references: "maybe I am writing this because I am so lonely," though that would produce a sloppily sentimental ending. Instead, the progression of images hunts out, to use Salamun's own words, the inexpressible, profound sense of isolation. The freely associative language produces a freedom here that the poet's situation would otherwise deny.

A poem by Wislawa Szymborska presents another fine example of this sort of opportunistic language play and shifting subjects:


I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love's concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimms' fairy tales to the newspapers' front pages.
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven't mentioned here
to many things I've also left unsaid.
I prefer zeroes on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.

The last lines of her poem could almost be the motto for this essay. What she prefers, as Hikmet says in his famous poem about what he has forgotten he loved, is a range of things from the quirky to the essential, flowers to literature, emptiness to fullness. In the end, we have a fairly accurate sense of both the speaker, and of a poet herself, of what constitutes language-driven poetry as she floats from one association to another.

"Statements of the theme are simply not going to work in the poem, for they would be unconvincing lies.... The truth of the poem is in the play of the language."

Let's look at a typical surrealist poem, Breton's "Always for the first time," where the linguistic leaps literally fill the "rift" between the beginning of love and its decline so that the narrator in the end can lean over the enormous void of time that has elapsed since that beginning of the affair thus and behave as if "always for the first time." Here is the poem:

Always for the first time
Hardly do I know you by sight
You return at some hour of the night to a house at an angle to my window
A wholly imaginary house
It is there from one second to the next
In the inviolate darkness
I anticipate once more the fascinating rift occurring
The one and only rift
In the facade and in my heart
The closer I come to you
In reality
The more the key sings at the door of the unknown room
Where you appear alone before me
At first you coalesce entirely with the brightness
The elusive angle of a curtain
It's a field of jasmine I gazed upon at dawn on a road in the vicinity of Grasse
With the diagonal slant of its girls picking
Behind them the dark falling wing of the planets stripped bare
Before them a T-square of dazzling light
The curtain invisibly raised
In a frenzy all the flowers swarm back in
It is you at grips with that too long hour never dim enough until sleep
You as though you could be
The same except that I shall perhaps never meet you
You pretend not to know I am watching you
Marvelously I am no longer sure you know
Your idleness brings tears to my eyes
A swarm of interruptions surrounds each of your gestures
In a honeydew hunt
There are rocking chairs on a deck there are branches that may well scratch you in the forest
There are in a shop window in the rue Notre-dame-de Lorette
Two lovely crossed legs caught in long stockings
Flaring out in the center of a great white clover
There is a silken ladder rolled out over the ivy
There is
By my leaning over the precipice
Of your presence and your absence in hopeless fusion
My finding the secret
Of loving you
Always for the very first time

Statements of the theme are simply not going to work in the poem, for they would be unconvincing lies; instead, the poem has to enact a sense of always beginning. The truth of the poem is in the play of the language. That is, the poem's language has to enact a beginning that will counter the potentially elegiac end to the relationship. Breton accomplishes this by linking various sets of images such as the references to sight, to angularity, to flowers, to the rift of time between them so that each time one image or another from these sets is mentioned, it seems to emerge from a new context. Yet a syntax of associations begins to emerge: "the house at an angle" in line 17 suggests "the diagonal slant of girls" in line 17 and the "T-square of dazzling light" in line 19, but the references to house, girls and light suggest connections that haven't yet been explained. The images perhaps connect suddenly in the next few lines with the reference to the curtain (of the house), to the woman (one of the girls?), and to the invisible (dazzled by light?), though these links are themselves tenuous. As the poem says later, the images seem to be "flaring out in the center of a white clover," constantly adding new categories of association along different categories of thought—geometry, aesthetics, draftsmanship, decor; in thus forcing us to see connections differently, we see the items they connect as if for the first time. But there is always a haunting sense that the poem, in modulating images, is building a history, a time for itself.

We might also look at the last 13 lines to see more closely how things resolve themselves as a result of this language play. The two legs in these lines derive from the rocking chair image earlier, and the stockings are literally "high-lows" suggesting the "silken ladder" image and also the precipice that was the original rift. In the space of a few lines, high, low, and center have been conflated, suggesting eventually the "fusion" of presence and absence. All this is meant to establish a logic of sorts to fuse ending and beginning as the poem repeats its first line title, literally starting over. And yet, for all its triumph, the poem also acknowledges the seriousness of the precipice; throughout the poem there have been "plants stripped," branches that "scratch" threateningly, the "dark falling wing of plants," and words such as "hopeless" and "unknown" that can't be kept out. If the language provides a protection against time, as Derrida suggests, the elegiac sense nonetheless threatens in these words and the history in the poem, providing a dramatic tension.

It might be useful to examine Anna Akhmatova's "March Elegy" to explore these kinds of connections further. As in the case of Breton's poem, a certain risk is involved in using a translation, but in both cases the translations are excellent English poems, and besides our concern is with style as a mode of thought, with a philosophy of style. Joseph Brodsky notes that her style is characterized by strict rhymes and meters, relaxed a bit by the time of this poem, and short sentences with little or no subordination. It is, he says, a non-assertive style that diminishes the role of the "I." And yet, Brodsky notes, there is a kind of movement that rivals the push of Breton's lines: "Often within just one stanza she'd cover a variety of seemingly unrelated things," Brodsky says, so many so quickly that she undermines the "formality" of the poem. The effect, I believe, is that the voice lets down its guard, the timeless metronimic ring of the lines is disrupted, and time, with all its reminders of death and loss, subtly enters the poem. Her poems hold off, but never fully, what they argue against, and this tension is the source of their dramatic power. Here is the poem in a version by Stanley Kunitz:

March Elegy

I have enough treasures from the past
to last me longer than I need, or want.
You know as well as I... malevolent memory
won't let go of half of them:
a modest church, with its gold cupola
slightly askew; a harsh chorus
of crows; the whistle of a train;
a birch tree haggard in a field
as if it had just been sprung from jail;
a secret midnight conclave
of monumental Bible-oaks;
a tiny rowboat that comes drifting out
of somebody's dreams, slowly foundering.
Winter has already loitered here,
lightly powdering these fields,
casting an inpenetrable haze
that fills the world as far as the horizon.
I used to think that after we are gone
there's nothing, simply nothing at all.
Then who's that wandering by the porch
again and calling us by name?
Whose face is pressed against the frosted pane?
What hand out there is waving like a branch?
By way of reply, in that cobwebbed corner
a sunstruck tatter dances in the mirror.

The struggle within the poem is against memory: the more we remember from the past, the more we remember how irretrievably past our experiences are. The little catalogue of images beginning in line 5 suggests the sort of failure of traditional consolations that the poem argues against—beginning with a "modest church" and ending with "Bible-oaks," but containing within that frame a movement from "a harsh chorus" to a "secret conclave," a kind of "jail" for the soul. Memory, in fact, becomes "malevolent." In addition, the quick movement and the impersonal notation method mutes the elegiac potential in this part of the poem; this impersonality is then underscored by the notion that the whole catalogue comprises an unknown "somebody's dreams." However, the reference to the "somebody," with its rowboat that comes out of nowhere, presents the first problem for the drama of the poem, for while allowing the poem to escape a reference to a personal, concrete loss, it also suggests the kind of detachment and coldness where, the poem goes on, "winter... fills the world."

The poem, then, has begun to sense a paradox: a sense of the wintry void conjured by memory and a sense that memories themselves fill the void. Now the ending complicates the paradox by adding more details that radically revalue the associations made so far, a typical technique for elegies. Akhamatova, remember, has begun the poem by half-discounting her past nihilism, her belief that everything ended with death, but the "filling" action of memory in the guise of example details and musings within the poem has raised as many problems as it has protected against. So then Akhmatova introduces another image, another unknown character, except that in this case the character turns out to be a "frosted pane' of a "branch" or "cobweb" and with a voice obviously dreamt or imagined. The questions underscore the interrogative mood of the end, but also of the whole poem, indeed all of Akhamatova's work where the rapid sequences of associations constantly call into question each prior image and the direction of the whole movement. Are these images from the "malevolent" past as the images earlier were? Are they linked with a real person, the person elegized? Does the "us" in the 5th last line suggest a consolation in community? Should we emphasize "sunstruck" or "tatter"? That is, balanced between spring and winter, is March an end or a beginning? Does the mirror at the end turn everything around and make the poem an internalized drama, an elegy, then, for a lost self? But then is the consolation in the self or for the self? Surely the figure is meant to be an image of bright consolation, but it is just as surely an image that is questioned, and so at least partially fails as a protection. Perhaps all these questions underscore what Brodsky calls the note of "controlled terror" in her poems; the victories, the protections, are always provisional, always about to dismantle themselves as rapidly as the lines have constructed them. It is this dizzying dance, eluding perhaps great consolation, but also eluding great disappointment, that is Akhamatova's victory, the grace of her interrogative mood, her language play.

The Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez in his poem, "Tomb of the Imagination," shows how we can extend this sense of language. The poem describes how a stonemason "wanted, stone upon stone, / wall after wall, to raise an image to the wind, / to the unchaining wind of the future." What he tries to build is a structure beyond the physical limitations of his art, a "structure capable of the ethereal." As a result, his "imagination lifted stones made of feathers, / walls made of birds." But these "wingbeats" of the imagination do not last long, and he finally must resort to stone, to the elements of the limited physical world: "Stone by stone it weighs down and crushes / all it encloses, even a world of living desire." What the man is constructing, in effect, is "his own prison."

(translation below is by Ted Gnoways, above by Robert Bly)

Tomb of the Imagination

A mason wanted....he wasn't lacking spirit.
A mason wanted, stone by stone, wall
By wall, to erect a monument to the wind,
That unchainer of the future.

He wanted a structure capable of delicate things.
He wasn't lacking spirit. How much he wanted it!
At midday the imagination moves stones
Like feathers, walls like birds.

He laughed. Worked. Sang. From his arms,
More powerful than thunder's wings,
Wall flew out like wingbeats.
But wingbeats don't last like this.

At last, stone was his medium. And a mountain
When it moves is able to fly, but stone by stone,
It grows heavy and crushes all that it escorts
Even a world alive with desire.

A mason wanted.... But stone extracts
Its strict brutal thickness in a second.
That man was building his prison. And into it
The mason and the wind were flung.

Similarly, what the poet constructs is a prison whose walls are the words, the very language he uses to build with: indeed, Hernandez was in prison when he wrote this poem, and the stones are, in a real sense, his words. What the words, the stones, can do is point towards something beyond that remains, like true freedom, always unattainable. And yet, because the stonemason has been able to use his imagination earlier, now, "in his work / he and the wind were driven headlong," and if that wind and he are no longer "unchained" as he hoped in the beginning, there is at least some sense in which a measure of freedom has been achieved.

The language of imagination here is not a final state; it is not a thing merely achieved, but something one strives with and after: it becomes, in the case of both Hernandez and Radnoti, the motivating force of life. It provides a certain degree of freedom that, if imaginary, is also a kind of reality that must constantly, as I have suggested earlier, be built and rebuilt. The Slovene poet, Edvard Kocbek, in his little poem, "I'm Not Played Out," talks about the "dangerous game of words" that the poet undertakes. Poetry makes its world, it's freedom, out of the tools of the imagination--words. Thus, "Freedom is the terrible freedom of nothingness," he says, and sets the writer "apart, / hidden in the earth" as Hernandez's stonemason is. Kocbek understand the limits of imagination as an opportunity to keep imagining, to keep inventing a new language. He sees the limits of the imagination as a responsibility to keep establishing his freedom through language. That is why he says he will always continue generating new words with a new freedom. "I will pronounce / un-heard of words through aeons, perhaps through / all eternity...." One is reminded here of Petrarch's statement in Rime 170: "I have never been able to shape a word that is understood by anyone but me." What he is getting at is the way words go beyond us, always say more and less than what we thought they might say.

Perhaps the ultimate case along these lines is Wislawa Symborska's ironic "Unwritten Poem Reviewed" in which the poem is a commentary on a poem that exists beyond language. The poem itself is dictated by the format of a review, and the references suggest an inordinate allegiance to theme in the manner of too many college literature professors. Only at the end does she mention "happy-go-lucky style / (a mixture of loftiness and common speech)" that would put the whole poem into question, subvert it. In concentrating so much on theme, the poet subverts the notion of the primacy of theme, especially in the form of dogma, as the driving force in a poem, for this poem itself is making fun of the thematic interpretations a poem presents at the expense of the real force of the poem, the style. By fragmenting the descriptions, theme and reference, the poem diminishes them in favor of the tone, the voice, the language that surrounds them.

"It is the responsibility of the writer to keep freedom alive through the imagination, through language, to fight restraints upon freedom and restraints upon the imagination and upon language...."

Symborska is cleverly exploring the language beyond the language of the poem, yet also following the dictates of the language of critiques. In fact, the power of language to dictate to us derives from this very mystery of language, the notion of the unspoken that Dante appeals to at the end of the Paradiso. A more somber expression than Symborska's of this aspect of language appears in a poem, "What He Thought," by Heather McHugh, which describes a meeting of a group of writers where one poet, quiet, seemingly conservative, tells the story of Giordano Bruno. This medieval thinker was burned at the stake in the Campo Dei Firoi in Rome for imagining the impossible, that life, for example, might exist on other planets. The poet describes how Bruno had an iron mask placed over his head so he would not incite the crowd to save him. And then the poet delivers his definition of poetry based upon this horrific scene of the burning thinker dying for freedom of thought: "Poetry is what he thought but did not say." It is the responsibility of the writer to keep freedom alive through the imagination, through language, to fight restraints upon freedom and restraints upon the imagination and upon language, whether in the form of something as overt as censorship or something as subtle as dogma, as a certain theme imposed upon the language rather than arising out of it. The writer's language, unique to her or him and their culture, is not merely a record, but a gesture always trying to escape itself, escape our human condition towards something universal even as it honors it in its particularity and uniqueness. The language of freedom is a language of silences beyond language, free of all constraints, something we can strive for but never achieve. If we fail to attempt that state, we fail not only ourselves but our world, in which case Kocbek's "freedom of nothingness" becomes merely nothingness, the death of both freedom and imagination.

"The writer's language is not merely a record, but a gesture always trying to escape itself..."

Finally, Bret Lott suggested the following analogy to me a few years back. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet is told to speak over the dry bones (one can see a version of this in Signorelli's magnificent chapel in Orvieto) in order to re-generate the spiritually and physically dead. As the prophet speaks the words of the Lord that have been commanded to him, he "heard a noise: it was the rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone. I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them." Clearly, the Lord wants him to understand not simply the fact of resurrection, but the process, a process of language, in Biblical terms the process of the Word generating flesh, a version in human terms of the Word become flesh. So when the prophet commands the spirit to enter the bones, "the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright." It is not simply the physical, but the spirit—the spiritual—that creates life. The analogy to the writer's process as I have outlined it here is significant: it is not simply the surface, the bones, but the essence, the spirit, that the words recreate for the writer, like the Biblical prophet, is aiming at an almost unspoken depth that language generates in many ways beyond his control, or rather in control of the language given to him or her.

Now I see my own language pulling me to a few conclusions I did not anticipate even a few paragraphs ago. Today, in the light of how language is trapped and imprisoned by so many politicians, businessmen, journalists, advertisers and the like, that failure is the main danger threatening our various existences as unique cultures, that "nothingness" could imply our moral, social, spiritual, even our very literal, not simply linguistic, annihilation. Through our language we will create difference or be imprisoned by previous conceptions; we will be original or we will repeat the past—poetically as well as socially--for the notion of following the dicates of language, of the ironic freedom it brings, is our best, most subversive weapon against the power structures that surround us. This is what Dante well knew in composing his Commedia with its savage attacks on his enemies. It is what Petrarch meant when he admonished his friend to "write neither in the style of one or another writer, but a style uniquely ours although gathered from a variety of sources." It is what Radnoti meant when he let his words follow one another across the page of his poem. Original style, original language, is freedom: it is that critical to our lives and histories. We will either be free though an imaginative language or we will simply disappear with the iron masks of our own dogma and preconceptions muffling our voices, our language.

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© 2005 The Cortland Review