It should come as no secret that most readers of America don’t read the poems that appear in its pages. In fact, according to the uplifting annual or semi-annual surveys America’s editor in chief sends me, even the ads get more attention than the poems I send him. But then people read America for what it has to say—which it says so well—about social or liturgical or moral or sacramental issues.
In spite of which, doggedly, insistently, red-rimmed eyes afire, this ancient mariner continues to sift through the hundreds—thousands—of hopeful poems submitted to the magazine to find the 10 or 12 poems America publishes annually. I’m not complaining, mind you, for no one ever subscribed to the magazine primarily for the poems. They are an addition, and they refuse to shout their presence from the corner of the page where you come upon them—any more, I suppose, than light on a wall or grace does. Still, they’re there, an alternate way of saying, this language we call poetry, this incarnate thing, this living voice that says, as the poet William Carlos Williams wrote late in life about his father, “I was here, I did my best. Farewell.” He may as well have been speaking about his own life as a poet, now that that life was nearing its end, and he dared to see himself like some common sparrow squashed on a city street by the wheels of progress, looking for all the world—in the poet’s imagination—like a dried wafer, like in fact the Eucharist.
The other day I was in the faculty dining club at Boston College, having lunch with three theologians, one of them the Jesuit priest Michael Buckley, and the conversation turned to the poetry of St. John of the Cross. And suddenly I’m hearing Father Buckley speaking about John and the made thing—the painting, the song, the poem—enfleshing the Word, the words themselves somehow revealing the felt experience of God, the Sublime, whatever name you want to call him. The poem, then, at one level, revealing our innermost life, our deepest hungers, luminous darkness suddenly—in a flash—made visible.
You have to understand: this is not your average luncheon conversation—even sans martinis—but the image, say, of the lover from the secular literature of trysts, stealing out into the sweet-scented garden at night, in darkness, to meet the Beloved. Doesn’t that touch on the mystery of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, or the contemplative experience of the Carmelites?
William Carlos Williams again, speaking in his epic, Paterson (yes—a man who spent 20 years of his life meditating on the “filthiest swillhole in Christendom,” Paterson, N.J., until he saw under the grime and debasement of the city a vitality, a brilliance, to equal Pound’s Venetian lagoons and San Giorgio across the waters, with the music of vespers silvering the evening). It is Williams who speaks there—by way of metaphor and trope—of those archaeologists who dig through the ancient papyrus coverings of the dead, hoping to turn up another fragment of Sappho, a dozen immortal words luminous against that decay.
Is not that what authentic poetry does for us? It is like what daily Mass is for me, huddled against the cold at seven in the morning, winter and summer, something proffered, a gift in the interstices of all the trivia of existence that fill our heads each day: a sacred moment, the Word that feeds.
Against the odds, every year—mercifully—the books of poetry come stumbling out. And since we live in a kind of advanced nominalist moment that would do Abelard and his vox flata proud (language as an empty beating of the gums), a good deal of poetic language now comes to us disguised as language everywhere: as a sort of detritus, garbled voices overheard, a kind of linguistic aphasia that constantly threatens to overwhelm us and rob us of whatever peace we have. And yet, even in a cursory listing one finds fresh books of poetry that are stunners: Richard Wilbur’s Mayflies (Harcourt)—a book I’ve eagerly awaited, especially for the poem “This Pleasing Anxious Thing”—Geoffrey Hill’s Speech! Speech! (Counterpoint), John Ashbery’s Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Mary Oliver’s The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo), Stephen Dunn’s Different Hours (Norton), Seamus Heaney’s Electric Light (reviewed elsewhere in this magazine) and the late James Merrill’s massive 885-page Collected Poems from Knopf. As well as some very good books of prose by poets, books—believe me, he said, raving, as he grabbed the lapels of a passing stranger—that are well worth your time: Ashbery’s Other Traditions (Harvard Univ. Press), as well as Sherod Santos’ A Poetry of Two Minds and Michael Ryan’s A Difficult Grace, both from The University of Georgia Press.
These are serious poets who have given over their lives to the burning question of poetry. And—being language of a very special kind—it willy-nilly involves an epistemology and, beyond that, a metaphysics, both most often implied. Periodically, the poet is forced to come over from the world of poetry to negotiate in the world of prose, which everyone (except the mystic) acknowledges is the common meeting ground for most people. And then the poet (and the mystic) returns to the world of poetic language, while the rest of us return to the world of politics, business, justice, international affairs—all the things that fill our daily papers.
But even the language of poetry is splintered. It all comes down, I suppose, to what one is looking for, and what one expects poetry to deliver. If you’re looking only for paraphraseable meaning, you probably won’t even hear the poem when it speaks. Or, better, when it sings. Chances are it will go right through the gaps in your linguistic receptor and out into the ether again, the way sunlight shines unnoticed on the wall of a room in which there is no one present.
I’ve taught poetry now for 40 years and read it for over 50. A month ago I discovered a batch of letters I wrote my mother when I was 16 and living away from home for the first time in my young life. That was in a religious house of formation in Beacon, N.Y., a building long since torn down to make way for a public school. The place was there for high school boys who were trying on a vocation—boys mostly from schools where the Marianist brothers and fathers taught. It was there—back in the year that gave us the Hungarian Revolution, the bombing of the Suez Canal and Elvis Presley—that I learned how to write my first poem (ta tum ta tum ta tum) by the rules laid out in my ancient blue-covered English anthology. I began by writing a quatrain about a cowboy who came in second fastest on the draw, and then a sonnet—written during Holy Week—about the Passion (baroque and overwrought, but genuinely felt). For that second effort, I won first place and $10 in a poetry contest run by a local order of nuns, the prize money from which went to buy my mother a rosary.
It was there, in those surroundings, that I learned something of what poetry could do, and which at some (how to say this?) profound level seemed in sync with the Latin poetry of the Mass, which itself went back to the Hebrew poetry of the psalms: Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum, “I will go up to the altar of God. To God, who gives joy to my youth.” I heard something then—in that sacred space which exists now only in the memory—that has stayed with me ever since. Perhaps others have heard it too, a music, a phrasing, a something, whether in Sappho or Catullus or Horace or Petrarch or Chaucer or Villon or Shakespeare or Milton or Donne or Dickinson or the great Walt or Yeats or Frost or Rilke or Ungaretti or Stevens or Williams or Bishop or Berryman or Lowell or the late Bill Matthews or Philip Levine.
Or Hopkins. My beloved Hopkins, read first in years at Manhattan College, and whom I cannot get out of my mind. The English Jesuit and failed university professor who gave us The Wreck of the Deutschland (the best meditation on the significance of the Spiritual Exercises I’ve ever come across, though it took me 30 years to see this). The poet who gave us those sonnets of praise for the splendor of nature (“Glory be to God for dappled things”), who gave us too those extraordinary poems on the experience of suffering in the light of Christ’s passion by which I believe Hopkins himself—in his own kenotic emptying—was lifted to a new understanding of the Word. How is it, please, that a poet who published virtually nothing, who died at 44 in obscurity in a foreign land (Ireland) should have touched so many poets in our own century (I mean the Old Twentieth), among them Auden, Lowell, Berryman and Heaney? It’s one of those lovely surprises God sometimes plays on us, which transform tragedy into joy and the mere thought of which brings me close to tears.
And the new voices—voices of a single startling poem, or a chapbook, or five or ten books of poetry. Let us praise them, let us for a moment praise the famous and the obscure, those who spend their waking hours creating beauty, even if it is as momentary as the inimitable snowflake, with its complex geometric structures disappearing into the waters. Let us praise businessmen met on 707’s who, when they hear you write poetry, whisper to you as in the confessional box that someone they knew once wrote a poem—not very good, they will tell you—and then reach inside their vest pockets to show the poem furtively to you, waiting for you to acknowledge their tiny world revealed there. Let us praise too all those who submit—against the odds—their poems for your review, though the odds will be against its being published—poets who simply want to share their moment of grace with you and to say “I too was here,” before the river that is time propels you onward, and you go on to other things you keep telling yourself are surely more important.
Happy National Poetry Month.