It's Friday, it's Shakespeare's birthday... Henry will talk some more about poetry...
Henry has been let us say struggling with poetry & with being a poet nigh on 40 years now. I started being a poet in earnest just 40 years ago, in 1970 - when I came to Rhode Island & the East from Minnesota, for school (though I started writing it before, in the 60s... composing my first poem in 1959 - my father scribbled it down on a key card as he went out the door to work).
& a struggle it has been... for recognition, for validation, for publication, for fending off failure & shame & fear & oblivion... but mostly a struggle to write well, to keep at it, to find a way to keep making poetry... when the pressures & temptations & distractions of life are sometimes all against it...
& why? It's a calling. I find a certain superficiality, a thinness, a lightweight quality to much of the current talk about poetry in US circles... a forced & slightly fevered tone that comes mostly from the anxiety of trying to make poetry a career... that's one of the factors, anyway. Another might be the typically-American obsession with technique, technology, gimmickry : the poem is treated as a cool gizmo rather than an utterance emerging from the real stress of human experience, of life & death, of time & history. The "realism" of poetry is not some kind of photographic or documentary replication (another technique) : it's the product of the poet's confrontation with the trials & sufferings & perplexities & joys & marvels of actual life, in the struggle to answer the call of the poetic vocation itself - to fulfill the claim of that calling. The Greeks named memory the "mother of the Muses" - & what is memory, if not the reflection of the conscience - on life lived, choices made, crimes & sins committed, love & charity given & received, punishment, ignorance, foolishness, mistakes, wisdom, & grace? The inward field of the human drama - in this "vale of soul-making," as Keats put it. This is partly what I think Wallace Stevens meant when he wrote about the "conscience" of the "faithful poet" - the poet faithful to conscience & memory & the truths they bear. Every true poem is an accounting, part of someone's last will and testament. This is one of those affective dimensions which a literary world trimmed to the latest gizmo-circus spectacle simply cannot see.
& there are other dimensions missed, too - aspects of poetry seen from a more impersonal or philosophical (aesthetic) perspective. I understand poetry most basically as song. By "song" here I'm referring to harmony, in its essential (not simply musical) sense. A poem, as a work of verbal art, is an entity in harmony with itself. In other words, it is a thing of beauty : it displays an integrity & wholeness & proportion & brilliant originality (Aquinas' & Joyce's requirements, basically). As a thing of harmony, it resonates : in the poem, language reverberates, stands free, returns upon itself in generative reflection & depths of meaning. This is the magnetism of the work of art in general : we are drawn to its resonance, as something with inner integrity & life, as something with inherent value.
But is poetry, then, an end in itself? Is it art for its own sake? Not in my view. The poet's vocation - the vocation to "sing"- stems from an inward (often-unconscious) faith in the ultimate harmony of life itself. How is this possible? Is poetry, then, essentially a throwback to pre-Enlightenment civilization? Is not the Modern era defined by the term disenchantment? Is there not a fundamental chasm between modern and medieval consciousness?
If there is such a chasm, then poetry spans it. Because neither atheism nor religious faith can be proven, we are faced with a pragmatic choice : we must think, that is, inductively - gather up our inferences, order our incomplete knowledge, and live by means of a "working theory," an hypothesis. This gets to the crux of my understanding of poetry's highest purpose and the poet's ultimate vocation. Poetry's song is - at its most basic and its most exalted - primarily a song of thanksgiving. A celebration of the ultimate (unknowable, but sensed) harmony of reality. And (for me) this harmony is ultimately Personal : human & divine. Reality is Creation : God is Personal : and the God who created all from nothing will also save that creation, and us along with it - in fact, has already done so. This is the ur-drama, the play-within-the-plays, of the history of the earth (theologian Hans Küng has described all this better than I can, in his great book Eternal Life?). To the sceptic this will sound like typical neo-medieval mystification; but, as anyone who has followed the theism/atheism debates over the last decade will know, there are many intelligent people today, with impeccable intellectual credentials in various professional fields, who are also theists. To repeat, neither side can prove its case : but what I am arguing is that the harmony of poetry bears witness to a greater harmony at the silent, hidden heart of reality itself. It is the imagination of an inexpressible dimension (a dimension, as Küng suggests, that humanity must go through death to find - the way of the Cross, and of Everyman).
The objections to all this are already clear. Henry, you do a disservice to the autonomy and variety of art and poetry (not to mention of life) by yoking it to a theological rationalization. You narrow poetry down, you squeeze the life out of it : poetry is more than pious vision. This is another unending, irresolvable debate. I respond : yes, poetry is various, secular, impertinent, impious, impish, unpredictable, free. But I also say this : harmony is the heart and soul of poetry; and harmony is something inherent within life itself, within reality as a whole. My own explanation for the presence of this harmony is theological : there may be other, and differing, explanations for it : but I, as poet, assert that the harmony is there - and that is why I sing.
This, in my view, is the essential difference between poetry and prose : you can have prose without art, but not poetry. For a long time, the modern, post-Enlightenment temper has reflected disenchantment; and as a result, we have had a flood of dense, reductive prose "explanations" for life's phenomena. But what if the ultimate truth is harmonious, is harmony? This is what the Romantic poets asserted (Coleridge, Blake) - this was at the heart of their protest. I am not a Romantic, but something a little older (let's say, a Christian humanist) : put me with Donne, and Milton, and Herbert, and Andrew Marvell. This is the true Restoration (check out the photo of young Henry, in NYC, ca. 1975, at his Royal typewriter). I was born on Restoration Day, by the way - May 29th; also Rhode Island Statehood Day, and the date on which my gr-gr-...grandfather Zaccheus Gould established the town of Topsfield, Massachusetts (1637 or so). Poetry has been a long struggle, for me - but I will top the field. I live by the River Okeanos; Rhode Island is the Ocean State. My poetry is not so well known, yet - but it's out there; its endless surf of abba-soundwaves will penetrate the atmosphere, someday.
* p.s. I suppose I said almost all of this more effectively in this earlier post (The scrambled oeuvre of Henry Gould).