as a Chinese jar

Bangladeshi New Year festival, Eagan, MN

What does it mean to assert that the poem is an end in itself?  In this season of crowds and anxious change, the assertion is controversial, maybe counter-productive.

To say the poem is an end in itself is a way of saying that beauty is an end in itself.  Beauty is self-sufficient; the poem is self-sufficient.  The poem justifies itself, merely as poem.  Beauty is what it is.

But what is beautiful about a poem?  We have a sense of what is meant by a beautiful face, a beautiful act, a beautiful life... not by any means always the same thing.  What makes a beautiful poem?  What makes a poem beautiful?

There are infinite paths in and out of poetry; infinite occasions for the right, the perfect poem.  I've witnessed them, heard them, countless times, in countless places, over the last 50 years.  So what is their common denominator, with respect to the beautiful?  Beauty itself shows many faces, many dimensions - but the common form, the universal factor is this :

the poem is an end in itself.

The poem is its own fulfillment : a kind of pleroma of time & experience.  A breathing, living, perfect, indestructible entity.

An icon, in other words.  A representation of something metaphysical - the transcendence of time, death & change.  A heart-stopping stroke of lightning.  A stillness still moving, living, breathing (Eliot's "Chinese jar" in Four Quartets).

This is the perfection of the poem.  Every poem bears some trace of it.

But the really confusing, paradoxical thing is : the beautiful is everywhere.  Poetry draws its materials out of the most ordinary, impoverished, grotesque, pathetic, banal, & recalcitrant places & episodes in human experience.  The metaphysical diamond is made out of coal dust.  & moreover : the coal dust itself is beautiful (the haze over the grubby railroad tracks, the derelict abandoned bleak junkyards).

The beautiful poem is simply a gesture toward the beautiful poem of reality ("the Kingdom of Heaven is in your midst, but men do not see it", chants the Nazir-poet Jesus).

A gesture.  A geste.  An act in words.

The poetry I enjoy & admire is steeped in an awareness that these perfections and gestures are already complete & finished for us.  Their presence is tacit and unassuming, but it is there : the work of the poets who came before.

This is one of the dimensions of the early 20th-cent. Russian poetic tendency known as Acmeism : an acknowledgement and receptivity toward the past.  Not a groveling imitation, but a sense of kinship - as opposed to the Futurists, who advocated a rejection of the past as a basis for the future.

There are no revolutions in poetry, because the beautiful is inherently integral.  It is a whole, a wholeness.  This is not to deny the validity of other kinds of revolution (political, social, personal).  It's only to say that poetry (as opposed to prose) is (ultimately, somehow) in touch with something beyond change, something perennial.  Rhythm, harmony, music... the beautiful.

Good to keep in mind during wartime.

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