Question 1. When words fail you, what do you do?
Response 1. Failure is normal for words, I think. They seem most aptly suited for composing grocery lists and addressing envelopes. I mean no disparagement: a grocery list, humble as it is, names things necessary to life; and the name of one we love — written by hand, for example, on an envelope sent to another city — is, according to Anne Michaels, “the shortest poem.” Occasionally, words can be persuaded to do more complex work: chatting about a film over coffee, sharing the story of the day before bed, reporting the emotional weather. But using words to make a poem can feel like trying to repair a torn spider’s web with one’s fingers (to borrow an image from the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein).
Wittgenstein, who published only one book in his lifetime, took as the motto of that book the following line by Ferdinand Kürnberger: “… and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words.” What an extreme view! — And yet I think that something like it is true. An even more extreme view was held by Kratylos (a follower of the presocratic philosopher Herakleitos) who relinquished language and “only moved his finger.” I used to be fascinated by the anguished paradox of the poet who tries to use words to gesture toward the wordless — but I now think that the anguish is a mistake, and that Kratylos draws an honest conclusion.
Virginia Woolf is wiser. In a letter to Vita Sackville-West, she writes: “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words…. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it …” Meaning is not primarily linguistic, but rhythmic, and it is shared by the motions of the earth and the oceans, the mountains and the rivers. Words can be meaningful, but only insofar as they acknowledge and participate in these larger, worldly rhythms.
There are some philosophers, whose company I do not like to keep, who argue gleefully that metaphors are no more meaningful than “a bump on the head,” and that ethical, aesthetic, and theological expressions are no more true than “a cry of pain.” In making these comparisons, they are looking in exactly the right places. But they are wrong to assume that physical gestures are lacking in meaning and truth. The root of the well spoken sentence is the same as the strong hand that braces you when you are shaken and in need; it is the same as the inarticulate holler of love from your neighbour’s half-open window, the bodily resonance of the gong in the meditation room, the slow green somersault of the kalanchoe on the windowsill. The complicated symbol systems, the ornate theories, the legal statutes and computer programmes are like spume drifting on the surface. They are real, of course, and can be pretty, but they are churned up by something deeper.
Q2. We in eastern Canada are presently under an Environment Canada hurricane watch. High winds are gusting, and you say “the trees [have] started shaking their tambourines.” Wind has been traditionally associated with poetic inspiration. What is your poetic relationship to it?
R2. I used to live in a house that was visited by winds. They would rush like animals through the rooms, thrashing the curtains and throwing glasses of water to the floor. I did not appreciate them enough until after I had moved; but my first morning in another apartment, the first thing I noticed was the stagnancy of the air. — I know a poet who knows Christina Rossetti’s little poem by heart: “Who has seen the wind? / Neither I nor you: / But when the leaves hang trembling, / The wind is passing through,” and so on. Our knowledge of the wind seems like the via negativa.
Q3. In her lifetime Elizabeth Bishop published something like 87 poems. Like you, Bishop crafted her work slowly, with care, precision and utter devotion. Like you, she was exceedingly wary of celebrity. To be a servant to literature has fallen out of fashion in our Bestseller Culture, with its fast pacing and its competing energies. Do you keep some kind of diamond in your mind that helps you stay steadfast to your ‘unfashionable’ course? (The civilizing influences can be unrelenting!)
R3. The civilizing influences are unrelenting! One would need to be considerably more resilient than I am in order to resist them gracefully and without deformity. For me, the incoherence of our current literary culture is that we have confused the values of communication with those of competition. Communication is necessarily cooperative: no-one can “win” unless everyone does. Competition, on the other hand, for book sales, prizes, etc., celebrates individualism. There are, of course, more and less clear acts of communication, and they can be recognized as such. But the desire for clarity, the desire to understand and be understood, is genetically distinct from the desire for glory. Plato’s question touches the very nerve: “Do you think that a musician, in tuning his lyre and in tightening and loosening the strings, wants to outdo another musician?”
What I can say about the market forces you mention is that listening to them destroys the work of art. Destroys it completely. A sincere and disciplined poem — no less than a carefully made loaf of bread — is a sacred act. It has no exchange-value. On the market, even the self is a commodity, and its promotion demands a fervent and anxious self-reflexivity. Such reflexivity is rabidly antagonistic to poetic attention, which requires patient receptivity. — I do not mean that there are not some excellent, contemplative poems about the self; but insofar as the self is featured in these poems, the attitude is communitarian: the self takes its place, calmly, as one thing among others, each equally precious, none preferred.
(As an aside, I might suggest that contemplation is not at home on the internet, which is generally designed to accelerate and scatter attention. Let me be clearer: attention can be both focussed and polyphonic. that is, it is possible to focus, simultaneously, on two or more voices. My worry about the internet is not that it offers multiple objects of attention, but that its orchestration of those objects is fracturing and distracting.)
When I lived in Victoria, I had Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” taped to my fridge. (Or maybe it was only the last line — I can’t remember.) I cannot think of any lesson more important. To see and be seen by beauty; to be irradiated by the vision of a living stone; and to move from that experience to the conclusion that you must change your life — it is an astonishing movement, the one that crosses the threshold of the caesura in the last line. The insight, which most of us glimpse only rarely, is out of range of fashion; matchless, it tolerates no competition. Like the ambient, wild light of the sun, like the wind, it cannot be civilized. It is the same light that pierced Plato when he looked into Sokrates and saw the gleaming figures of the gods, and was seized by the need to give his life to philosophy. If I may be permitted two diamonds, let them be Rilke’s “Apollo” and the encomium of Alkibiades in Plato’s Symposium.
Q4. And what about Lorca and you?
R4. Lorca’s poetry is some of the purest ever composed. A few others in the twentieth century have his ear (Plath, for example). His voice is the voice of an undomesticated dream passing into language effortlessly, without distortion — the sort of thing that Freud claims can’t happen, and that Don McKay calls “aeolian harpism.” (McKay, of course, is writing with a mixture of sympathy and satire; but I don’t think it’s wrong to imagine Lorca as a “larynx of natural phenomena.”) Words, as I said, normally fail; but Lorca’s poetry is one of the rare moments when they are redeemed.