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Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves. 

I make no claim of wisdom. In fact, the older I get, the less wise I feel. But I can claim, at the age of 70, to have amassed a life of experience. I have been through a lot, from the turmoil of the 1960s, divorce, near homelessness, the death both of a brother and of my late espoused saint. I have been both unemployed and had a successful career and traveled three continents. Finally, I have grandchildren and see with trepidation into the 21st century, beyond my time here. 

And it is that last that gives me pause. If there is one regret that haunts my senescence, it is that all the experience I have lived through can never be transmitted to the twin granddaughters that I love. Sure, I can tell them things, and perhaps some of what I tell them helps. More is surely ignored — I know I ignored the importunings of my elders when I was their age. It cannot be otherwise. When I was young, I knew so much; now that I am old, I know so little. They certainly see that in me, now that they are 18, headed off to college and know so very much. 

But it isn’t advice I am talking about. I am talking about the impossibility of transferring experience. From my brain, from my heart, to theirs, of for that matter, to anyone. A whole life of accrued sensation and false step, of battering and acceptance, of the shiftings of love and the devastation of failure, the afflatus of joy and the satisfaction of doing good work, remains bottled up inside me — and inside everyone. 

I am reminded in this of the soldier back from the war, with the thousand-yard stare, who can say in words what he has been through, but can never actually share the reality of it. The horror, the horror. So many, like my own father, a veteran of World War II in Europe, never talked about it. When he was old, I tried to tease it out of him. I asked questions about his war experience, but he always deflected. I know at one point near the end of the war, that 11 German soldiers walked out of the woods to surrender to him. But as far as he was concerned, he had no part in that. It was just something that happened while he was there. He avoided ever talking about the war and when pressed, made light of it, in a way that made it clear there was little lightness about it at all. 

Things of the magnitude of war and destruction cannot be adequately talked about. You had to be there. And having been there, you never wanted to be there again, even in recollection. 

I had a similar experience when my wife died. There is no way to express the enormity of the loss, or the singularity of the experience. There were many who expressed sympathy, and I greatly appreciated those words intended to comfort. But they cannot know what it was like. Is like. In no way. The only people I could truly commune with were those who had also lost a mate. They had been through it, too. They understood. It is a kind of brotherhood. 

The actual complexity and depth, the horror and devastation of it cannot be conveyed in mere words. The experience of it is different from language. It is the biggest event in my life, and remains so a year and half later. 

In the same way, all the years that have been poured into and out of my body and my psyche can not be expressed in words that begin to touch the heart of it. Language is a parallel universe, a train out of whose windows you may watch the world pass without having the need to experience it. The real thing is bigger, inexplicable, devastating, body-filling, rich, dense, multifarious and always connected, piece to piece in a larger and larger construction, which is me. Or you. 

It is the final frustration of life that all that history buried in my mind is stuck there, doomed to die when I do. In a way, all that learning I have amassed is ultimately pointless; poof, gone. 

I am aware of the irony: I made my living as a writer, and words are my only useful tools. But no matter, I have always felt the inadequacy of those ink squiggles on the paper. 

I am reminded again of those lines in Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…” 

The idea being that inside us is a world actually bigger than the outer one. It takes it all in and creates even further, making connections not obvious, building from imagination “far other worlds and other seas.”

“Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

And it’s the “annihilating” part that digs at me. I have no fear of death — after all, I was not afraid before I was born; non-existence is a neutral state (of course, like Woody Allen, I don’t want to be there when it happens). Like Herman Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty well made up my mind to be annihilated.” But all that life, all that experience of which my cup overfloweth, will ultimately count for nil. That is the part that vexes me. 

I want to make the twins’ lives easier, happier, with less of the pain and frustration that comes to all of us. I want to impart to them the equanimity that age confers, but I cannot. No one can. All that experience is ultimately wasted in me, moiling about inside with no escape. No purpose, no benefit. It is life’s greatest frustration. And I feel it intensely.

Garden

There is a line in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” that should be a starting point: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.”

These are two primary foci for our existence: There is the world and there is our mind working on the world. Mind and world, the face and the mirror. The central problem is that the world is incomprehensible, multifarious, immense and unimaginably complicated, self-entwined and raw, while our minds, however brilliant, are puny organizers and pattern-finders. What we believe of the world is what we have been able to make of it, and we are simply not humble enough to recognize the insufficiency.

bee blossomTake something as basic as sight. We look upon the world and take what we see as something “real,” something actually “out there.” Yet, we know that visible light is such a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, that our human vision is essentially nothing more than the chink of Pyramus and Thisbe, the slat of a Venetian blind lifted to see a wedge of the  world outside the window. Other animals are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and for them, the world is a different world: The bee sees not the daisy that you or I see.

We know this because human ingenuity has given us instruments that can measure those portions of the wavelengths that we cannot apprehend directly, and proves their existence. But we cannot know them directly: We are too limited. For that matter, so are the instruments.

Also limited are the odors we can smell, the sounds we can hear, the tastes we can enjoy or revile, or, for that matter, the languages we can understand or the names we have for the emotions we feel. And yet, somehow we feel we can say we know the world.

I am constantly amazed at human arrogance in the face of the vast ignorance we daily confront. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have faith in our senses and our minds, that we believe what we have learned of the world is the way the world in actuality, is. It takes an act of imagination to escape our shortsightedness.

And it is not only the world beyond our skins that escapes us: The conscious mind — that part of ourselves we generally consider to be “us” — is such a small part of what our brains do for us. We are not consciously aware of our guts squeezing the chyme along our bowel, not aware of our capillaries constricting, our irises expanding, our hearts beating faster or slower, depending on the unconscious monitoring of our inner bodily needs. Consider yourself at this very second, sitting or standing. Are you fingers curled? Are you tapping them? Is your head tilted slightly? Are you yawning? Have you sneezed? Did you “decide” to do any of those things? Your body seems to work quite autonomously, and your administration has delegated authority to its constituent parts to act on their own. Let’s face it, you would die if you had to will each heartbeat, each breath, each eye blink: Keeping track of it all would be impossible.

And yet, we have faith in that little voice in our heads that seems to be in charge: It blithely makes assumptions that cannot be justified.

This is not to toss out the little voice: We could not operate in the world if we did not simplify it to our purpose; we would be overwhelmed. We make schemas and function within those schemas quite happily, but are seldom aware of their artificiality.

tres riches heuresA good deal of trouble is caused by our unawareness. In politics, for instance, one side believes in pure capitalism, the other in socialism, but each view is only a schema, and takes not into account the great variability of human want, need, ability, and the inevitability of change, both historical and social. Remember feudalism? Monarchy and aristocracy? These were earlier schema, and sustained over centuries, even millennia. One thing might work better at some point, while its opposite might be more functional at another, neither perfectly, while all are always mere band-aids. No human reality can be encompassed by an ideology. They are all simplifications to the point of absurdity.

take outRepublicans who now believe things diametrically opposed to what they had once believed, think that if they can finally pass the laws they want, everything will work like a well-oiled machine from thence onward. Conservatives, who once championed strong central power, now believe the least government is best. (In reality, they believe in whatever will best preserve their own hegemony and wealth and if that changes, so will their ideal of proper government). But in practice, nothing is ideal, nothing is unchanging and perfect: Politics is always ad hoc. It doesn’t fit into cardboard pint containers like so much chop suey.

Religions, political ideologies, psychologies, even science are all such partial schemata and none can be said to encompass all of existence. It isn’t that we should trash all of them, but rather that we should recognize their agendas. And beyond that we should embrace, enjoy and revel in all that is not contained therein. The universe is vast, it contains multitudes. It is this plenitude and fecundity that ultimately sustains us. No system is enough.

Largest ever galaxy portrait - stunning HD image of Pinwheel GalWhat wakes us to the complexity is experience: travel, reading, learning other languages, meeting other people (as a “thou” not an “it”), education, and most of all, the exercise and strengthening of imagination, which all the previous foster. Openness to the world rather than stricture according to ideology or schema. Pulling our turtle heads into the shells of our small perceptions is nothing but retreat.

And whenever possible — and this is the biggest lesson I have swallowed in 68 years on this round, bubbly planet — to love the things of this world. All of it, helter-skelter, unapologetic and enthusiastic, chaotic, overwhelming, incomprehensible and glorious. And recognize our smallness, our ignorance, in the face of it.

o'keeffe road to the ranch 2Our eyes are the great nexus between the inner and outer worlds, where the outer existence pours into our consciousness as if funneled through our irises, and where, conversely, our inner selves are projected, like a light-beam, out onto the world. Neither is sufficient of itself, but together, they create our sensibilities.

vision x 1

It is a great “X” where the two lines cross on our retinas and expand outward into the landscape on one side, and inward onto our cortex on the other. Which open angle of the “X” subsumes the larger extent has been the subject of philosophizing for thousands of years.

(This is not meant as a scientific description of the physiology of sight, but a metaphor for vision.)

Andrew Marvell summarized this process, albeit in his witty turn on a once-familiar Elizabethan trope, in his poem, The Garden, where he creates an image out of this “X:” “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find” and then goes on to say how that interchange is always colored by the mind that perceives: “Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

Which is all a long, roundabout way of saying that landscape — the world around us: geology, geography, our neighborhoods, even the interior of our homes — is never neutral, but always has meaning. It is this meaning that makes the land we inhabit so important to our intellectual understanding of the world.

We can easily misunderstand “meaning.” It does not stand for the equals sign in an equation: this means that; but rather we should understand “meaning” as “significance,” as when we wake up from a dream thinking “that dream meant something.” We may not know what the dream meant, but we are left with the distinct conviction that it had significance. This significance — this meaning — is the electrical power that charges myth and makes it glow from the inside.

The land, as we perceive ourselves living in it, is a projection of ourselves, as much as we are a product of it. robt lee 1

It was the land he grew up in that Robert E. Lee felt compelled to defend in the Civil War. The causes and results of that war are manifold, and the self-interest of slave owners should not be underplayed, but when Lee discussed his motives, it was his patriotism, not for the Union, but for the single commonwealth of Virginia that drove his actions: and it was the landscape he grew up in that fueled that sectional patriotism. (Again, this is not to justify Lee or the Confederacy, but to understand how much the landscape he grew up in defined his vision of what the world was and should be). Yoknapatawpha.County map

The landscape informs almost every important piece of literature, from the Mediterranean upon which Odysseus sailed to the woods of Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner populated, back to the snowy steppes of Russia in War and Peace and forward again to the Pennsylvanian suburbs of John Updike.

It is not merely that the action in a novel or epic has to take place somewhere, but that the land itself becomes a character and influences the lives and thought of all who inhabit it.

The land we inhabit in life has the same kind of metaphorical power that it does in literature. In some ways, we each live in the novel (or epic) of our own lives, and the characters in our personal novels all have meaning to us, including the land we tread.

That mythic force is why we feel the rise in our throats when we sing of “amber waves of grain,” and “purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.”

Our ur-landscape also provides a model of the wider world, which can influence our thought, emotions and political views, even when that landscape gives us distorted information. If we live in a city, we tend to think of the world as thick with people who have to get along to survive; if we grew up in Wyoming, we are more likely to see the world as mostly empty, and our interactions with others as less important, and often intrusive, and our survival dependent on ourselves alone. Conversely, those interactions in the rural West tend to be understood more personally, while in the bustle of New York, you must create some private space among the throng, and therefore can seem more impersonal to a neutral observer.

In the city, horizons are blocked and the space in which we understand ourselves to be acting is constricted; in the American West, horizons are planetary, and we believe ourselves to be actors in a vast scheme. The mythologies that develop in such places are vastly different.

Manhattan and Wyoming are just two extremes, but each landscape provides its own influence, has its own meaning.

It isn’t a question of right or wrong, but of partial visions, each partly distorted, partly clear. The Georgia farmer and the Maine lobsterman or the Cuban immigrant in Miami don’t merely see their home towns and counties as different, but project those differences out into the rest of the country (there is a reason our so-called “red states” and “blue states” are organized geographically) and onto the rest of the world, including the Middle East, Putin’s Russia and expanding China. It is an unavoidable provincialism. Travel is the cure.

Not merely that travel introduces us to other peoples, but shows us other soil, and other relationships to that soil. Landscape has great power.

It is to seek this power that great landscape artists — whether painters or photographers — make their pictures. It is not to make a postcard of a pretty piece of scenery, but to find in the land a metaphor for thought, emotion or state of mind — or even a political philosophy.

I am reminded of a passage in Hector Berlioz’s memoirs, where he says, “It is like the visitor who go up into the colossal statue of San Carlo Borromeo in Como (Italy), and who are amazed to discover the room where they have just sat is the inside the saint’s head.”clearing storm winter

And one is surprised, looking at Ansel Adams’ Clearing Storm Winter, Yosemite, that the view is as much inside one’s head as it is of the outer world. That is, that the scene feels in some way a perfect metaphor for the imagined landscape inside the skull, including a floor, a valley with borders, a tall ceiling or sky, and lots of weather. “That’s my brain,” I say looking at the photograph.yosemites postcard 1

But, of course, the land isn’t always that dramatic, always that Romantic. Indeed, Adams’ photographs can easily drop into the picturesque, like some supremely crafted post-card image. And it isn’t only the great mountains of the West that have meaning in landscape art.

The other great Adams in photography, Robert Adams, can photograph a street in Los Angeles or the flat plains of Nebraska and find a way — to quote him from his book, Why People Photograph — “to affirm life without lying about it.”Hopper

Telling the truth, however, isn’t the same as reporting the fact. The truth of how land creates meaning is obvious in the paintings, say, of Edward Hopper, where the raking light of early morning gives New York City a glowing loneliness that says something more truthful than merely transcendence in the light or the alienation of the empty street. There is both. The disjunction gives the painting its power.

I remember the first time my wife and I drove out West. We both grew up in the East, with its forests and slope-shouldered hills, with its rivers and streams, its highways and billboards. But as we drove, the landscape slowly became less and less familiar as the trees thinned out and the hills flattened into the billiard table of the Texas panhandle. Then, suddenly, the bottom dropped out of the world, right at the New Mexico border and we descended from the tableland into a land of buttes and mesas in the Canadian River basin. The ground was dun and gravelly and we realized for the first time that the landscape of the Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons was a real landscape, and that all those tall buttes didn’t so much rise up above the land, as that the land dropped away from the peneplain into vast miles of valley, with the buttes as remnants of the former geology. It wasn’t merely a change in scenery, but a completely different world.
Monument Valley mittensAs we traveled around the country, we kept finding new worlds, and each new world was a new birth for us, a new awareness of the variety of meanings and significances of the planet.

NEXT: West Virginia