Monday, July 03, 2006

`One Clear Stanza'

Blogging has encouraged me to seek themes and linkages where none seemed to exist before. It has sharpened my eyes for continuities that transcend time and space, and serves as an antidote to intellectual and aesthetic laziness. While reading The Poets' Dante, a gathering of 28 responses by poets to the author of La Divina Commedia, I felt like an old-time telephone operator sitting in front of her board, pushing buttons, plugging in wires, connecting callers. I found this in an essay by Jacqueline Osherow, "She's Come Undone: An American Jew Looks at Dante":

"Of course every reader of poetry knows the miraculous experience of reading what seems utterly necessary or revelatory, or simply, true, and spontaneously hearing its ideal musical fit -- this is, of course, the value of rhyme: the way it lifts what needs to be said to an exalted realm, where it seems inevitable, perfect, even divine."

Later in the same volume, in "Words and Blood," by Rosanna Warren, we find this:

"When we try to tell the truth, whoever we are, of whatever faith or non-faith, the best we can do, often, is to sputter. We will be fortunate if the truth we spit out is not entirely self-concerned. Poetry heals nothing. But by placing its lowercase communion upon our tongues, it can draw us into imaginative relation with truths beyond our own, and can place the personal pronoun -- subjective or objective -- in the neighborhood of far greater words."

Both poets dare to speak of truth, however tentatively -- an audacious enterprise in an age of arrogantly unreflective relativism. I had Osherow's words in mind ("reading what seems utterly necessary or revelatory, or simply, true") later in the day while reading "Preface" in Czeslaw Milosz's A Treatise on Poetry, and yet another connection flashed:

"First, plain speech in the mother tongue.
Hearing it you should be able to see,
As if in a flash of summer lightning,
Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road.

"And it should contain more than images.
Singsong lured it into being,
Melody, a daydream. Defenseless,
It was bypassed by the dry, sharp world.

"You often ask yourself why you feel shame
Whenever you look through a book of poems.
As if the author, for reasons unclear to you,
Addressed the worst side of your nature,
Pushing thought aside, cheating thought.

"Poetry, seasoned with satire, clowning,
Jokes, still knows how to please.
Then its excellence is much admired.
But serious combat, where life is at stake,
Is fought in prose. It was not always so.

"And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose."

What this poem and the preceding prose extracts share is a faith in poetry's capacity to tell us truths, however incomplete, about the world. I remain hopeful enough to agree. When we can see and hear truth and beauty, when the music of artfully arranged words can set the mind to dancing, who wants to read the noodlings of a nihilist?

1 comment:

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