Wednesday, November 11, 2009

`Terrain Where We Have Never Been'

A poet reads his work to a gathering of children, seven of whom ask questions. That’s the risky set-up in Herbert Morris’ “Reading to the Children” from his 1989 collection The Little Voices of the Pears. “Risky” because Kids + Poetry in the hands of most poets spells self-congratulation and enough cuteness to make Art Linkletter gag. Morris was a great poet and he turns the premise into a moving ars poetica. The first child asks “Are these poems yours?” and the speaker replies, in part:

“I say: Yes, these are poems I have written.
I could read no one else’s half so clearly,
with as much feeling, as I read you these;
that, more than anything, may be what I would
leave with you, feeling—music, of course, meaning,
certainly, but first feeling, feeling foremost.”

Readers familiar with Morris’ under-read work will recognize the truth of the emphasis on “feeling” – that is, emotions rendered unashamedly but in all their nuances (Morris never works in primary colors), in the manner of Henry James, whose spirit is nearly always present in Morris’ poems. In 1880, in his review of The Letters of Eugène Delacroix, James writes: “…in the arts, feeling is always meaning.” The second child asks “Where do you get ideas?” – about as tiresome a question as can be imagined -- and the poet answers respectfully:

“I am moving from darkness into darkness,
from mystery to deeper mystery;
what I see seems no plainer, seems no clearer,
the deeper I go, than it seemed, but rather
infinitely more complicated, darker.”

Such humility in a writer is daunting, particularly in an age when poets and novelists are forever pontificating in public about the rigors of their self-imposed craft. Morris’ poems often hover around a mystery or absence – again, like James’s fiction. Even their origin, he implies, is a mystery to their creator. To the fourth child, who asks, “What makes poems poems?” he reiterates the theme of authorial mystery:

“We begin in ignorance, move through darkness
into the darkness, end in ignorance.
Poems are that, precisely: expeditions
mapping terrain where we have never been,
the landscape of the country of our blindness.”

As Dencombe tells Doctor Hugh in James’ great story “The Middle Years”: “`We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’” Morris wouldn't use a word like “madness.” It’s too melodramatic, and in this case he out-scruples the Master. Morris sometimes seems in awe of the privilege he has been given to write poetry. In “Making, Knowing and Judging,” an essay collected in The Dyer’s Hand, Auden, another admirer of James ("Master of nuance and scruple"), writes:

“Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.”


William A. Sigler said...

Your approach to this age-old question is refreshingly original—a poem must exhibit joy in its own being. That’s food for thought for sure.

All productions of art become orphans, but poems are those even the orphanage can’t process. I think of the line from Stevens: “music is feeling then, not sound,” and of the first paragraph from Kafka’s The Castle: “Nothing of the castle could be seen, fog and darkness surrounded him, not even the faintest gleam of light pointed to the great castle. K. … looked up into the seeming emptiness.” The connecting pillars are simply not there.

I liken the poetic feeling to an overcast morning, that point between drab gray and the smell of wet dirt, when as part of a mysterious process in motion, some absence finds its way from the soul.

That's as far in the general direction of pretentiousness as I care to go. I don't understand why people don't leave poetry alone as they would, say, baseball after the 1991 World Series, or presidential politics after the 2000 elections. All you can say is “that's baseball” or “that's politics,” pause, and go on savoring it. Not so for the current generation of careerist poets, who, in thousands of blog entries and academic articles, have for the most part replaced “the rigors of their self-imposed craft” with talk about poetics. I have spent too many hours I will never get back reading the theories that come off this peculiar assembly line, the concern for finding the proper poetic occasion, for earning one's metaphors, making friends with ambiguity, being properly respectful of the fact that life is ultimately about nothingness and death. You would think that they were talking about their State Farm insurance agent!

James Wright, upon realizing his son Franz was a poet, said “welcome to Hell.” The only thing wrong with this communal need to share what poetry is is that the poetry itself suffers. Poets are no different from CEOs and generals, they are in service to something, but in the case of poets, that something never shows its face, it only seems to whisper. Trying to capture that, like Nabokov after a butterfly, may be human, but it betrays a lack of faith.

[stepping off soap-box now]

Jonathan said...

Thanks Patrick. This poem is one of my favourites written by Morris.

It seems right that you look to Morris, who depended so much on memory and autobiograpy, for your comment today.

The Storialist said...

I enjoyed this entry. "Imaginative awe"--sounds about right.

I hadn't read "Reading to the Children" yet...very Passover Seder Four Questions-ish, in a good way.

I usually turn to Creeley's "The Language" for insight into poetry--he talks about "words full of holes" and the fact that "speech is a mouth."

One heck of a comment, William, and the Wright anecdote was great.