Transcendence - On Reading Poetry
Maybe it is partly our ordinariness that makes humans magnificent. We persist, in spite of the daunting sameness of our days, in spite of a dull repetitiveness that might shape our lives – we persist in finding shards of beauty, and we persist in seeking out the experience of feeling something larger than ourselves, in something transcendent.
I like what Joseph Campbell has to say in Thou Art That about one possible path toward this:
“How does the ordinary person come to the transcendent? For a start, I would say, study poetry. Learn how to read a poem. You need not have the experience to get the message, or at least some indication of the message. It may come gradually.”
I’ve been reading poetry quite seriously and also in pursuit of pure pleasure for 30 years. Still looking for the indications, the message. But I can tell you, yes, that if you persist, there is transcendence. It is worth seeking. Worth writing. Worth reading everyday.
Important to note – transcendence – it may come gradually.
There are some poems that immediately speak to you. Maybe it’s a clearly stated poem, or maybe it happens to contain the message that you needed to hear, or finds you at a time when you are particularly open to the thoughts it delves into, and so it’s easily comprehensible. Maybe the words are that frozen axe Kafka talks about. (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”). Maybe one particular line gets into your head, and repeats and repeats. A poem can shake you, make you gasp, make you feel as if someone has read your mind, and it can be a crystal ball telling you your future. It can also be telling you something you’d internalized or felt deeply but couldn’t find the words for yourself. A poem can know you; you can come to know yourself in the mirror of a poem.
Some poems require multiple readings, and readings over years. It is possible to measure oneself against one’s understanding of a poem, or of a poet’s work, through time. There have been books of poems that I have set aside, not able to enter into the voice of a particular poet, and then taken up at a later interval to find a true affinity for the work. It’s difficult to pin down what had changed in these cases. Perhaps it was because I’d read more poetry, lived more, and had a better context for what the poet was aiming for. My ear for the music of the poetry had developed. And maybe it was simply that the subject matter meant more to me at this later time.
Well, poets know they need to read poetry – so they may situate themselves in the milieu in which they write and so they may learn and develop from reading the work of their peers and their predecessors. But why, besides the possibility of transcendence, read poetry? The following poem by Robert Bly found in his book Eating the Honey of Words illustrates one possible reason: because you’ll think in ways you’ve never thought before.
Things to Think
by Robert Bly
Think in ways you've never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you've ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.
Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he's carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you've never seen.
When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about
To give you something large: tell you you're forgiven,
Or that it's not necessary to work all the time, or that it's
Been decided that if you lie down no
one will die.
What you read is who you will become. Twyla Tharp says in The Creative Habit, “I read for growth, firmly believing that what you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read.” And maybe the people you meet will depend on the books you read. It’s quite possible. So, how do you want to think? How do you want to dream? Gaston Bachelard says, “The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams.” He also says that, “To read poetry is essentially to daydream.”
How to read poems? There isn’t any single way to read poetry. But I agree with Bachelard – that reading poetry is a way of daydreaming. We might come to understand a poem in the way that we come to understand certain dreams. Juan Ramon Jimenez, in his book, The Complete Perfectionist, says, "When I don't understand a poem, or part of it, I don't insist: I try to be satisfied with what I understand, and I'm sure that another time, under other conditions, I'll understand more and understand something else...The understanding of a poem comes in successive surprises." The dreams that stay with us, and mostly likely the poems too, are ones that we need to return to because our understanding of them is unsatisfactory, incomplete, elusive. Poetry is often thought of as difficult, too difficult. And it can be demanding, but we can approach it in so many ways.
The Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski talks about reading, in general:
“Read for yourselves, read for the sake of your inspiration, for the sweet turmoil in your lovely head. But also read against yourselves, read for questioning and impotence, for despair and erudition, read the dry sardonic remarks of cynical philosophers like Cioran or even Carl Schmitt, read newspapers, read those who despise, dismiss or simply ignore poetry and try to understand why they do it. Read your enemies, read those who reinforce your sense of what’s evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can’t understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are.”
Ask yourself, what do you read for/against? When you read, what are you seeking?
Mostly I read for company, for inspiration, for to quiet and soothe the sweet turmoil in my not always so lovely head. I like to read those who write with a calm and clean sanity and I like to read those who live in an intricate darkness. I read to find myself, another like myself. I read to be intoxicated and transported and I read as a seeker of radiance and of the elegance of drudgery. I read with tea, and I read to find a line of freshness or two. I read in search of flowers and snow and the storms of each that rage within me and gently and fiercely bring me down, shy, to earth.
I read to awaken my soul. I read for breathtaking, for sorrow. I read for delight and tumult and madness. I read to clean a space on the table, to let things in, for open. I read to inhabit dreams I’ve not yet dreamed. And I read to calm and quench myself and to find the doubts and uncertainties of others who have soared.
Reading poetry often leads to writing poetry, setting out on that path. Which might lead us to ask the question, who is a poet? What makes one a poet? And I love what Hélène Cixous has to say about this in her book Coming to Writing: “I call ‘poet’ any writing being who sets out on this path, in quest of what I call the second innocence, the one that comes after knowing, the one that no longer knows, the one that knows how not to know.” She continues: “I call ‘poet’ any writer, philosopher, author of plays, dreamer, producer of dreams, who uses life as a time of ‘approaching.’”
Approach the world as a poet approaches the world. Look at the world as a poet looks at the world. Think about things aslant and look for the surprising in the mundane. Imagine someone is opening the front door to your house right now to deliver a message to you, a fat letter. Open it. Read it to me.