A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem—protean, elusive, alive in its own right. The word "creative" shares its etymology with the word "creature," and carries a similar sense of breathing aliveness, of an active, fine-grained, and multicellular making. What is creative is rooted in growth and rising, in the bringing into existence of new and autonomous being. We feel something stir, shiver, swim its way into the world when a good poem opens its eyes. Poetry's work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving. Distinctive realms appear to us when we look and hear by poem-light. And these realms clearly are needed—there is no human culture that does not have its songs and poems.
One way we praise a work of art is to say it has "vision," and good poetry and good seeing go together almost always. Yet before art's more ground-level seeing can liberate itself into that other vision we speak of, a transfiguration is needed. The eyes and ears must learn to abandon the habits of useful serving and take up instead a participatory delight in their own ends. A work of art is not a piece of fruit lifted from a tree branch: it is a ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world.
A painter enacts perception's pleasure through brushstroke and color. For a poet, an equally material eros transforms the engagement with words. Consider, for example, the enkindled and sensuous seeing-through-language, hearing-through-language, to be found in Gerard Manley Hopkins. Even in prose, the voracious attention Hopkins gave to the shapes and forms of existence inhabits words precisely honed, originally tuned, and infused with the joy of category-leaping. Here is a journal entry from February 24, 1873:
In the snow[,] flat-topped hillocks and shoulders outlined with wavy edges, ridge below ridge, very like the grain of wood in line and in projection like relief maps. These the wind makes I think and of course drifts, which are in fact snow waves. The sharp nape of a drift is sometimes broken by slant flutes or channels. I think this must be when the wind after shaping the drift first has changed and cast waves in the body of the wave itself. All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods and broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom. The same of the path trenched by footsteps in ankledeep snow across the fields leading to Hodder wood through which we went to see the river.
Intimate, physically engaged, this account awakens both senses and psyche. Consider "the sharp nape of a drift"—how the word choice surprises by tenderness, as if Hopkins had reached out to touch the snow and found it humanly warm. In the equally physical "trenched by footsteps," we not only see but hear the snow re-made by our human passage through it. Flutes, shoulders, wood grain, maps, waves—each bounds with the exhilaration of seeing made monarch, not slave.
And more: the snow is further inquired of, investigated for what ideas it might yield. Hopkins's mid-passage insight is startlingly contemporary "Chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose" is a sentence with which current complexity theorists might well agree. Then, having struck this spark of abstraction from his snow-chilled flint, Hopkins's thoughts do what the thoughts of poets do: return to the realm of things, for test and confirmation. He comes back to what the snow looks like, broom-swept from the front door: an image that visually rhymes with, and so verifies, the idea he has found in the natural realm. The passage, like many other descriptive entries in Hopkins's journals, could only have been written by a person in love with close observation, one who sees with the whole body, and also with the senses of emotion and mind.
But then, there is this:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
I caught this morning morning's minion,
kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his
of the rolling level underneath him steady air ...
Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, | vaulty, voluminous,
Evening strains to be time's vast, | womb-of-all, home-of-all,
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, | her wild hollow
hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earlstars, | stars principal, overbend us,
The gap between the voice of Hopkins's journal and the voice of his poems isn't simply the difference between rough diary-jotting and finished work, or the difference between prose and verse. It is the difference between a poet's seeing and poetry's seeing, and hearing, speech. One may help make the other possible, but they are not the same, in kind or intention—and the distinction exists because poetry itself, when allowed to, becomes within us a playable organ of perception, sounding out its own forms of knowledge and forms of discovery. Poems do not simply express. They make, they find, they sound (in both meanings of that word) things undiscoverable by other means. "Earlstars," "daylight's dauphin," even the seemingly simple description of "roundy wells"—each is a note newly made, on a keyboard expanded to hold its presence.
Hopkins's work is one of the great exemplars we have of poetry's expansion of accurate knowing. The idiosyncratic marriage of vision and ear in his poems unlocked the forms of English verse; a perception emanating from the passion for words sprung fully to music lies somewhere close to the marrow of his genius. Hopkins's desire for a wellspring seeing peeled his mind, tongue, and ear free of convention. The resulting permeability to whatever comes forward, however "counter" or strange, sustains the fierce aliveness found in even the darkest of his works. Seeing through poetry's eyes, hearing through poetry's ears, we come to know ourselves less tempered, more free than we were, and connected to—emancipated into, if you will—a larger world.
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, most weary cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
The quiet, declarative "I can" of Hopkins's "Carrion Comfort" carries a promise: the commitment to full experience is an infusion and elixir that works against whatever diminishes the soul, even despair. Oxygen is available; so long as the poet is speaking, it can be breathed.
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There are ways of sensing beyond our familiar litany of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Fish have an organ, the lateral line, running the length of the body, with which they sense not only vibrations in the water but also depth, direction, and temperature. Carrier pigeons use vision to navigate and yet, set free hooded, will still find their way home, following the currents of the earth's magnetic fields. A bean plant has no nervous system, no eyes or fingertips, yet turns, hour by hour, toward the sun; a clematis ignored for a decade will—at last given a spring trellis to climb—shoot up five feet in three weeks.
In the last instants of a shark's approach to its prey, it closes its inner eyelids for self-protection, and most of its other senses shut down as well. Only one remains active: a bioelectrical sensory mechanism in its jaw; a guidance system uniquely made for striking. The poet in the heat of writing is a bit like that shark, perceiving in ways unique to the moment of imminent connection.
Poems appear, as often as not, to arise in looking outward: the writer turns toward the things of the world, sees its kingfishers and falcons, hears the bells of churches and sheep, and these outer phenomena seem to give off meaning almost as if a radiant heat. But the heat is in us, of course, not in things. During writing, in the moment an idea arrives, the eyes of ordinary seeing close down and the poem rushes forward into the world on some mysterious inner impulsion that underlies seeing, underlies hearing, underlies words as they exist in ordinary usage. The condition is almost sexual, procreative in its hunger for what can be known no other way. All writers recognize this surge of striking; in its energies the objects of the world are made new, alchemized by their passage through the imaginal, musical, world-foraging and word-forging mind.
This altered vision is the secret happiness of poems, of poets. It is as if the poem encounters the world and finds in it a hidden language, a Braille unreadable except when raised by the awakened imaginative mind. Hopkins's kingfisher is both a kingfisher and more than a kingfisher; his rung bell travels equally through the tunnels of spirit and ear. The inward life spills into material substances, fragrances, and sounds, as material substances, fragrance, and sound spill into each other. This double life of objects is at work in a traditional Japanese haiku, an Australian aboriginal chant, a Nahuatl flower song, a twenty-first-century American experimental lyric. Finding ourselves in the realm of poetic perception, we return to the word's first conception: poïesis as making.
To say it outright: a poem is not the outer event or phenomenon it ostensibly describes, nor is it the feeling or insight it may seem to reveal or evoke. A poem may involve both, but is, more complexly, a living fabrication of new comprehension—"fabrication" meaning, not accidentally, both "lie," "falsehood," and, more simply and fundamentally, anything created and made: the bringing of something freshly into being. Fabric, whether of material or mind, is an interwoven invention: some substance—silk or cotton, wool or image—made stronger, larger than itself, by the dual-natured meeting of warp thread and weft thread. A work of art holds our lives as they are known when fully engaged with the multiple, crossing experience-strands of self, language, culture, emotion, senses, and mind.
What gives poetry's threads their hold and tensile power to discover is music. Take even one line of Hopkins's poetry, attending purely to its sound, and you can see clearly the braided, musical making that draws its parts into a larger and enlarging whole. "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame"—the line flares a copulant beauty: In its first half, the "k" of "kingfishers" repeats itself in the hard "c" of "catch," while its mid-word "f" returns in "fire." An identical pattern is hand-tied, as if in the way a fisherman's fly is, into the following phrase: the opening consonants of "dragonflies" repeat in "draw;" its middle dipthong returns in "flame." The vowels, too, confirm the strengthening of recurrence: the "i" in "kingfishers" repeats in "fire," the "a" of "dragonflies" in "flame," each shifting from short to long in pronunciation. We cannot always know whether such intricate sound work is made by conscious effort or by some less deliberate, more intuitive process. What matters is that things are said, are seen, in the ways of connection and enlargement, when said and seen in the ways of poems.
Poetry's generative power, then, lies not in its "message" or "meaning," nor in any simple recording of something external to its own essence. It resides within the palace of its own world-embedded, intertwining existence. Poems speak in a language invented by mixed and untethered modes of perception, in grammars and textures that instruct first writer, then reader, in how to see, hear, and feel through poetry's own senses and terms. Those terms include the communicative elements of content, craft, and form. They include also a certain kind of tropism—poems lean toward increase of meaning, feeling, and being.
But how does the writer, poetry's amanuensis, rise to meet this yearning for increase? Surely he or she brings to the page not only what is already known but also the contrapuntal impulse of a permeable intention. The writing of poems must be counted as much a contemplative practice as a communicative one, and in the contemplative byways of every tradition, a reshaped intention is the ground of change. By intention's ripening, the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen teacher Eihei Dogen said, the white milk of rivers grows fragrant and sweet—a statement only comprehensible to the ears and mind awake also to the transformative language of poems. Intention welcomes the new less by force of effort than by dissolving the psyche's old habits, gestures, forms. It is the enactment of an invitation to something that does not yet exist.
The kind of intention I speak of here is not the kind referred to in courts of law: contemplative intention is translucent to what lies beyond the self. Will and choice may play a role, but creative intention's heightened speech requires an equally intensified listening, as a violinist must listen to orchestra, violin, and body if he or she is to play well. The listening goes into the violin's sound as much as the drawing of the bow across the strings. A similar transformation occurs when a person sits down within the intentions of poetry. Poetry's addition to our lives takes place in the border realm where inner and outer, actual and possible, experienced and imaginable, heard and silent, meet. The gift of poetry is that its seeing is not our usual seeing, its hearing is not our usual hearing, its knowing is not our usual knowing, its will is not our usual will. In a poem, everything travels both inward and outward.
In shikantaza, the form of Zen meditation practiced by Dogen, a person's eyes are neither fully closed nor fully open: they are held in a state of betweenness. A similar gaze, lowered yet present, is called by Catholic monastics "keeping custody of the eyes." Neither escape, disregard, nor avoidance, this careful balancing of attention's direction reflects an altered expectation of what is being looked for. The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look. Within a summoned and hybrid awareness, the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees. Catherine of Siena wrote, in the fourteenth century, "All the way to heaven is heaven"; Marcel Duchamp, in the third year of the First World War, submitted a porcelain urinal to an art show, titling it Fountain. Both say: to form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.
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Is it possible to say that poetry's seeing is both innate and learned? Even the ordinary vision we are born with is learned. We know this from studies of the congenitally blind: after surgery makes possible the physical capacity to see, there remains a lag in cognition, in the ability to parse image from sensory data. One eight-year-old boy; operated on in the early 1900s for cataracts, was asked, when his bandages were first removed, what he could see. "I don't know," he answered. The surgeon moved his hand in front of the boy; who still could "see" nothing. Only after the boy touched the moving hand with his own did he begin to recognize the shifting patterns of light and dark before him for what they were.
Our simplest acts of perception depend, then, upon an experiential and experimentally crafted knowledge. Perception is not passively given us; it is a continually expanding interaction and engagement, both mental and physical, with the world. Sound, temperature, motion enter the attention of an infant even before birth, and that cogwheel conversation continues until the moment of death. A parallel process unfolds in the making of art. What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped-for outcome is an expanded knowing. Each gesture, each failed or less-than-failed attempt to create an experience by language or color and paper, is imagination reaching outward to sieve the world. To make a genuine work of art, or even to take in such a work fully, is to tie a further knot on that fisherman's intricate fly.
But there is more: it is as if the fish of perception did not exist until it is caught. The physicist Arthur Zajonc once designed what he called a "box of light." In it, a bright projector casts light into a space in which no surface or object is visible. When the viewer looks inside, what is seen appears to be absolute darkness. Then the person is shown how to move a handle on the side of the box, to control a movable wand-and once an object is brought into the space, it is clear that a brilliance falls onto it from one direction, and that the other side is in shadow. Light, as the experiment was designed to show, is only perceptible when it catches upon the stuff of the world. Or, more precisely, it is only perceptible to us when three elements are present: when the looking mind catches light entangled in the net of things.
Consider three words: "apprehend," "comprehend," "prehensile." There is, deep in the process of human knowing, a necessary and active reaching out-to understand is to grasp, to take in. The philosophers of ancient Greece believed that vision was a beam thrown out by the eyes as if from a lantern. Like the boy who could not see a hand until he himself had touched it, the mind, before it can enter a new perception, needs first to extend itself into existence in tangible ways. Poetic imagination is muscular, handed, and kinesthetic. The tongue, the ear, the eye, the alertness of skin, entwine the world for which and by which they come into being, and of which each is part. In its musics, its objects, its strategies of speech, thought, and feeling, a poem plucks the interconnection of the experiencing self and all being. In poetry's words, life calls to life with the same inevitability and gladness that bird calls to bird, whale to whale, frog to frog. Listening across the night or ocean or pond, they recognize one another and are warmed by that knowledge.
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There is no way to convey this prehensile imagination and its liberating reach, except by example. Hopkins is filled with that heat of connection. Here are a few other fragments charged with imaginative transference, by more recent poets.
The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes.
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
Jack Gilbert, from "Going Wrong"
One was a bay cowhorse from Piedra & the other was a washed-out
And both stood at the rail of the corral & both went on aging
In each effortless tail swish, the flies rising, then congregating again
Around their eyes & muzzles & withers.
Their front teeth were by now yellow as antique piano keys & slanted
to the angle
Of shingles on the maze of sheds & barn around them; their puckered
Chins were round & black as frostbitten oranges hanging unpicked
from the limbs
of trees all through winter like a comment of winter itself on
That led to it & found gradually the way out again.
In the slowness of time. Black time to white, & rind to blossom.
Deity is in the details & we are details among other details & we long
Teased out of ourselves. And become all of them.
Larry Levis, from "Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand"
The ache of marriage;
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
Denise Levertov, from "The Ache of Marriage"
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
Gary Snyder, from "Riprap"
Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
Elizabeth Bishop, from "At the Fishhouses"
In his Rhetoric, Aristotle praises what he calls "active metaphor" for the quickening it brings to the reader's mind. He especially notes the way Homer endows the inanimate with life, using as his example a description of spears" standing fast in the ground, though longing to feed on flesh." Aristotle uses the term "metaphor" broadly, to signal any attributive transference; current usage might name his example "personification" or call it Ruskin's "pathetic fallacy"—attributing feeling to objects. But the essential observation holds: poetic perception inhabits an animate world, infused with empathic connection. Qualities human or animal spring forth from seemingly stolid objects. Attributes belonging to one being or thing phosphoresce inside another. Shape-shifting, metamorphosis, transmutation: these are the leavenings of thought, the yeast and heat by which flour and water rise into sweet-scented bread.
Metaphoric transformation is not the sole means of poetic imagination—there is the cello's singing made purely by sound craft, there are the muscles and hinged joints of story, the sinew of abstract statement, the footfall of a single, awakening image standing in its own thrown light. But kaleidoscopic mind—whether flamboyant or subtle—is one marker for the poet reaching actively toward a renewing perception. From the work of Hopkins, and each of the writers presented here, springs a supple, turning aliveness, the hawk's-swoop voracity of the mind when it is both precise and free. Different as they are, there is something entirely unshackled in each of these poets. You feel they could say anything, from within the liberated energies of creative seeing.
Consider Jack Gilbert's fish, whose flat eyes hold grand, fading rooms. (Here I pause to imagine Aristotle's pleasure in the active motion of that present-participial "fading.") To find such wholly surprising rooms—the plural, too, is important—vanishing inside the eyes of the fish plunges the writer, the reader, into his or her own multi-chambered sense of the possible. We pursue that receding image through interior passageways, doors beyond doors. Calling the skeleton "soft machinery of the dark," Gilbert enlarges the fish further still—in the phrase, three quite different image systems (tactile softness; darkness both visual and inner; technological gleam of machine) come quietly together, with the slight, almost silent tock of a lock's tumblers slipping into alignment before it falls open. These fish will become, over the course of the poem, a kind of metonym: gutted and deboned on the table, they signal the sustenance the poet eats, containing, as he goes on to say; "the muck of something terrible." They are also the sustenance of poetry, whose flesh and blood and intricate machinery carry Gilbert, and us, forward, fully fed within the austerity he has also chosen.
The liberating transformation in Larry Levis's passage has to do with time, as it is tracked through a procession of shifting objects: time is counted on the metronome of tail-swish, it yellows into teeth like old piano keys, it tastes of frostbitten, unpicked oranges. Each new image steps cleanly into the arc—and ark—of the poem. Each seems inevitable as soon as it's met. Yet who before Levis has seen frostbitten oranges in the underchins of old horses? And then, like a field of ten thousand blossoms reduced to an eighth ounce of essential oil, come the time-reversing words, "In the slowness of time. Black time to white, & rind to blossom," before the poem returns to chronicling the beloved lost.
In Denise Levertov's poem, the realm-transferring image, strong as a physical blow, is marriage throbbing in the teeth—her phrase shows that what is made first by ritual must be lived out deep in the body; in all of its parts: the grinding, subliminally violent jaw is present within any kiss.
Gary Snyder, from the early "Riprap" to his most recent work, has been our practitioner of the manual imagination. Others have laid trail, felled trees, rebuilt engines, and learned the names of rock, but he is the one who showed American poets how to make these activities see. "Cobble of milky way" is a conjunction only a poet who has worked stones could have made.
Finally, there is Elizabeth Bishop, whose closely considered objects shift continually into new life. Dignity, patient expectancy, indifference—all these human attributes are placed into fir tree and ocean with a seamless, unsentimental ease, and the objects and elements under her gaze transform, one into another, with equal ease. In the lines shown here, the transformation takes place explicitly through the mediating human—it is by a hand dipped into icy waters that saltwater turns into fire.
I have called this transubstantiation of being the secret happiness of poems, of poets: secret because rarely spoken of, and secret, too, because even the poets themselves often fail to recognize the source of their own joy in writing, or even joy's presence as the pen leaps to enact it. No matter how difficult the subject, while writing, a poet is unchained from sadness, and free. The means of this unlatching is a theme that will run throughout this book.
Ovid's Metamorphoses holds many explicit accountings of the soul's love of changing. In subtler ways, any good work of art embodies a version its own and no other's. The change of key in a piece of music; the downward and inward gaze in Piero delia Francesca's Madonna del Parto—we need only look, and some sense of turning is there to be found.
To close, here again is Hopkins—this time a poem in its entirety.
MOONRISE JUNE 19 1876
I awoke in the midsummer not-to-call night, | in the white and the
walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe | of a fingernail held to
Or paring of paradisiacal fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, | of dark
Manaefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, | entangled him, not
This was the prized, the desireable sight, | unsought, presented so
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, | eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Among the range of Hopkins's work one might call this a sketch—unrhymed, a little unripe somehow, quite possibly an abandoned start. And still, what overspilling density it holds, seeing as it does with poetry's eyes. The moon named as a "paring of paradisiacal fruit" is a moon almost fragrant to the imagination; the "white and the walk of the morning" is an unparsable phrase, making perfected alliterative equals of color and action. The poem, too, raises a thought I have increasingly come to believe holds true: that good description in poetry is never purely description, it is a portrait of a state of being, of soul.
For me, though, this poem's last two lines are the richest treasure; the first for the knowledge that the prize of vision arrives unsought, as grace, while our more purposeful consciousness sleeps; and the second for its luminous intertwining of inner and outer: "Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, | eyelid and eyelid of slumber." No matter how many times I read these words I am left uncertain, sound-spelled, placed into the sleepy wonderment of a young child: Is it the poet awakened by this slim remnant of mountain-held moon, or is it the leafy world itself that awakens, in the poem's own moon-opened eyes?
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About the Author
Jane Hirshfield is the author of eight books of poetry, two collections of essays, and four books presenting the work of poets from the past. A current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she has received many prizes and awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Book Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, and finalist selection for the National Book Critics Circle Award and England's T.S. Eliot Prize.
Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World
Alfred A. Knopf