but We Like to Have It in the House
We live in a haunted world. We are surrounded by ghosts. Reminders of past and nearly forgotten days are all about us, things neither alive nor dead from an old world. We see them, but we may not notice. We may not recognize them as ghosts, relics of a nearly forgotten past. The buttons on a man's coat sleeve, which once held his lace cuff out of his soup; the touching of glasses in a toast, which is what we have left from the days when two royal friends would mix a bit of their drinks together to assure each other that no poisoning was going on; the shaking of hands, which was once a way of showing a person we met that we carried no weapon.
These are souvenirs now, parts of the past that have stayed to haunt our culture. In general, because we are nostalgic creatures, we like having them with us, and there's nothing wrong with that. We'd be poorer without them.
Some things, though, have been relegated to the china cabinet and the mantelpiece that maybe should not be there, things that are still important to us, or ought to be important to us, though we keep them only as souvenirs, to show only where we came from, that we are not barbarians, as we may keep the coat of arms framed on the wall, the copy of War and Peace on the end table, the French cookbook in the kitchen. I know a wealthy family with a priceless concert grand in their living room. It's been there for at least three generations. For at least two generations no one in the family has been able to play it. The piano serves no more purpose than to show not who these people are but who they believe they were. We give some room and some attention to our noblest relics because they give us, in return, prestige and self-satisfaction. They help us to persuade ourselves that we are seekers not of the coin and the crown but of the scholar's gown and the wreath of laurel and some perhaps not unholy grail. We know who we should be. We want to look as if, to sound as if, that's who we are. So to that collection of things we keep because we are too nostalgic to let them go the touching of glasses and the tipping of hats and the awkward sword of the military cadet we add a collection of things we keep because we are ashamed to let them go even though we are not sure we have a place for them in this world.
So we keep the big book on the end table, the piano in the living room, a high-school class in French, and perhaps a class in poetry. With the true relics our desire has outlived our need. But with the poetry nobody knows how to read as with the piano nobody knows how to play, our need has outlived our desire.
I suggest that we either trade the piano in for a laser CD deck or learn to play it. I ask your indulgence in allowing me to speak for the second of these options so that we might more effectively come to poetry while we are in school and understand the uses of poetry in the world outside the academy. If I argue that we have generally failed in this so far, I do not mean it to be a universal indictment. We are apparently raising some young people who are not left entirely cold by poetry.
I know this because recently I came across the work of such a student as I Was eating breakfast in the snack shop on a college campus. I found the words of a young scholar who had learned to respond to literature with feeling. The words were carved deep into the table in bold, block letters: "Tennyson was a nerd and Browning was a male chauvinist pig."
Let's say that a lot of us have not learned to respond to poetry with even that kind of conviction. Let's admit that to many of us poetry is a decoration, a sign of class and good grace that has little to do with our lives. Even some of us to whom poetry is important allow it the importance of ornamentation and hesitate to say that it matters as much as golf or tennis or that it has the substance of, say, painting. Painting, we say, is "real" art. Museums are built for it; money is paid for it. People steal it.
Let's consider for a while what poetry is and what it does and why it ought to matter to us once the final school bell rings and why too often it does not.
Let me begin by suggesting some things I think we are often doing wrong, in our homes and in our classrooms.
We begin to dwarf the natural poetic impulse of children if there is one, and I'm inclined to believe that there is before they ever get into school, as when a child runs into the house saying, "Hey, there's a lion in the yard!" and we say, "Don't be silly, that's a dog. You know the difference between a dog and a lion." The child has just done what a poem does. To the child, the thing in the yard was not a dog. It was a lion, because looking at it the child felt "lion" not "dog." The child senses that the dimensions of a thing are not the essence of a thing, that what something does to us is part of its essential nature, and so a child describes a thing in terms of its effects. So does a poem. The poet and the child are interested not in how many feet there are to a mile but in how many steps there are.
The poet in the child is crippled, I think, when the child is conditioned to expect an answer whenever there is a question. It comes to me sometimes that the real problem students have in coming to poetry is this: they are unable to accept something that deliberately raises questions it doesn't answer or for which there is no answer.
We sometimes seem to want poetry to be a branch of philosophy or religion. It may be the business of religion, and the business of philosophy, to answer questions, and if it is, I can't blame them for being about their business. But I can insist that we should not damn poetry for being something other than religion or philosophy and that it makes more sense to call poetry philosophy than it does to call philosophy poetry.
But we're not through. Once we get the child, the boy especially, into school, we go to work in earnest. We forget those of us who were boys and have known what it means to be between boyhood and manhood, with too much beard to ignore and too little to shave and three or four voices interrupting one another. As if it weren't bad enough that we're ungainly and often pimply, the girls we know when we are entering our awkward age are just leaving theirs. We never looked less like men, and we feel this doubly because they never looked so much like women. We're determined to prove the young manhood we feel uneasy about, and so we boast and fight our parents and teachers, and we use bad language and live in two-fisted fantasies. We're looking everywhere for anything that will make us feel virile, heroic, raunchy. So we go into the classroom and are told to stand and read something about "my heart leaps up when I behold daffodils and rainbows and birds thou never wert."
And then we have the student lift the "story" from the poem in paraphrase without ever telling the student that what is left behind is poetry.
This is not to say that a poem ought to be without meaning. There is no communication of being; it is meaning we communicate. A poem has to mean, but a good poet knows, and a good reader knows, that some things cannot be said directly, will not be looked at straight, are seen only out of the corner of the eye. You may have noticed, as you looked at the sky or a distant landscape, the ghost twig that sometimes floats barely into your field of vision. You're aware of it. You can tell its shape and almost its color. You can see it move. But when you turn your eye to focus more clearly on it, it leaps away. You can't look at it when you try to; you can see it only when you are looking at something else. A great deal of the experience of poetry lies in this indirection. When we turn our eyes to the denotation of the poem, it has a way of slipping from our field of vision, but we come by the experience of the poem, not by paraphrase, to an insight, an awareness about people that we didn't have before.
Experience always leads the open mind to insight, something more valuable than the comprehension we are led to by logic. It seems to me that Cardinal Newman's distinction between Notional Assent and Real Assent has meaning here. He saw Notional Assent as the agreement one gives by intelligence to some statement, some thesis or proposition. Real Assent is the agreement that comes from experience, from having been there, so that we know more surely than reason could tell us that, say, "War is hell" or "Love makes the world go 'round." Now let's say, for example, that a young woman is sitting on her front porch rocking and thinking about Plato's Scale of Being or the Categorical Imperative when a mail carrier comes up and says, "Love makes the world go 'round." She says, "Well, that sounds alright. I mean, love gets us married, and marriage gets us kids, and kids get us perpetuated. So, okay. It makes sense. Love makes the world go 'round in a metaphorical way." She has considered the proposition and given it Notional Assent. Then let's say that a few weeks later the summer is over, she's gone back to school for the fall term, and she's just bought all her books in the campus bookstore. She's heading back to her room with the books piled higher than her head when she bumps into another student and the books fall to the floor. She sees even as she starts to kick him in the shins that he is beautiful. He bends down to help her pick up the books, and she bends down to help him, and they bump heads. It's a 1940s movie. They both look up to apologize and their eyes meet, and that's it. Wow! Pow! All that.
Then three or four days later a police officer stops her and says, "Love makes the world go 'round," and she says, "Yeah!" Because, you see, she's been there. She's had the experience. This is not Notional Assent anymore. This is Real Assent.
There is also what must be called Real Assent compared, certainly, with what we learn from argument and observation in our response to the love poems of John Donne. And compared with what we learn from the newspapers or casualty lists, or even from television, there is Real Assent to the proposition that "War is hell" after a reading of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" because here too we are involved, we are drawn in. We participate. We experience the poem, and through that experience we come to insight.
The experience that brings us to this insight is the end of the poem, the end of the rhyme, irony, indirection, metaphor, image, and all the devices of language that a poet learns to use to make a poem.
What we have to ask of the poem is that it work, that it offer us an experience that we can believe is a part of our world. That it be, in a word, honest.
Now to say that a poem is dishonest is the same as saying it's a bad poem. I have difficulty, though, thinking in terms of bad poetry. I prefer to call it phony poetry because in a manner of speaking there is no such thing as a bad poem.
When I was a boy, I think, all Methodist preachers, at least those in the hills and the small towns, had had their throats burned out by God himself with a terrible poker that reached from heaven for the purpose, and the throats had been filled with hot coals that rumbled against one another when the preacher spoke, giving off the smell of something on fire.
I remember listening with my whole body as a young prophet described Armageddon: it was to be the battle to the death between the good angels and the bad angels. I think this is where my first doubt began. I knew that whatever a preacher could do with words, there was no such thing as a bad angel, that one was a good angel or one was simply not an angel at all. The definition of goodness was implicit in the word angel and the definitions of quality, of rightness, of efficacy, I like to believe, are implicit in the word art and in the word poem.
This may seem to be semantic tail-chasing, but I don't believe it is. I think it's important what we teach our children and ourselves to call poetry and I believe it makes a great difference whether we call a rose by another name.
More, it's important to know that we do not come to Milton and Auden and Bishop through the "oh, God, the beauty" poets on one hand or the "let me show you my mucous" poets on the other. A good poem has more in common with good painting than it does with a counterfeit poem.
What is the difference between the real and the counterfeit in poetry? What gives away a thing that looks like a poem but isn't?
That is, why do we not respond to it? This is, after all, the thing about a poem. It must have the power to make us respond, to make us more alive. We have to react to it, taking part even in its creation.
If I were to make a list of the signs of a counterfeit poem, a warning to go on the front of a cash register in some land where poems are currency, the list would run about like this:
The first giveaway might be some kind of sentimentalism. Now, there are varieties of sentimentalism in poetry, the most common being the attempt to give superficial thought, shallow ideas, the shape of importance; the attempt to give ephemeral things the shape of profundity crying out to heaven over the loss of a ballgame or the failure to get an invitation to a party.
Another is the use of what I call "instant emotion," the use of terms to which we have been so conditioned that it's no longer necessary to say something with the words. It's enough simply to use them. Tear-stained Bible, the Transylvanian Way of Life, Tattered Flag, Dear Old Dad, Somebody's Mother, the old homeplace, Manifest Destiny.
This is the sort of sentimentality that the writers of protest poems and polemics on both the right and the left almost always fall into, a kind of push-button feeling that may be easy to evoke in one who understands the world through bumper stickers, but when we respond to the words only, we are responding to air.
Then a thing may fail as a poem because it tries to do what a poem cannot do: it tries to become a treatise on cosmic truth. This is most often because the writer has tried to pin down what won't be still. Getting back to the value of indirection, we can best be exact about the cosmic things God and truth, beauty, eternity, and love by not talking directly about them. In a metaphor we see a thing by reflection off another surface, which is not only an interesting way to look at something but necessary when we are dealing with a thing that can't be caught head-on. We see the wind in the grass because the wind is invisible. We see the sun in the lake because the sun is too bright. We have to see the face of whatever truth there is reflected off the surface of a shield. Our reflecting shield is the metaphor.
And there is more to this. We want to see less than all there is because this is the only way in which our imaginations can be called to participate in making the poem whole. Because a poem does not exist on the page. It exists when the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader confront each other in an act of language to make that act complete. John Aubrey, the seventeenth-century man about town and letters, reminds us of this in his journals: "As Pythagoras did guess at the vastness of Hercules' stature by the length of his foot, so we are there pleased most where something keeps the eye from being lost and leaves us room to guess."
We want to scrounge around in the poem, to take part in its perfection. Something that involves only the expected, we cannot respond to, we cannot even stay awake with.
If we want to put a person to sleep, we can do it by simply removing from the environment from notice, that is any change that is not expected. Put a person in a rocking chair so that the movement of the rocker conceals any smaller motion, while each new sweep of the rocker is anticipated and therefore ignored, or turn on an air conditioner so that the hum of the motor drowns out smaller sounds, while each wave of sound from the motor is anticipated and therefore ignored, and you will see that the mind, experiencing then a kind of constancy of the anticipated may I offer that as a fair definition of monotony? experiencing a constancy of the anticipated, goes to rest, goes to sleep.
And then the deformed metaphor is found in a lot of what only looks like poetry. The metaphor fully conceived and cleanly wrought does more perhaps than anything else to take us inside the poem. We see in a good metaphor and in a simile the images they create by their nature, an implied unity a kinship between things whose common parts we might not have suspected. The implication is intriguing, and we are drawn into the line to confirm the kinship for ourselves, to confirm it by an act of intellect and of imagination. To make it real, to realize it. From Dylan Thomas:
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
and the synagogue of the ear of corn
And from T. S. Eliot:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
From Wallace Stevens:
Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
The image, or submerged metaphor, that we find in sort-of-poetry may, as I say, be deformed. Witness these little grotesques. The first is from a high-school anthology. Try to see this, as one will always try to see a metaphor, on the literal level first. It's about what heaven will be like:
I will gather grapes in the bosom of Abraham. . .
This was in a poem-like thing submitted for publication in the New Orleans Review when I was its editor.
My heart stands on tiptoe to kiss
the pinnacle of your soul. . .
I don't know what they're doing there, but I think that even in New Orleans you get arrested for it. And this was also in a submission to the Review:
Come build a fire with me
in the lap of Venus,
and let no land or ocean
come between us.
The night comes in like the tide
and whispers in my ear
and I rest in its dark and leafy arms
where there is no fear.
I was impressed. Most people would have been terrified.
We don't have to look to amateurs, though, for this sort of thing. Stephen Spender, a fine poet who certainly knew better, spoke of a bee as "one cog in a golden hive."
I have said a lot about response, but I don't know any other terms in which one can talk about poetry. To respond is to be alive; to cease to respond is to cease to be alive. The stone and the frog are most importantly different in this: When there is a change in the environment of the frog, the frog changes against that change in such a way as will tend to minimize it, to negate it, and in order to maintain within the frog a kind of constant state. The rock changes passively with the change around it.
The change in the frog, the change in us the reaction against the direction of change in our environment creates tension. It's this tension that is life, to the body and to the mind.
I'm not offering a cure for the world's ills, or pep pills for the despondent, or a way to happiness, but I am committed to the belief that poetry as well as painting and sculpture, music and dance and drama in a time when we are sometimes tempted to pull away from the world, in a time when there is so much to withdraw from, in a time when we may forget that to be a little bit numb, to be a little anesthetized, is to be a little bit dead, may in a small way help to keep us alive.
And richly alive, if we invest something of ourselves in the act of language in which the poet has already made at least half the investment.
Because a poem reminds us to see, not things, but one thing and one thing and one thing, as a poem is built of images.
And a poem reminds us to see the relations between things, as a poem is built of metaphor.
And a poem reminds us of the good meaning of order, as a poem is built of language moving through a pattern.
But there is more to poetry than this.
We come, or might come by poems, to understand the ironic vision, that abiding realization that most human statements contain their own contradictions and that most human acts contain the seeds of their own defeat.
It has been reported by the New York Times, for instance, that as technology increases, more and more people are coming to believe in an active and personal devil. The scientists and educators interviewed were astounded and confused. No one who reads and responds to poetry could be either astounded or confused.
And then a poem might remind us of compassion, as a poet refuses to populate poems with people who are simply good or simply bad. As a poet has to know and has to tell us that everyone we meet is a battlefield.
And then a poem might remind us of the difference between just stopping and coming to a close, which is one of the frequent differences between life and art.
And then a poem might remind us that we can afford to give up everything but beginnings.
And then a poem might bring us to an expanded sense of the game ritual by which all of us give meaning to our lives when we are not simply surviving. John Ciardi defined game, which includes poetry and basketball and chess and crossword puzzles, as a human activity made difficult for the joy of it. I don't suggest that poetry ought to be covered in Sports Illustrated, but I do suggest that it ought not be any more foreign to our world than that, and that it might make our lives, for all of our lives, more meaningful.
Well, I still hear someone say, "I don't know, I just don't understand it, I don't have the ear for it." And I say to that in one of my rare literary allusions, "Bah! Humbug!" There are little pieces of poetry all around us, and we do respond to them; things, that is, which we understand with the same part of us that understands poetry. Let me offer some examples, and let me say that one who understands what is remarkable and ambiguous in them is using at least one part of the mind that understands poetry.
I have a friend who has been teaching English for forty-three years, and for all of them he has drawn strength from a misspelling that appeared in the first group of themes he ever assigned: "Life is so short," it said, "that we must make the most of every minuet."
Recently I was approached by a casual acquaintance, a young nun, who said, "Excuse me, Mr. Williams, but if you don't mind my asking, what is your faith?" Now, I've never been able to find the right name for what I believe so to be as honest as I could in a few words I said, "Well, I suppose you'd call me a Druid." "Oh," she said, with ecumenical tolerance. "And is that Protestant?"
In the rolling credits after a movie about Moses I read this disturbing line: "The voice of the burning bush was prerecorded."
A loan company in New Orleans recently announced across the glass of its window: "Now you can borrow enough money to get completely out of debt."
In the registration line at the University of Arkansas recently I heard a young woman ask, "Does anyone know who's taking care of Western Civilization?"
I was watching television, alone in the house, one past Easter season when my teeth were rattled and the world jarred to life by this line from a commercial in the deep and mellifluous tones of a man's voice: "Eat at Bob and Jake's this week; enjoy Lent more than ever."
I was looking for something to read anything to read on a commuter flight a few months ago when I found this lovely moment of accidental wisdom on a sick bag: "To ease discomfort, concentrate on some distant object."
These are fragments. They are, of course, not art. They are not poems. But they have about them something of what is important in a poem. They say much more than the statement they make; these meanings that come rising up to us from under the surface have an insistent truth about them, and when we try to focus on it, to look hard at it, it's gone.
What I'm saying is that poetry the impulse to make it and the power to understand it is not something exotic, something foreign to our minds. It is, or it ought to be, part of our lives from the time we shake our cribs in rhythm and wake our parents yelling "bah bah bah bah bah" until we come through "Little Jack Horner" and "Hey Diddle Diddle" to Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats. Some, of course, get sidetracked and never complete their development. They tell you that poetry is for kids and old folks, that it's for schoolteachers, that it's silly stuff and doesn't make sense and then they go off to a football game and stand up, flag in one hand and beer in the other, yelling,
Bo Bo Skee-watn-datn,
Hey, team, let's go!
We need poetry as we need love and company. It's a matter, finally, of whether we bring into our lives the real thing, naked and demanding, or something we simply inflate to look like the real thing, which neither demands nor gives.
About the Author
Miller Williams is the author, editor, or translator of thirty-three books, including fourteen volumes of poetry and Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms. Among his many honors are the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship in Poetry from Harvard University, the Poets' Prize, and the Prix de Rome for Literature and the Academy Award for Literature, both from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was inaugural poet for Bill Clinton's second swearing-in as president. Williams took academic degrees in the sciences because a college counselor told him his entrance tests indicated no verbal aptitude. As a young man he played the clarinet and saxophone in a jazz combo. He is the father of three-time Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams. (Photo by Karen Thom)
Louisiana State University Press