What Sparks Poetry

Reading Prose

In our series Reading Prose, we’ve asked poets to write about how the experience of reading prose, fiction, non-fiction, criticism, theory, has sparked the writing of poetry or affected how they read poetry.

Dana Levin on Robert Hass’s “A Story About the Body”

When Poetry Daily put out the call for an essay that might “focus on any kind of prose…that has sparked a change in how you approach writing or reading poetry,” I thought instantly of two books by philosophers who have offered me enduring lenses: The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard and I and Thou by Martin Buber. Then I flashed on the bowl of dead bees at the end of Robert Hass’s famous poem.

Suddenly, just by thinking about Bachelard and Buber, it was as if I could understand Hass’s poem wholly and clearly for the very first time. It was the story of a test—at stake was human intimacy. I understood the ways in which the main character fails this test, and how intimacy lends the poem’s ending image such expressive power. Intimacy: it was a central subject for my favorite mystic-philosophers, and it was the central subject of “A Story About the Body.” For most of the thirty years I’d been reading and teaching this poem, I’d been caught up wholly in the vividness of its figurations; while I understood the plot of the poem, I’d never really stopped to seriously feel into its nuances—or how the narrative journey positions its final lyric revelation. Bachelard and Buber helped me read the poem anew.

So: first, the philosophers, then the poem and a writing prompt.

Gaston Bachelard and the Abodes of Consciousness

Gaston Bachelard was a well-known French Philosopher of Science who in older age took a giant left turn and started writing what a lot of other philosophers thought were crazy books, with titles like The Psychoanalysis of Fire and The Poetics of Space. He is most famous in popular circles for this last, his landmark book on architecture and the poetic image. When I first read this book in college, I had just finished a Literary Criticism class and was feeling jaundiced about it and lit crit in general. Then a new semester began and with it a class called Art and Environment, where The Poetics of Space was our only textbook—it changed how I saw the world.

In The Poetics of Space, objects and spaces are occasions: they elicit from Bachelard much lyric enthusiasm and casual psychoanalysis, alternating between intellectual swoon and ce n’est rien, it is nothing. Here he is waxing poetic in a chapter called “Drawers, Chests, and Wardrobes:”

              If we give objects the friendship they should have, we do not open a wardrobe without a slight start. Beneath its russet wood, a wardrobe is a very white almond.

Bachelard’s approach to objects marries the outer properties of an object to inner properties: both the empiric (the five sense physicality of a thing) and the oneiric (the dreamy) properties, both the objective and subjective properties: in his phenomenological system, an object cannot be fully known unless we add its associational properties. An object is not a thing as much as a constellation of physical and psychological elements. It is “an abode of consciousness,” in the words of architecture historian Joan Ockman.

In some ways, this sounds like a Hippie version of T.S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative, an idea which has informed modern and contemporary poetics for over a hundred years—you likely know it as “show, don’t tell.” In 1920’s “Hamlet and His Problems,” where Eliot first lays out his idea of the objective correlative, he contends that:

              The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts…are given, the emotion is immediately evoked…

Eliot makes the object part of the objective correlative sound like, well, an object: a vessel to infuse with feeling in the creation of poetry. I think Bachelard conceives of the relationship between object and psyche a little differently. If I were to draw a schematic of how Eliot describes the process and effect of the objective correlative “formula” versus how Bachelard describes the birth of the poetic image, it might look like this:

Eliot’s Objective Correlative:

Bachelardian poetics:

For Bachelard, the poetic image is the product of object and poet communing; it’s relational. An unabashed personifier, Bachelard speaks often in The Poetics of Space about objects and intimacy: “Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these “objects”…our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy. They are hybrid objects, subject objects. Like us, through us and for us, they have a quality of intimacy.”

Martin Buber and Facing Thou

The word intimacy has its root in the Latin intus: within. To encounter an object with intimacy requires a certain kind of attuned openness, a quality of listening to and respect for the is-ness of the thing before you. Here I come back, as I often do, to 20th Century philosopher Martin Buber, and his book I and Thou. In it, Buber says the I engages the Not-I in two primary ways: I-It and I-Thou. I-It emphasizes what an I uses and experiences; I-Thou acknowledges a living relationship. Rather than experiencing, I-Thou is about encountering:

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things…whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens.

True intimacy requires a Thou state of mind, whether we are encountering a person, an animal, a plant, or an object, because I-It obstructs contact with intus: what is within. To observe, describe, analyze, and categorize is to take the subject position of the subject-object relationship. I-It is not about developing intimacy, it’s about developing mastery and control. I-It is about power.

I-It is also about looking. The thing about things is: we see them and then we want them and then—we take hold. We possess and direct ourselves upon them.

What happens, then, when the object seen and desired is a person? The choice between engaging them as It or as Thou has far-reaching effect, both in the realms of intimacy and in the realms of civic life. Racism, sexism, homo- and trans-phobia, xenophobia: all fester under the pernicious influence of I-It dynamics. Personifying an object is one thing; objectifying a person is quite another.

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity — like music — withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl — she must have swept them from the corners of her studio — was full of dead bees.

—Robert Hass

Looking and wanting, seeing and rejecting, confusing art for artist and artist for art: thus our “young composer.” The plot turns on the action of gazing: he “watched her for a week”; she “looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions”; and, devastatingly, “he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He’s lost in a simile: he loves her work, and her work “was like the way she moved her body, used her hands,” her art just a proxy. She is an exotic Other, based on the surfaces that he can see: older, foreign, engaged in a different art form. Her presence, for him, is primarily visual and completely aesthetic. He thinks this means he’s in love with her, but really it seems like he’s in love with the whole mise-en-scene of an art colony, of which she is his object among objects. He’s a Pygmalion-in-training enthralled by the Galatea he’s built in his mind, but the Japanese painter, unlike in the Greek myth, is no statue: when she reveals her mastectomy after boldly affirming their mutual desire, she’s asking him if he wants to see below these surfaces; she invites him intus, within, to see if he really wants her to be Thou, a person.

When he doesn’t, Hass offers readers one of the more arresting objective correlatives of 20th Century American poetry. Familiarity—the poem remains one of Hass’s best known—hasn’t yet dulled for me the vivid reflexive light of the final image. “A Story about the Body,” which, as a poem, is of course a made object, becomes, by its end, a kind of infinity mirror: those structures made of parallel mirrors which create a series of smaller and smaller reflections that appear to recede into infinite distance. You can experience this effect by visiting the fantastic installations made by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, or certain kinds of dressing rooms, bathrooms, or halls of mirrors: anywhere you can stand between two mirrors facing each other—and “two mirrors facing each other” sounds like a pretty good metaphor for what happens when, as in this poem, two people are negotiating intimacy.

By the end of “A Story about the Body,” we encounter a made object (the poem) that resolves around a made object (the ending image) that presents a made object (the bowl of bees) that binds aptness, physicality, and emotive resonance into a made object: an emblem. Receiving the fullness of this emblem depends on tapping into a Bachelardian state of mind: one that can encounter the bowl of dead bees not as an inert vessel but as an abode of consciousness. Inert vessel vs. abode of consciousness: this is the very choice the Japanese painter poses to the young composer, when she reveals herself not as It, but as Thou.

The bowl she fills in the wake of his failure is an artifact fused with hurt and irony. The rose petals—perennial symbols of love and romance—obscure a collection of dead pollinators: no honey is about to be made by this meeting of flower and bee, at this hive of an art colony. As with most arresting images, the arrival of the bowl re-angles how I consider parts of the poem already read: in this case, setting, which is now made ironic: art colonies intend cross-pollination, fertilization, and bloom, not sting and death. The bowl of rose-covered dead bees is a clear, precise expression of rebuke delivered straight to the composer’s front door: intimate and elegant, a painter’s speech-without-saying.

Writing Prompt

Find an object in the world, in memory, or in dream, that made some kind of impression on you. Free-write on its physical properties, and then commune with it in a Bachelardian way: how does it make you feel? What does it make you think about or remember? Generate as much raw material as you can and let associations proliferate. Then write a draft that tells the story of your encounter with this object. Poetry Daily asked me to provide an example from my own work of a poem written in this manner, and so I offer up a recent one, which began as a meditation on spindles: A Walk in the Park.

Dana Levin

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B&W Photo of Dana Levin by B.A. Van Sise

Dana Levin

Dana Levin is the author of five books poetry. Her latest is Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon Press), a 2022 New York Times Notable Book and NPR “Book We Love.” Other books include Banana Palace (2016) and Sky Burial (2011), which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” Recent poems and essays have appeared in Poem-a-day, Best American Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and Poetry, among other publications. She is a grateful recipient of many honors, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, and the Library of Congress, as well as from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations. With Adele Elise Williams, she co-edited Bert Meyers: On the Life and Work of an American Master (2023) for the Unsung Masters Series. Levin serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.