David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey Chapter 4


Take into your heart the idea that, as a poet, you are just like everyone else. All that distinguishes a poet from other people is that you write poems and everyone else, usually, doesn’t.

Every human being experiences events that call you out of the normal routines of daily life. Same goes for you as a poet. Every human being finds himself, at some time, released from the common encounters of modernity in order to face extraordinary encounters of heart and mind and spirit and mortality. Everyone navigates life’s obstacles, each to her own talent, each to her own skill, each to her own dedication and ambition to learn and to grow and to locate transcendence.

But what you do as poet is, fashion out of the routines of daily life and out of the common encounters and out of the obstacles certain figurative cues and intimations, signs and stories, inventions and images — what Emily Dickinson calls “slants of light” — in order to write poems with vivid metaphoric patterns of language. Not everyone, as I say, has the compulsion to write lines and stanzas as a means to dramatize and mythologize their internal discoveries and recoveries, but if you’re a poet, you very likely have that compulsion.

What poets trust, too, is that, in the very act of writing poems, the process of writing alters what was previously known and becomes a new experience or, if you will, a new known. What poets trust beyond even that is that, in the very act of reading poems, what’s newly known becomes, in the mind and heart of the reader, a renewed known.

That the act of writing can transmute experience seems embedded in the opening of Robert Frost’s poem, “To Earthward”:

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of- was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?

At the moment the poet is announcing the sweetness — which is fashioned from memory and experience — he is recognizing something new about that sweetness, that it “seemed too much.”

One way for us, as readers — who are also invested in the new experience — to test this idea of too-muchness is to consider a surrogate passage. Imagine the first stanza above without line three:

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
I lived on air

Seen like this, you have a pretty good presentation of what the experience could be. Love makes you feel like you’re living on air. If there is deep pain in the notion of “could bear,” it is not fully acknowledged. Instead, it’s discarded in service of the line about living on air.

But Frost’s actual version recovers pain from the puzzle of experience. By departing from disinterest in order to include judgment, Frost enables his pain to be united with his love. That fusion allows him to cull more knowledge than the experience first indicated. Here’s the full quatrain again:

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

Now with the line back in place, you can see that where Frost had first suggested a discovery of purity, he finds entanglement. Where he had first appeared to discover ease, he encounters intricacy. Where he had first thought to skim over meaning, he finds himself at the center of meaning and its ramifications. And where he had first thought to express only his own sense of “touch,” he presents himself as a representative of the very dilemma of “touch.”

The very writing of the poem, in other words, gives Frost a new experience to embody.

And that’s how, when you are making and then remaking experience into a poem, you are — as a poet — different from everyone else. A poem is a message from the depths of the human story reconfigured and brought back to other human beings. This message includes a celebration of ritualized gestures of construction and destruction and reconstruction that define human consciousness.

Or if not construction and destruction and reconstruction, then assembly and shattering and restoration, or formation, deformation, and reformation, or creation and disintegration and and rebirth.

It’s not that a poem simply figures the truth of an experience but also disfigures the truth of experience. That may be too negating. Let me say it this way. A poem refigures the truth and integrates new forms of meaning as a shared experience.

A poem is always seeking a cathartic outcome. On the one hand, when you’re writing a poem you are experiencing both displacement and purgation and also distillation and purification. You experience growth, too, from writing one poem to the next over many years as you make your way in the world as a poet — as your poems reveal to you how the world might be uttered into being.

But if all that were necessary were your having some cathartic experience when writing poetry, you would have no need for anyone to read your poems. Because isn’t one role of poetry to create dramatizations that invite someone else to experience their own cathartic boost? Isn’t one of poetry’s necessary functions to dissolve the differences between poet and audience, to allow the reader to be redeemed in the shattering of experience into a poem? To create communion between you and your poem, your poem and the reader?

Such is the communion that occurs in John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” a daydream of a poem that opens with the narrator stricken with the havoc of work and envious of the “inner peace” that others in the city, he imagines, must feel. And so he dreams himself into a journey of departure and discovery:

As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them—they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!
City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!
But I fancy I see, under the press of having to write the instruction manual,
Your public square, city, with its elaborate little bandstand!
The band is playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Around stand the flower girls, handing out rose- and lemon-colored flowers,
Each attractive in her rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),
And nearby is the little white booth where women in green serve you green and yellow fruit.
The couples are parading; everyone is in a holiday mood.

This dream continues for 60 more lines. “The Instruction Manual” is an example of removing one’s self from the figure of modern life (“Not one of them has to worry”) and initiating a journey of identity that exists inside the psyche (“City I wanted most to see”). The poem suppresses the impulse to make a complaint or lament or mock lament or even a statement of simple grousing. Instead, Ashbery begins with a form of destruction when he magnifies the failures of his job. In its place he recreates the means for recovery by dreaming up the events in Mexico to alleviate the scourge of the everyday.

ashbery_johnIt’s not that Ashbery seeks some definite ideal of heaven to deflect the pain of his predicament but, instead, he locates relief in something that is terrifically human and essentially earthbound. What I mean is, his sabbatical inside the daydreaming mind remains grounded on earth. It redeems the bitterness and lack of fulfillment of modernity — at least for a brief time.

Because even the invented world of “The Instruction Manual” is not wholly protected from the realities of life, as the encounter with the old woman indicates:

Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets.
Here you may see one of those white houses with green trim
That are so popular here. Look—I told you!
It is cool and dim inside, but the patio is sunny.
An old woman in gray sits there, fanning herself with a palm leaf fan.
She welcomes us to her patio, and offers us a cooling drink.
“My son is in Mexico City,” she says. “He would welcome you too
If he were here. But his job is with a bank there.
Look, here is a photograph of him.”
And a dark-skinned lad with pearly teeth grins out at us from the worn leather frame.
We thank her for her hospitality, for it is getting late
And we must catch a view of the city, before we leave, from a good high place.

What a poem like this tells you about writing poetry is this: there is no eternal redemption inside the dreamworld of a poem. Your poems dramatizes transcendence, yes, but only insofar as making the dreamworld a literary reality — and even if a literary reality can be just as vivid as the reality of modernity, even if a literary reality helps expand our knowledge of modernity, it is a subset of modernity all the same.

A single poem’s attachment to one reality gives way as a momentary revelation. In Ashbery’s poem, this “high place” is found within the spirit of the narrator, and redemption comes only in the time it takes to utter the poem and share the language of the experience.

That said, in Ashbery’s poem, too, he mocks the “high place.” Like the lovers on the urn in John Keats’ “On a Grecian Urn,” the paraders in Ashbery’s vision can never end their parade:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

As with Keats’ lovers, neither sin nor death will come to the Mexican citizens in Ashbery’s vision. And neither can they wander elsewhere and depart from the poet’s vision of them — in contrast to the narrator who, in both mind and body, can wander and does. The figures in a poem only exists in the figuration in a poem. A poem’s universe is complete unto itself.

While poetry reveals what is fantastic and dangerous, a poem is not a fairytale escape. The triumphs in a poem are foremost triumphs of the imagination more so than the soul. And the figure of the poem as a dreamscape is the figure of a passageway more than that of a destination.

Which is not to say there isn’t clarified understanding of emotions or ideas. You — the poet, the narrator, the reader, whomever — speak in your poems for overcoming resistances, bring new life and understanding to what has been forgotten, and invent a new imagined universe of ideas and feelings. Such an achievement can’t come from a posture of defensiveness but from an embrace, a grasp, sometimes even a surrender.

But poetry is not religion. Poetry does not promise eternal knowledge, love, or power. Poetry does not truck with a world without end. Time in a poem is not glorified as holy or provide angels or caretakers speaking a persuasive language of creeds, faith, or prayers. Poetry has never aspired to replace religious orders. We have a long history of art and poetry exemplifying religion, or enhancing or distorting recurring religious imagery, but not replacing religion in the heart of a worshipper.

On the other hand, as in Robert Frost’s recovery of the idea of “once that seemed too much,” what your poetry can aspire to do is to break the monotony of the oversimplified emotion, bring insight — as an antidote — to the murmurs and throbs of modern life, expand the possibilities for rebirth in the imagination, and inspire connection across geography, history, and time among human beings. Striving for that achievement can carry you forward as a poet for a lifetime.

Also in this series:
The Poet’s Journey: Preamble
The Poet’s Journey Chapter 1
The Poet’s Journey Chapter 2
The Poet’s Journey Chapter 3

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →