David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poet’s Journey: Chapter 9


Every poet has had the feeling at some point in the process of writing a poem when you find yourself at a series of imaginative entryways and thresholds that require you to be aware of where the horizon line is for your creative limitations. You sense that beyond the horizon is something unknown. Beyond the horizon is something nameless, uncharted, and untold. And you sense it might exist in a dangerous place in your imagination where there is neither protection nor supervision.

Some poets are satisfied not to cross this threshold. They find unexplored areas of their imagination too alarming, too dangerous, too frightful, and too precarious to their goal of writing a finished poem. If you’re this kind of of poet, I wonder what it is you expect to find out there in the unknown zones of your imagination? Ogres or monsters some beast that hunts poets and feeds on metaphor? Do you fear a freakish, hydra-headed dragon will tear apart your imagination and ruin the gentle garden of your gentle poem?

But only by crossing this entryway and threshold into the unknown in the writing of each poem and challenging yourself with what you intuit and observe, what you feel and have faith in, can you advance into a new awareness of what your mind and imagination are want to funnel. A haiku by Basho, translated by Robert Hass, illustrates the important consequences of making this passage beyond the horizon of your imagination:

A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

Granted, fear of the unknown is a pressing urgency. But in order to pass into the territory of what you don’t know and, like the bee, to return again with new knowledge in the form of poem that’s rife with discoveries, it’s essential and necessary for you to forge your way past the threshold and beyond your imagination’s horizon. It’s through exploration of the unknown that you are suddenly capable of exceeding your native limitations. It’s through exceeding your native limitations that you will be ready to project your imagination through poetry. It’s through projecting your imagination that you’ll be able to compose and revise and complete the writing of many poems that bring to your readers wonders and discoveries that help them appreciate the modern world.

At the same time, once you cross the threshold, be ready for a shattering effect on your imagination.

Because you wish to expand your imagination, you may need to practice, paradoxically, a form of self-destruction—like the bee that “staggers out / of the peony.” By coming nearer and nearer to this psychic violence between expansion and destruction, you will put yourself in a position to be able to comprehend and transfigure what you discover there. Just as Sylvia Plath does at the conclusion of “Lady Lazarus” when she writes:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair.

By writing into what you don’t you know, you allow your poem to invite readers who have followed you to discover new regions of their own minds and feelings, as well. Both you and the reader “rise” and “stagger(s) out” of the peony and come to understand that the unknown realms of imagination are filled with the abundance of wildness and calm, wilderness and home. The unknown realms of imagination are filled with alluring, invisible desires and strange dwellings.

If you do not provoke yourself as a poet, you will not provoke the reader. But I have misquoted the Plath. The poem ends on these two lines:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair.
And I eat men like air.

That last line is an outcome of crossing the threshold. Because, to begin with, you are surely aware that entry points to the unknown realms of your imagination will contain roadblocks. On the one hand, your literary taste, your learned poetics, your limited sense of your imagination can all block your entryway into the unknown poetic provinces of your mind. Those are important, but dangerous, obstructions. And its worth it to learn to navigate them. Because, on the other hand, when you accept the temptation to cross the passageway multiple times as a poet—over many years—and deal continuously with what you don’t already know, you’ll learn to be less fearful of the obstacles over time and the consequences (“eat men like air”) of your discoveries.

Becoming a poet means writing past the danger each and every time you feel that you’re struggling with writing a poem. By crossing these thresholds many times, and over many years, you learn that what appears to be frightful to you can also, suddenly, transform into something wonderful. It can be something that enlivens your imagination—much as the way your dreams stimulate your everyday existence. And vice versa.

Sylvia Plath seems to have understood the danger of this passageway, though at a great price. Few poets seem to understand the danger and reward of this passageway more than Paul Celan, who came to poetry already deeply wounded. Celan was born in Romania in 1920. In 1939, his German-Jewish parents were deported to Nazi death camps. After he survived a year in a labor camp, he settled in Paris until his death, by suicide, in 1970. His poems, written in German, bring a fresh eye of witnessing to horror and guilt—and this is accomplished in his native language, mind you, German, the language of his own oppression.

The unknown is what Paul Celan knew best. So it’s not surprising that his “Death Fugue” opens in an alien realm of both imagination and time where the horizon between reality and unreality has been destroyed, as if murdered. Everywhere there are threats of violence and destruction. But this is precisely the territory Celan knew he must tread. Here, as translated by John Felstiner, is the opening of Celan’s “Death Fugue”:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance

By involving himself in his imagination where the terror of genocide resides just as it did in modern life, Celan demonstrates how a poet liberates himself through the process of writing a poem from fear. I want to believe that you, too, feel, as a reader, equally released to comprehend the horror Celan depicts. I want to believe that you, too, feel vicariously at least, the means to survive that horror as presented in the poem—survive the horror with new knowledge, new emotional realization, and new metaphors.

Celan has provided us, already in these opening lines of “Death Fugue,” with the knowledge of transcending what is feared. He dispels denial. He refigures the “hounds” to reveal the “dance.” And he points us to what is in the distance beyond the threshold: being and not being, good and evil. These kinds of polar counterparts can leave you, as a poet, fearful of being driven back to your most comfortable place on the gentle, other side of the threshold, back to where you do not have to encounter the limits of your poetic gifts. It’s there—before you ever cross the threshold or move toward the horizon—that you can avoid the dangerous winds and resist your anxiety about being lost, being crushed, or being absorbed. But if you refuse to cross the threshold or imagine beyond the horizon, if you do not pass into the precarious realm of your imagination, you will struggle to become a poet who releases himself from self-imposed conditions. You will struggle to name what is undiscovered, unidentified, and unrecognizable to you. You will be destroying your own imaginative potential. You will be allowing yourself to be imprisoned not by the unknown but by what you previously knew already.

Granted, these examples are meant to be extreme. One would not wish that you emulate the suicides of Plath and Celan. But, on on the other hand, if you allow yourself to enter the unknown realms of your imagination, you might find that you are able to regain your composure, to be more keen and more observant, to make fresh comparisons, to relate and convey insight about existence—just as Plath and Celan do in their poems. Out of this unfamiliar space, you will be able to recover familiarities essential to your nature.

Stanley Plumly’s “Infidelity” is a wonderful example of a poet discovering the familiar out of the unfamiliar:

The two-toned Olds swinging sideways out of
the drive, the bone-white gravel kicked up in
a shot, my mother in the deathseat half
out the door, the door half shut–she’s being
pushed or wants to jump, I don’t remember.
The Olds is two kinds of green, hand-painted,
and blows black smoke like a coal-oil fire. I’m
stunned and feel a wind, like a machine, pass
through me, through my heart and mouth; I’m standing
in a field not fifty feet away, the
wheel of the wind closing the distance.
Then suddenly the car stops and my mother
falls with nothing, nothing to break the fall . . .

One of those moments we give too much to,
like the moment of acknowledgment of
betrayal, when the one who’s faithless has
nothing more to say and the silence is
terrifying since you must choose between
one or the other emptiness. I know
my mother’s face was covered black with blood
and that when she rose she too said nothing.
Language is a darkness pulled out of us.
But I screamed that day she was almost killed,
whether I wept or ran or threw a stone,
or stood stone-still, choosing at last between
parents, one of whom was driving away.

The passageway Plumly discovers here includes a dramatization of self-annihilation and also rebirth. Plumly leaves the known world and is swallowed into a drama of panic and revulsion. But in place of confusion, he locates an inwardness (an inward awareness), that provides him with understanding. Both his sense of self and his sense of language are announced to us in the birth imagery of the climactic sentence in the poem: “Language is a darkness pulled out of us.”

It’s as if by following the route from the known to the unknown, the poet (the boy, the man) becomes reborn. The afterbirth of scream and weeping (“I screamed that day she was almost killed”), as with Blake’s infant in “Infant Sorrow” who leaps into a dangerous world and is “piping loud,” provides you with a physical experience for the recollection of who Plumly is, who he comes from, and what experiences give him new awareness and new life to allow him to face and mythologize betrayal.

In this example, the world of the memory and the world of the remembering are one and the same. Both the entrance to the drama acted out in the poem and also the exit from the drama are one and the same. It takes entering the fear of the memory in order to bring the knowledge from the remembering to the reader. Which is to say: no provocation for the poet, no provocation for the reader.

In “Infidelity,” the poet leaves his old self behind by his failure to reformulate the past: “she’s being / pushed or wants to jump, I don’t remember . . . I’m / stunned and feel a wind, like a machine, pass / through me, through my heart and mouth.” Once Plumly disburdens himself of his former self, as if shedding a skin, he appears to have exited time altogether. It’s as if the poet knows that in the unknown realm of his imagination is where the feeling of being caught between “one or the other emptiness” exists.

Basho, Celan, Plath, and Plumly offer you examples of a poet making a choice to cross the threshold from the known to the unknown and back again. Their efforts center their writing on their true imaginative realm and offer both poet and reader something that renews life. By dramatizing the act of ceasing to exist in the known realm, they demonstrate that passing the threshold and returning with new discoveries is an essential quality of writing poetry and becoming a poet in the modern world. To become a poet is to make visible the invisible, to bring to readers what is most mysterious and also most life-clarifying.

Over time you discover that what you think you fear as a poet is something you needn’t fear at all. By giving yourself over to the unknown provinces of your imagination, you allow the complexities of the world to act upon you so that you can write your way into renewing, first your own, and then our understanding of existence. Whether a “man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes” or a poet reenacts falling “with nothing, nothing to break the fall,” we come to see that complexity, even one found from trauma, leads you as a poet to two emotions you must recover in yourself to be successful as a poet: a sense of compassion and a hunger for realization.

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 →