All journeys must come to an end. But the end of your journey writing a single poem is also the beginning of the journey for your reader.
As a poet you have devoted your attention to being alert to the ways your psyche interacts with the modern world, and any reader would detect that devotion as a triumph. You have devoted your attention to being alert to who you are when you speak your poem, being alert to what your identity is and is becoming, and being alert to the trials you overcome to form your utterance — and you already understand that to become a poet means locating your materials and navigating their implications. It means probing your imagination to the source. It means accomplishing what you can with your forms and metaphors and meanings.
The poet’s journey involves a series of transformations because to write a poem is, above all, to change your life. And, no less important, to change someone else’s life. A poem is an offering. A poem is a common wealth. Because each poem contains insight, the wisdom you reveal in your poems can renew the community. When you present your poems to the world, you are saying to readers that you have discovered something. You are saying that you are ready to participate in the shared human experience of sharing human experience through the art of poetry.
There will be times, no doubt, when, instead of writing and publishing a poem, you will feel that you do not want to let go of the excitement of alertness or the ecstasy of the psyche. You won’t want to let go of the elation, intoxication, and rapture of your imagination just so you can struggle with the torment of actually writing and finishing a poem or just so you can struggle to offer the reader his or her own new experience. There will be times when you prefer to embrace the intensities of experience alone and avoid writing — and avoid, therefore, revising and presenting your literary artifice and shaped artifact in the public space of modern life.
That’s understandable. The imagination can be enchanting and frenzied. Composing and revising poems require calmness in the face of trouble.
You may doubt whether you are able even to communicate what you have discovered inside your imagination. Many a poet gets caught between the enthusiasm of the experiences and the challenges of shaping language to transfigure those experiences. We all know fellow travelers who ultimately give up on the difficult joys of writing poetry in favor of the ranges of joyfulness they experience otherwise — I mean, they’re OK not feeling the compulsion to write anything at all. These are people who are enlivened by their imaginations, but who don’t start or, if they do, who don’t complete any poems that might invite readers to experience the felicities of existence.
In John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” which I wrote about earlier in this series, the unheroic, city-dwelling narrator is faced with writing a manual for work. To avoid his deadline, he conjures a journey to the city of Guadalajara. He presents this as a fantasy-memory. It’s a complete journey of travel, discovery, and return. And yet it becomes clear very early, as you read the poem, that the narrator has never once visited the actual city of Guadalajara. But what a Guadalajara he has found:
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.
First, leading the parade, is a dapper fellow
Clothed in deep blue. On his head sits a white hat
And he wears a mustache, which has been trimmed for the occasion.
His dear one, his wife, is young and pretty; her shawl is rose, pink, and white.
Her slippers are patent leather, in the American fashion,
And she carries a fan, for she is modest, and does not want the crowd to see her face too often.
But everybody is so busy with his wife or loved one
I doubt they would notice the mustachioed man’s wife.
Here come the boys! They are skipping and throwing little things on the sidewalk
Which is made of gray tile. One of them, a little older, has a toothpick in his teeth.
He is silenter than the rest, and affects not to notice the pretty young girls in white.
But his friends notice them, and shout their jeers at the laughing girls.
Yet soon all this will cease, with the deepening of their years,
And love bring each to the parade grounds for another reason.
But I have lost sight of the young fellow with the toothpick.
Wait—there he is—on the other side of the bandstand,
Secluded from his friends, in earnest talk with a young girl
Of fourteen or fifteen. I try to hear what they are saying
But it seems they are just mumbling something—shy words of love, probably.
She is slightly taller than he, and looks quietly down into his sincere eyes.
She is wearing white. The breeze ruffles her long fine black hair against her olive cheek.
Obviously she is in love. The boy, the young boy with the toothpick, he is in love too;
His eyes show it. Turning from this couple,
I see there is an intermission in the concert.
The paraders are resting and sipping drinks through straws
(The drinks are dispensed from a large glass crock by a lady in dark blue),
And the musicians mingle among them, in their creamy white uniforms, and talk
About the weather, perhaps, or how their kids are doing at school.
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.
That church tower will do—the faded pink one, there against the fierce blue of the sky. Slowly we enter.
The caretaker, an old man dressed in brown and gray, asks us how long we have been in the city, and how we like it here.
His daughter is scrubbing the steps—she nods to us as we pass into the tower.
Soon we have reached the top, and the whole network of the city extends before us.
There is the rich quarter, with its houses of pink and white, and its crumbling, leafy terraces.
There is the poorer quarter, its homes a deep blue.
There is the market, where men are selling hats and swatting flies
And there is the public library, painted several shades of pale green and beige.
Look! There is the square we just came from, with the promenaders.
There are fewer of them, now that the heat of the day has increased,
But the young boy and girl still lurk in the shadows of the bandstand.
And there is the home of the little old lady—
She is still sitting in the patio, fanning herself.
How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son.
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze
Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.
“The Instruction Manual” illustrates something essential about the psyche. It is that our memories, fantasies, and projections are variegated versions of each other. Ashbery’s poem presents an anti-poet who, as the hero of the poem, imagines a memory of a discovered world, examines that world, and then, despite a desire to remain in that imaginary world (“What is there to do, except stay?”) refuses to stay (“that we cannot do”).
Inevitably he returns to the drudgery of the “instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.” The poem is an antithesis of triumph in the familiar Ashberian universe of diffusion.
But, on the other hand, for readers, especially, “The Instruction Manual” is a complete triumph. We readers have traveled to the faraway place. We have been immersed in what was invented for us as an exotic experience of both travel and imagination. And, having been offered the communion of such an immersive poetic experience, having a poem before us that has been completed from initiation to composition to presentation, we are now aware of differences and gradations between time and memory, memory and dream, dream and fantasy, fantasy and projection, and projection and metaphor. The poem is itself like a manual that instructs us on how to live between the imagination and modern life.
But consider if the speaker in “The Instruction Manual” didn’t return to his desk. Where would we be then? In imaginary Guadalajara, that’s where. We would be left with a deflated sense of a limited experience same as the narrator.
Luckily, he does return, and we are recipients of the full restoration of the metaphor of the mind at play.
The completion of the poem completes our experience. As readers of poetry, we accept the invitation to go outside the threshold of modernity (a job with a deadline) into a poem’s realm of the imaginary (“dim Guadalajara!”). As readers of poetry, we experience the daydreaming of the poem inside the poem. We triumph both at conjuring the exotic just like the narrator does and at returning to our modern lives beyond the realm of the poem’s known universe.
I’m sure all this sounds normal, even intuitive. A reader can’t experience a poem if the poet doesn’t write the poem, if the poet doesn’t first remain alert to her imagination in relation to modern life and then write from that alert place. But I feel there’s a larger implication for you as a poet, too. The combined pleasure and ordeal of writing a poem asks you, temporarily, to depart modern life in order to enter and probe the honestly-examined horizon lines of your imagination.
But it also requires that you not succumb to the complications there.
Instead, to become a poet means asking of yourself to bring your renewed clarity back to us, back to the modern world that we live in so that the poem can exist, not in the private imaginary realm where your poems can sometimes be easy to understand and grasp (especially by you who wrote the poem), but in the lived realm where poems must forge meaning among those who have not yet had the initiating experience you had as the poet.
Instead of clinging to your own experiences and insisting that only your ego can have the experiences or understand them, you require yourself as a poet to hand them over — in the shape of a poem — to another person, other people, your readers, who then assume — we readers assume — that the poem is essentially our own. This transformational act of communion between poet and reader returns you, as the poet, back to your own self. You have completed the transaction, and you are ready to accept that to become a poet means to sacrifice your imagination to the act of presenting your poem to a reader and also — once you have resolved your own psychic obsessions and literary values — on behalf of that reader’s interests.
But, the exciting part is that, in the very act of communion, you regain access to your imagination afresh.
That’s not simple. That’s not easy. The trek from the heart of your imaginary existence to artifice and from artifice to the reader’s heart is difficult. When you write a poem, you are admitting to yourself that you have faith, in some fashion at least, that you can leave the everyday world of time, exist in the artistic imagination of timelessness, and return safely with a poem in hand that you can transfer to those of us who live, every day, in modern life.
And yet, looking back at the times you’ve written a poem, perhaps you can see, too, that when you departed the modern everyday world into the timeless world of writing your poem, you were going through an experience in which you become changed, too. And, while you were being changed, it turns out that when you later return to the modern world of time you find that modernity has also changed while you were absent.
In your artistic and imaginary world, anything is possible. Metaphors drop in your lap, narratives are offered up like gold, images and rhythms and symbols are affiliated and wedded. A unified atmosphere predominates in your imagination. But back in the modern world of family, politics and war, love, affairs, commerce, and history? It’s rife with division and disconnection and dislocation. It exists in a state of fracturing and fragmentation. That’s where your readers exist.
These readers do not necessarily see themselves as living shattered lives, disintegrated lives, or even unkempt lives. They see themselves as living fully complete and whole lives, if busy and distracted at times. They inhabit a normal modern world where people are invested their emotional existences, in their ambitions, in their curiosities, and their capacity to comprehend their everyday modern encounters. This is the normal world, our world, where people don’t obsess over poetry.
And that’s the world we bring our poems into. That’s the world we bring our poems into after we’ve had our cathartic experience in the realm of our imagination and after we’ve labored to shape those experiences into the art of a poem.
These two realms of the poet’s journey, the imaginary life and the life of modernity, are surely distinct from each other. We know the unmistakable difference between being in Guadalajara and imagining being in Guadalajara — just as we know the difference between morning and evening, God and human, male and female. As a poet, you travel from day into night and you write both from and also separate from the world you live in. The passageways of your imagination can be alarming or betraying, honest or insidious, forthright or duplicitous. Sometimes you feel, as a poet, that you have escaped with your very life after you’ve completed writing a poem.
I feel the possibility of this kind of capaciousness when I read a poem like “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milsoz. In only a few stanzas, Milosz reveals the treacherousness of the imagination and confirms the necessity of the endeavor:
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.
There was a time when only wise books were read,
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
Milosz in the translation above by himself with Lillian Vallee is making a central point about the relationship between the imaginary and the actual, between poetry and modernity: they are one and the same. Poetry is the underworld of the actual world and the remembered world of the forgotten world. In this sense, the examination of your imagination and the transfiguration of your imagination — the very making of metaphor and image and symbol — becomes your calling as a poet. What you take to be the important aspects of living in modern life are tethered to your imaginary life — just as consciousness is tethered to subconsciousness, just as dreams are tethered to our waking days.
As a poet, you seek to blend your imagination with what you are both witnessing and imagining: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.”
Difficult, yes. Necessary, too.
Through it all, becoming a poet means not becoming someone who is excessively craft-driven and style-focused, no matter the popular trends of the day. Becoming a poet means not becoming someone who is a mindless partisan in the warring poetics of an era so much so that you forget that writing poetry requires accepting inconsistencies and mysteries — in both form and subject, in both manner and means, in both materials and artistic invention.
Becoming a poet is to realize that poets write poems and present them to others, and that readers take them as their own. Become a poet is a recurring state of alertness to being — each and every time you write a poem.
As a poet you resurface from the journey of writing, yes, and the poem then becomes published, anthologized, and, from time to time, fixed in the body and imagination of modern life. Then, that modern life becomes old. A new day brings new prospects for modernity. Therefore another poem, and another poet, is needed to bring meaning to the living world “under unbearable duress.”
That’s a given.
In the meantime, however, you have other real troubles as a poet, too, each time you write a poem and face a world of modernity that has not experienced personally what you have. You have troubles, too.
Writing a poem can satisfy your compulsion to write, maybe even satisfy your soul. Leaving the everyday world of time, entering your psyche, and reentering the everyday world with a new poem can be addictive and intoxicating. But, over time, you may become frustrated that readers do not understand the poems you are writing and that people are too consumed with their own lives to stop and comprehend poetry’s habits and transformational qualities.
I can understand the protest some poets make just to let people be and to write poems only for yourself and those predisposed to seek out contemporary poetry — the majority of whom are often fellow poets who are already initiated into the realm of poetry’s intoxications and joys.
I too can feel how living among our initiated sect of poets can sometimes feel that we are alien in our own time in modern life. We behave alike in order to confirm our membership in the group and to confirm our status outside everyday travails. We then even risk the crime of writing alike — and merely communicating in our insular fashion — in order to insulate non-poets from coming in contact with this priesthood of poets we have all joined.
But, I urge you: you will do better work as a poet to stress your relationship, not to the sect of poets, but to your alertness to the world. Your capacity for detachment from modernity is simply a natural hazard of being a writer.
Be on guard, however, always on guard, because you may become disillusioned by the disinterest modernity has in poetry. The public’s inattention may cause you to cling to your rabbit’s foot of a poem or the talisman of the ancient art of poetry that has existed for thousands of years in every language and every continent of human existence. Cling to it as if it is more than the world of living lives.
But the two worlds — the imaginary and modernity — are not separate. Poetry brings them together. Your capacity to maneuver back and forth from the imagined realm of writing poems to the lived realm of modern life, letting each inform each, consecrating what matters in both, attesting to the virtues and vices of both, is what it means to become a poet. Recalibrating yourself between the two realms, each and every time you write a poem, and between the times you write poems, is essential to becoming a poet.
Just as you can’t generate a new poem and revise it at the same time, you can only be either in your imagination or in your every day life. Not both at once. But that fact doesn’t quash — or overrule or revoke — what modernity offers the imagination or what the imagination offers modernity.
Readers of poetry have faith that, while not poets themselves (at least when they are in the act of reading a poem), they are only able to master your journey in poetry as a means to understand their own lives — not as a means to observe your journey alone.
Luckily, you get to have the journey first. The marvelous paradox is this: to read poems is to fully experience, not the actual experience that the poet had, but the figured experience that the reader has. To become a poet is to offer a reader the opportunity to be fulfilled with your vision as it transcends their modern life and as it reveals greater imaginary possibilities.
Becoming a poet is to be like the second-to-last person alive speaking out loud and interpreting the living world to the last person alive. Both by our living in modern times and by immersing ourself in the mastery of writing poems, we seek communion with those who also wish to relinquish what they fear and dream, what they accept and resist, in order to be renewed in the word and the world.
Becoming a poet is to consent to this medium of unity. Becoming a poet is to embrace the presence of this wonderful communion and then to return again and again with new figurations of life that we adore and honor as poems.