Dailiness: Essays on Poetry
By Mark Jarman
(Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 212 pp., $19.95)
“Daily life is the native country where we feel at home, wherever it may be, however it may manifest itself,” Mark Jarman reflects in the preface to Dailiness, his most recent book of critical prose (x). Whether by intention or happenstance, Jarman’s definition for the art he has practiced and regarded so incisively and vibrantly for more than four decades echoes a declaration made by Wallace Stevens’s in “The Man with the Blue Guitar:”
I am a native in this world
and think in it as a native thinks,
Gesu, not native of a mind
thinking the thoughts I call my own,
Native, a native in the world,
and like a native think in it. (CP 180)
The circuitous, essentially syllogistic motion of the sentence winding through and across Stevens’ pithy lines nudges the reader to consider, in the middle couplet’s disruptive swerve, how the sudden address to Gesu—Jesus—reveals a contrary idea of the mind, mind seemingly self-enwound, at a remove from the world inhabited by Stevens’s intensely ruminative thinker. Is Stevens’ calling on “Gesu”—somewhat more incidental it appears than earnest— a passing nod to some deep unease in the poet’s relationship with the world, and does it suggest, in fact, the antithesis of the prospects for poetry found in Jarman’s insightful and illuminating essays—his faith in the ultimate coherence of the world and the mind of the poet?
The son of a Protestant minister, author of four books on poetry and some eleven books of poetry including, most recently, The Heronry, Jarman has created a body of work deeply and persuasively attuned to the believer’s, at times, uneasy quest for the eternal encountered not above but within the everyday—its rhythms, mundanities, as well as its more cosmic resonances. Published at a moment in global history when the ordinary and even habitual experiences of life have been traumatically fractured by pandemic—and may very well take quite some time to recover if only for those who survive—a book with the title Dailiness rings more poignantly urgent than it otherwise might. “Dailiness,” as Jarman further considers, “like life itself is a serious joy if it is free of stress, pain, tragedy. (x) No matter how you may be separated from your art or your life, your desire is to return to it one day.” Indeed, the present moment has shown there is nothing remotely mundane in such a conception of art or of life.
Most of the ten essays in Dailiness found previous publication in such stellar journals as The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Blackbird, and The Sewanee Review, thereby potentially rendering the book something closer to a loose collection of individual pieces rather than a book constructed in view of the poet’s singular cast of mind. That is not the case with Jarman’s Dailiness. In addition to his obvious faith in the value of the quotidian for the making of poetry, and the making of a life, Jarman understands poetry as nothing less than a celebration of “being alive as an act of consciousness.” (xii) The idea that poems are created through deliberate conscious acts is dear to this poet, as is his affirmation that God must be regarded, assuming the poet is a believer like Jarman himself, as the first poet, the first maker. Every poem ideally has the creation for its original blueprint. The poem, in turn, understood as “a deliberate and conscious act,” even when not explicitly religious in content or theme, suggests something of the devotional, of the impulse toward ritual and prayer.
Coleridge’s idea in the thirteenth chapter of Biographia Literaria, that the primary human imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” is probably the most concentrated statement on the subject, and it is not surprising that Jarman calls on Coleridge in his excellent essay on poetry and repetition, “The Story of a Feeling.” The secondary imagination of the poet, for Coleridge, derives from the primary as the image of the Creator imprinted on human consciousness. Not surprisingly, Jarman raises the subject of consciousness to mind often and expressly in these essays. For example, to open his review essay on The Epic of Gilgamesh Jarman reflects that “if consciousness is a light, that fire from the gods to save humanity, then surely the light came on before the world’s oldest epic… was pressed into clay tablets.” The epic, he contends, is a record of that gift of consciousness, itself pervasively associated with language and deemed an irrefutable fact by William James, as Jarman notes. That phrase, “the gift of consciousness,” appears again in Jarman’s discussion of the question and answer form in Donne’s Holy Sonnet XII, again in “The Story of a Feeling;” and in the essay “Becoming and Going: Soul and Self in Four Poems,” he affirms the further mutual dependency of conscience and consciousness, both needing the other “if anything is going to get said.” (151). Suffice it to say that Jarman’s sensibility as a poet and critic characterizes itself with plainspoken sophistication rooted widely and securely in the best intellectual traditions of his art.
That sensibility is also undoubtedly rooted in his faith, which is why among his broader assumptions on the subject of poetry nearly half of the essays in Dailiness appeal explicitly to matters of the spirit as well as matters of the art. “To Make the Final Unity: Metaphor’s Matter and Spirit,” “American Devotions,” “Writing for God,” and the aforementioned, “Becoming and Going: Soul and Self in Four Poems,” all approach their aesthetic subjects critically through the framing lens of faith. Crucially, in his essay on metaphor Jarman takes his lead from St. Augustine in his Confessions, and his conception of two realms—the realm of likeness to Christ and the region of unlikeness, which is the realm of our habitable but sadly fallen world. For Jarman, we make metaphor in order to achieve what W.H Auden called “the restored relation,” the original image of which is found in Augustine’s conception of likeness in Christ. In such a view, the making of metaphor is an act of incarnational import, at least in some provisional sense. Jarman does not press the point, but he does show convincingly and compellingly how metaphor works through a kind of tensive “inexactitude” in which “the energy of the comparison between the tenor and the vehicle derives from its breakdown.” Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” serves as Jarman’s initial example, where in the third stanza Arnold’s metaphor of the Sea of Faith and its withdrawing roar misses the tide’s natural and inevitable return. The ramifications of that misalignment, which he traces through poems by Archibald McLeish, Philip Levine, Michelle Boisseau, Chase Twitchell, and W.S. Merwin, is exactly the point, for “when we make metaphor, we are making that world, and we test metaphors… against the world we know, the one which in itself lacks the meaning and unity of metaphor.” (27) Without the full theoretical apparatus, the postmodernist gap in language’s representation of reality here inverts, revealing the possibility of metaphor’s “surplus of meaning” to borrow Paul Ricoeur’s apt phrase.
One of the more impressive attributes of Jarman’s Dailiness is the range of poems and poets he addresses in each essay, though perhaps most especially in “American Devotions,” “Becoming and Going,” and “Something Like That: A Pronoun’s Life in Poetry.” Yet, it is not just the range that impresses, but the way in which Jarman quantum leaps, as it were, from poem to poem, poet to poet, with the express effect permitting the reader to trail and finally experience the surprising connections he discovers between and among various works, as if he had uncovered some spooky action at a distance running through his chosen examples. In “American Devotions,” these connections include not only poems by the self-evident company of Donne, Herbert and Hopkins, but strong readings of Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, Jean Valentine’s “Lucy,” Philip Levine’s “Letters for the Dead,” and Charles Wrights Sestets. “Becoming and Going” traces the birth of the poet’s soul through close readings of Hadrian’s “Animula, Blandula, Vagula,’ Eliot’s “Animula,” Mona Van Duyn’s “The Delivery,” Michelle Boisseau’s “The Obstinate Comedy” as well as a poem submitted to a workshop by one of his students, Sophia Stid. Jarman’s ability to find surprising, compelling, and instructive “wormholes” among a variety of poems and poets is perhaps most vividly on display in “Something Like That,” which tracks uses of the pronoun “something” (and the passing “nothing” via Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”) from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” through George Herbert, Philip Larkin, E.A. Robinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Creeley, Brenda Hillman, even George Harrison and Stephen Sondheim. This final essay in Dailiness, in its last move, places Jarman’s explorations within the distinctly broader and more spiritual context of something—call it love—that would establish a likeliness, and likeness, for everything, and not only the poet’s art.
Perhaps it goes without saying—saying once again—that in a book of essays titled Dailiness spiritual matters and metaphysical concerns pervade and, in fact, undergird, every page. Not surprisingly, Jarman’s central figure and outstanding exemplar is George Herbert, whose genius appears repeatedly and stands as the principal focus of “Writing for God.” In Jarman’s essay on Herbert, the understanding of poetry as a species of prayer arrives resoundingly into the book. Still, by then, the attentive reader should be entirely prepared for that acknowledgement by the two essays that precede it—“Writing as Daily Practice” and the eponymous “Dailiness.” These latter two essays attentively, evocatively, and generously explore Jarman’s own practice as a poet, and allow the reader into his imaginative workshop to gain insight, among other considerations, into the self-confessed “glacial pace” of his process of revision. A craft essay given at the Sewanee Writers Conference, “Dailiness,” along with “Writing as Daily Practice” and “Writing for God” comprise the heart of Jarman’s book. That heart is simultaneously prayerful and unsentimental, practiced and aspiring, as well as experienced in the ritual dailiness of life.
Poetry for Mark Jarman exists, finally, in intimate proximity to ordinary matters like birth, marriage, and death. If George Herbert is the presiding poetic spirit in these essays, then Jarman’s father is the presiding personal and familial spirit, and he appears not only in the book’s preface but in the fine review essay “You Are Not Finished,” on Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid, Book VI. The essay takes its title from the words Jarman’s father conveyed to those he would visit late in his life at retirement and community centers before his own death. They are words that resonate today, beyond matters of aesthetic reflection and regard, but with our present global condition; and with our dailiness, conceived now as a glass through which we might hopefully glimpse something—for once, as Jarman might echo Frost—and not so far away, but here, and now, within, and among us.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Jarman, Mark. Dailiness. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2020.
Paul Ricouer. The Rule of Metaphor. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Wallace Stevens. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990.
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