Let’s begin with endings. The first is the final sentence of James Agee’s lyrical meditation, Knoxville: Summer 1915, which serves as a prologue to his novel, A Death in the Family. The sentence goes like this: “Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-loved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am” (8). The second last sentence comes from Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men. Here is that sentence: “But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time” (661). Here we have the two poles of the discussion I propose: self and Time. I’m interested in what we mean by these terms and how they influence each other, and, of course, I’m interested to see what these terms suggest for literature and, more broadly, for the imagination.
I should also introduce as a preamble that some of my discussion is based on a work of cultural and moral criticism presented by Robert Penn Warren in his book from 1974, Democracy and Poetry. In this invaluable reflection Warren’s “aim . . . is to explore the necessary connection between poetry and our basic notion of democracy—American democracy.” Broadly, Warren views the course of American literature as a critique of the failings of the process of American democracy. It’s important to view our experience of democracy as a process—it’s a work-in-progress, by design. That means we may not approve of the state of our imperfect democracy given a particular moment, but in the long run—which may be generations—we stand the chance of getting it right, or more right. At the founding of our country, average citizens were promised the fundamental right to be considered individuals, as opposed to anonymous peasants. We were granted the right of self-determination; we were not, for once, mere subjects of an autocratic regime. This promise was not originally extended to all, as we know, but the principal of self-determination was clearly established and has served as a tool to move our democracy forward. Our status as individuals granted each of us the opportunity to be a self, and to embark on the journey of what that means. Here is what Warren has to say about the self:
As we live from day to day, our sense of personal identity seems to require no explanation. We simply ‘live’ our selfhood. But the concept of self, once scrutinized, is, as I am at least partially aware, enormously complex and problematical. . . .[T]here is no easy and ready orthodoxy. Since there is none, it may be useful, even at this date, to provide the reader with a guiding statement as to what I mean by the self: in individuation, the felt principal of significant unity.
The qualifiers felt and significant demand special comment. By felt I mean that I am here concerned, not with a theoretical analysis as such, but with what a more or less aware individual may experience as his own selfhood, and what he assumes about other individuals. By significant I mean two things: continuity—the self as a development in time, with a past and a future; and responsibility—the self as a moral entity, recognizing itself as capable of action worthy of praise or blame.” (xii-xiii)
Writing and thinking 45 years ago, Warren is offering his readers the long view. I agree: the long view gives us gravity and wisdom the immediate reaction cannot.
I may now sound as if I’ve always clearly grasped the writing of Robert Penn Warren, but that is not the case. I first read Agee’s novel, A Death in the Family and Warren’s novel, All The King’s Men, for an independent study in college. I enjoyed both novels and felt a personal connection to them. The novels seemed to speak to my own roots and my own family history, which were my deepest sources of knowledge when I set off for college. One could say I “identified” with the novels; I saw my “self” in them, even if the seeing was murky. Of course, I wasn’t seeing my complete self. I was about 20, after all, and my sense of self was not fully formed. It might still be forming for all I know. Perhaps I understood that the narrating character of both novels was engaged in the challenging and necessary process of finding himself, too. The narrator (or the writer) and the reader were sharing a walk through the “vale of soul-making,” as Keats puts it in one of his letters. That’s the vale, as in valley—the world—that’s there and constant before any human claim.
Several years ago, I recalled something rather embarrassing about my early encounters with literature, especially poetry. It’s ridiculous to admit, but I was a sophomore in college before I realized people still write poetry. I’d read and loved poetry all along and had even made some stabs at writing my own poems, but I thought poetry was over, gone with the death of poets like Frost and T.S. Eliot—the canon was still the imposing canon back then. I certainly believed poetry was old-fashioned, belonging to the horse-and-buggy days, but that is exactly what drew me to it. Belonging to another time and place was often something I wished for as a lad. Some of my embarrassment had to do with the way literature was taught. In my classes and in high school we only read dead writers. Literature was not presented as a living thing, but as something that was locked-up in the past. Some of the embarrassment simply belongs to my own background. Literature was not discussed in my home, and I had never heard of any writer ever coming from my neck of the woods, Kentucky. My interest in literature was, therefore, closeted; I had this growing passion, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it or where to seek guidance.
Then one day in a poetry survey I took my sophomore year this little wire-haired woman appeared in the classroom. Our professor circulated a few mimeographed poems to read and discuss. In a few minutes it became apparent that our visitor had in fact written the poems. It was Denise Levertov. The scales fell from my eyes, and I realized poetry was not dead after all and I was going to be okay. A person can sit down with an empty page and a pencil and make something meaningful out of thin air.
In college I also had no idea one could take a course in creative writing. So my entry into writing poetry began with reading it. And my early instinct was not to write poems about myself, but to write poems about things in the world. Putting myself in a poem seemed vain, untoward, uncouth. And my self did not seem particularly interesting or unique. I was much more interested in an encounter with the beauty and mystery of the world, with trees and rivers, and signs of things more lasting and permanent than a human life. It was many years, in fact, before I allowed my self to have an intentional presence in a poem; I had to work up to it, and it took until my fourth or fifth book before I was comfortable representing my self. Even then and after, my inclination is not to spend a lot of time on my self, because the world is still much more interesting and larger. Nowadays I’m more comfortable simply including my self in a broader poetic inquiry, as a companion to the process rather than the object of it. Poetry is in the world and is timeless. It does not belong to anyone. We partake of it, as we breathe in the air. To be honest, it is also a relief not to think very much about my self, or to feel compelled to make my poems all about me. I much prefer the freedom of letting the poem be itself. Attention to the craft of the art tells us that. If we get our craft in order and listen, the poem will be what it needs to be, and it will belong to the world.
As the exiles in Shakespeare’s As You Like It put it, being outdoors provides a release from the self, because the self now belongs to the world and is made by it. Duke Senior observes of his fellows’ retreat:
……………Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we not the penalty of Adam, The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, Which when it bites and blows upon my body Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘This is no flattery. These are counselors That feelingly persuade me what I am.’” (Act II, sc. 1, ll. 3-11)
The individual mind and body are interfused with the “woods,” the counseling trees, to confirm for the individual “what I am.” Even in the context of what is after all a comedy, Shakespeare’s old wisdom shines through these lines. In addition, we humans have this wonderful device called language. We have developed it as a means of connecting ourselves to the world, or more fundamentally, of articulating the connection that already exists. Language precedes the self—it exists before any of us, just as the world does, and language allows us to find ourselves in the world.
Now why should any of this need to be said? In short, we’ve gotten off track in the last little while. As our rights to be understood as individuals have generally increased, we have paradoxically enshrined the self as something that must be wounded, victimized, isolated, alien, and disconnected. It is in fashion currently to write the poem of otherness rather than oneness. This may be unavoidable, but I think it is shortsighted socially and culturally. Drawing a circle around the self to indicate one’s isolation is not an aesthetic; it’s a psychological gesture. We don’t go through the world solo. We go through the world together, and part of becoming meaningful individuals is to live with our togetherness. In our present moment the splintering of American society is coming willfully from the political right. But such splintering has also taken root on the political left. The ideology and supposed “values” on both ends of the spectrum are equally populated with reaction, intolerance, separatism, slogans, labels, arrogance, shabby jargon, and, above all, a desire to place passionate intensity in front of intelligence and understanding. Add to our inclinations this tool we call technology, which rather than being “social,” can easily backfire to create factions and a mob mentality, and the splintering is aided by our own ingenuity, and the self-seduction of what we think we’re doing.
We are in the midst of what the scholar Christopher Lasch described in his book from 1979, The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch takes stock of what became fashionable in the 1970s, the so-called self-help movement of the me-generation, the pop-psychology intended to help people “find” themselves, and not just find themselves, to surpass themselves. This cultural trend was accompanied by a similarly dubious claim for “living in the moment,” which made it an easy step to devalue the past and the wisdom and values we might retain from the past, and also cut us off from imagining the future. I would add that such isolation in Time and Being ultimately cuts us off from imagination itself. As we know from the myth, things end badly for Narcissus. Staring into the pool of water he doesn’t recognize himself, he doesn’t know who he is. He’s in the moment all right, but he doesn’t understand it at all. Perhaps the little screens so many of us peer into for hours in the day are serving as our own pool, causing us to lose sight of ourselves. But I won’t turn this into a punching bag. I’ll simply say our dependence on what we call technology cuts us off from the world to our peril. And being cut off from the world blunts our imagination and therefore diminishes our art.
If the self does not belong to the world—to the world of Time and Nature—then it cannot really achieve true selfhood. What kind of lives should we expect to live from that predicament? We have literature and the arts to entertain, but a deeper public function of art is to help guide the poor lost souls out there into finding themselves, and therefore art brings people to the world, or the world to people—it makes a vital connection, and invites the lost or unformed to belong, because that is what we’re supposed to do. Right now, the proposition that we should belong to the world and by so doing release the self from its vacuum goes considerably against the cultural grain. So be it. I am worried about our state of affairs, from the Narcissist-in-Chief we have in Washington, to our own narcissistic tendencies, and the tools we can’t turn off, one of which is egregiously called a “platform,” developed by a socially awkward teenage boy intended to help other socially awkward teenage boys meet girls.
Another parallel development has also taken place, particularly in the world of poetry. Poets and critics alike have decided poetry must be true, rather than aimed at discovering a truth in the world. The events and circumstances of a poem must have really happened to the poet. This means we have decided poetry must be autobiography, self-documentary, which is a serious limitation placed on the art and further encourages a tiresome narcissism. I often read a review that begins something like this: “The poems in X chronicle the harrowing circumstances of the poet’s struggle with Y.” This fad is particularly distressing because it implies we can have viable poetry without the poet resorting to her or his imagination, and without utilizing the truly liberating experience imaginary adventures provide. It stands to reason that if the self represented in the contemporary poem is isolated and disconnected from the World and Time, then that self is also disconnected from real imagination, and the resulting poem is merely an expression of shabby vanity. Such poetry will not do much for readers other than congratulate their own narcissism by confirming it.
In fact, some of the best poems ever belong wholly to the poet’s imagination, and not to her lived life. Does anyone believe Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is true? Are The Canterbury Tales a long self-documentary? Our friend, Mr. Warren, describes Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a “poem of pure imagination.” Let me underscore the importance of the imagination: it’s what a creative writer is supposed to be doing—the imagination is the creative part. Our tendency these days to write poems that seem true, often produces poems that are dour and humorless and many of them sound like flat prose—exactly the state of affairs we live with every day. Why shouldn’t the poem give us something we don’t already experience? And why shouldn’t the poem bring us out of ourselves and into the world? Poetry is intended to make human connections across Time, an endeavor very different from rendering self-isolation or self-exhibition. As studies have shown, social media tends to allow people to find their “group” and to speak only amongst their group, which strikes me as a dangerous form of segregation by choice. It’s also true that real poetry—lasting poetry—is almost completely contradictory to features of our current moment of insanity: it isn’t instant, for one thing; writing a good poem is actually hard to do and it may take considerable time; and here’s a biggie: the events or circumstances presented in a poem are under no obligation to be true. Poets are free to use fiction. A “made-up” literary reality is where we do our thing, yet we’ve strangely lost sight of this freedom that sits right in front of us.
During breakfast one morning, about a month before she turned three our daughter asked, “Mommy, what is God’s middle name?” My wife said, “Be. God Be God.” Then our daughter asked, “Is God a woman?” My wife said, “Yes, God is both woman and man.” This is just one of those unexpected exchanges that gets you thinking. I doubt my daughter was asking theological questions, at least not on purpose. I think she was simply voicing her curiosity. Something was playing in her mind—an effort to make a connection between something vast and beyond her to something she can actually grasp— having a middle name. Such a connection is often what we’re after in poetry or in art of any kind. “I shall arise and go now and go to Innisfree,” declares Yeats in his poem, imagining the mystical path between the gray pavement of reality and the ideal island with the bee-loud glade. What makes this well-known poem powerful is it inhabits poetic reality through an act of total imagination—the cabin Yeats imagines is never built, and Yeats himself knows he isn’t actually going to this island, and the humble garden will never be planted. Yet he is going there metaphorically; the dream of being there in that pastoral place of timelessness is a balm against industrial anonymity, cultural distraction, and spiritual alienation. The time-bound reality of the city pavement is replaced with the eternity of the pastoral vision, where the poetic self belongs.
In addition to formulating poetic questions, our daughter has also tried her hand at similes. She recently observed, “I think the clouds are like turtles with strong legs.” More recently still, Lillian inquired at breakfast, “Can we talk about rhymes?” When your child asks such questions, the parents pay particular attention. She’s demonstrating that language is the vehicle she will use in order to find her self one of these days.
Anyone with children knows the acquisition of language is a process of imitation beginning with hearing. Lillian repeats words she hears without knowing the meaning of the words. She says things in a tone she’s heard from her parents. I think acquiring language through imitation—through listening—is similar to the way one begins writing poetry: we read or hear a poem that impresses us and we attempt to write our own that matches it. Our early efforts are to write something that sounds like a poem. I’ve also observed with relief and delight that during the process of Lillian’s language acquisition she has no sense of self. She moves freely from reality to imagination with no barrier between the realms. In fact, although I’m not a cognitive linguist, I think Lillian’s sense of self is developing as a result of her language acquisition. Obviously, other factors will come into play, but it’s evident to me that her fundamental sense of being—limited at the moment—is closely bound to her sense of language, in her case, the language is English, though we encourage a smattering of French, Spanish, and Italian. Over time she will move from being to self, to encounter, as Warren says, “the felt principal of significant unity,” which I would say is the fullest sense of Being. We’re also teaching Lillian the names of trees and birds and how to identify them, because that is the world to which her self already belongs.
For the serious student and the committed reader, literature is continuous. Eventually, designations of literary periods and fashions fade and cease to matter. What can be appreciated in a poem from the Decadent era may also be appreciated in a poem from an obscure 18th-century writer—and our curiosity ought to encourage us to take such adventures. And literature is there for the serious writer as a public resource. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Tender is the Night, draws its title from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country For Old Men, borrows its title and possibly more from Yeats’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” These easy examples imply that literature is always in dialog with other literature, often literature of very different styles and eras. Too many poems that I encounter today, however, are cut off from any reference to other literature, especially older literature, as if one can write poetry in a vacuum. It was Aristotle who observed, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” another way of saying it’s all connected, friends, interdependent and integrated through Time. That is why the human self must undergo the journey of belonging to the world and forego the temptation to exist merely in a static “selfie” pose. The poem that represents a self going-it-alone, I suppose, is an effort to make that self appear singular or unique, but it is unintentionally a representation of a self cut off from the “continuity” and “responsibility” Warren observes in Democracy and Poetry. In our worst moments we feel as if we’re going-it-alone, but we get through such moments by discovering we are not. So the go-it-alone version of the self that has become prominent in contemporary poetry is not only narcissistic—that is, blind to its vanities and limitations—it isn’t terribly developed or aware of its own possibilities to grow and to be connected to the World and Time. Incidentally, Mr. Warren wrote a novel called World Enough and Time, lifting his title from Andrew Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” The poem and the novel are separated by 300 years and the Atlantic Ocean. There’s another claim for the value of the long view.
One morning in August of 2016 I woke up to the news of a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. I read part of an account of the shooting in the newspaper. Until I reached the point where the article noted that midway through the shooting the shooter had paused to see if his actions were famous yet on Facebook. They were. At that point I stopped reading the article. I had the sudden realization that we are living in an age when a person can be persuaded to believe that his sense of self can be conferred instantly by technology. Then I thought, what a puny and malformed sense of self one must have in order to fall into such mindless narcissism. Checking one’s “Facebook status” in the midst of committing monstrous violence is common, it turns out, in many of the mass shootings we’ve suffered. If self-obsession and self-blindness can lead to such violence and suffering, it seems we should expect a different self from literature, which I shall later call, a unified self. Literature exists to lift us up, to bring us together, and to help us belong to the World and Time. We cannot let the eternal value of literature be trammeled by the tidal wave of narcissism that’s out there.
Somewhere in my scattered notes I wrote down this observation: one thing a poet or writer can do through imaginative writing is to do it well. That means one assumes the obligation of being a defender of the language, one who stands for the integrity of the language as well as the values and principals the language is used to articulate and refine. I have no idea when I scribbled down this claim and I’m not sure what prompted it. Perhaps it comes implicitly from my belief that language is a shared resource; it’s supposed to be a common good. And the things we make with language—beauty and truth, to name two—ought to matter in our culture, and if such matters appear to be endangered then we have to step up our game. We also have to be on the watch when language is used as a blunt instrument to spread lies, propaganda, and hatred. At a less severe level we also have to call foul when language is used poorly. The word pivot, for instance, has become co-opted by the pundits in the last few years. Often some talking head will say that so-and-so politico will have to “pivot” away from one stance on an issue and take a different route in order to gather support. This is stealing a very nice word, pivot, not only from basketball, in order to apply it to the most shallow and callous realm of rhetoric, it is also a theft of the word as it was used by Herman Melville to describe Ahab’s habit of jabbing his whale-bone appendage into a hole on the deck of The Pequod in order to turn himself into a human compass as he scans 360 degrees of horizon for signs of the white whale. “Pivot” in this older sense has to do with circular motion, and the continuity that motion implies. The same word is used by the pundits and spokespeople out there to signify digression, departure—a subtle, but revealing misuse of the language, indicating sloth and ignorance at best and at worst a kind of propaganda.
Toward the end of his essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell, however, offers us a bit of a monkey wrench. He observes, “it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a window pane” (320). I interpret this to mean that good literature doesn’t begin and end with the self; instead, good fiction and poetry always reach beyond the self. We have to expect this reach beyond the self both as readers and as writers. Another reflection I value from an earlier writer comes from Eudora Welty. Here is what she has to say in the introduction to the 1980 edition of her Collected Short Stories:
“I have been told, both in approval and accusation, that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.”
I sometimes encounter a blurb or a review of a novel that describes the work as “believable,” as if that’s a compliment. Aren’t we more interested in literature that strains believability? If we’re interested in fiction and poetry that are merely “believable,” which today must also mean the work comes “believably” from the writer’s “self,” and is therefore “authentic” (another poorly used word), then it suggests we’re only interested in the here and now sans any imaginative oomph, which is both a limited way of being and a shallow expectation of art. I cite The Tempest as a play that is completely unbelievable, yet 400 years later it’s a play still very much alive, because Shakespeare’s imagination comes from a self that belongs to the World and Time. Orwell’s monkey wrench is an implicit challenge: what is a writer supposed to do with her self if, in order to write well, she must “efface [her] own personality?” The answer as I shall attempt to elucidate is she must realize her real self is found in the World.
Allow me to say what I mean by the World and how we might live in it. The worst things that ever occur in all history originate in the human mind—from slavery to pogroms, from bots to the various forms of on-line shaming, from clear-cutting the rain forests to the Keystone pipeline, from penal colonies to shooting up a nightclub; yet, perhaps the opposite is also true: the best things in the world originate in the human mind, such as democracy and civil rights. But I actually stop short of such claims, because after all there is this place we call the world—the land, the mountains and valleys, the rivers and oceans, the air, icicles, birds and bees, and all the wonderful creatures, and rocks, and fossils, and worms, and microbes in the soil, and one of my favorites, clouds, and another favorite, tiny flowers we give names, like Meadow-Rue and Mouse Ears. The world is the World, the earth, we come from it and we belong to it. It is our sacred home, and we did not build it. As Frost says, the land is the gift outright. People who spend their time in limousines and garish buildings might forget such a simple fact.
Every civilization I can think of begins with the land. In Genesis it’s the Garden of Eden. In India it’s the Ganges River valley. In Egypt it’s the Nile River delta. For certain American Indian groups it’s the high plains of the American west. For William Faulkner it’s a fictional county in north Mississippi. Over time people develop a relationship to the land, because the land is their home and provides their sustenance. As such, people realize they must take care of the land—they must be stewards of this original gift. As the relationship between people and the land matures, culture blossoms out of it. And by culture I mean practical matters like government, economy, and basic rights, as well as religion, and the arts. If a people cease to have a healthy relationship to the land, then the land itself suffers first, and alas, the culture suffers, and pretty soon the people suffer as well—because they cease to belong to the land and instead belong nowhere, and that physical alienation unsurprisingly diminishes the self. Although I’m offering what sounds like an agrarian model, this basic structure obviously applies to cities as well. It’s common for a city dweller to “know” her neighborhood, or her block, or the tenants of her building. The city is very often a “place” to which one belongs—and not just a home or a residence, I mean “belonging” as in feeling roots in the ground. However, if the human relationship to the land is unhealthy, or, if we are so distracted by immediacy that we fail to realize we must belong in the world of weather and trees and oceans and watersheds and ecosystems and microbial life in the soil, and by belonging recognize our shared obligation to take care of the world that permits us life—which is where Americans are now—then we should not be surprised when our need to find ourselves or pump air into our deflated sense of self reaches a crisis or becomes a constant need. Some of our imperiled experience of self comes from outside forces, to be sure, from malign political policy to faceless corporate greed, from organized hate groups to gun fanatics. But some of our imperiled sense of self belongs to us, to our often lazy and lethargic human tendencies, to our inclination to find the shortcut, or the easy way out. Here’s a news flash: there isn’t a shortcut or an easy way out. A partial line I always recall from Oliver Goldsmith’s long poem of 1770, “The Deserted Village,” is this: “Ill fares the land!,” by which Goldsmith means all of it: the land itself, the culture that once thrived on the land, and the people who once created the culture from the land where they used to live with knowledge and purpose. In this poem Goldsmith is objecting to the consequences of industrialization, which requires depletion of resources on a massive scale and sucks individuals into membership of the anonymous masses. For generations the pay-off for the loss of self due to industrialized mass-culture has been materialism—money and the stuff money can buy. We should realize this isn’t a fair trade.
In correspondence with several of my students in recent years I’ve come to claim there is something called “poetic reality,” by which I mean the particular “reality” created by the poem or novel, composed in part or wholly by the writer’s imaginative faculties. We do this all of the time perhaps without being aware of it. If one composes a simile, for instance, claiming that, “he rustled his hand like a rake through the drawer of junk,” we see what I mean. There is some reality here: a man’s hand searching through a junk drawer—a perfectly common action. But to invoke the action of “rustling” escapes actual reality and introduces an association with leaves; and to compare the man’s hand to a rake is to call on an image that isn’t there at all—it’s pure invention. This simile also transports—the “actual” image takes place indoors, but the invented image takes place out in the yard. So, we put together this plausible reality with the pure invention and we suddenly find ourselves occupying what I call poetic reality, or more broadly, literary reality.
Here is another example, a simple sentence that entails a metaphor: “She perched quietly in the rigging of private thought then pulled the sheets off the line.” There is a personal reality here for me, a fond memory I have of lying under billowing sheets as my grandmother removes them from the clothesline, with the tops of pine trees dancing overhead. I look up and see her face, lost in wordless thought. That much is real. But to claim she is “perched quietly in the rigging” introduces the language of sailing—suddenly this isn’t a clothesline scene, it’s the scene of an austere, silent ship with a woman wearing a black dress who has climbed to the top of a mast. Once the imagery is complete, we can imagine the clothesline poles resemble masts of a ship and the clothesline can resemble the rigging of a ship, and the sheets resemble sails. But a real ship isn’t anywhere around. Because the metaphor is elaborated in this sentence, the poetic reality becomes more vibrant than actual reality: the language is not merely interested in description, it’s interested in transformation.
Neither of the sentences is a revelation of the personal self. “He rustled his hand like a rake through the drawer of junk.” “She perched quietly in the rigging of private thought then pulled the sheets off the line.” Both sentences are focused beyond the personal self to observe the man at the drawer and the woman at the clothesline. But both sentences suggest something about the poetic self: they demonstrate what and how the poetic self observes when peering through the looking glass of the poem. And this means both the writer and the reader first encounter the poem itself, as if it’s a thing in the world. It is indeed a real thing in the consecrated realm of poetic reality.
What kind of self plays in this sort of playground, where the distinction between the actual and the imaginary is blurred? My short answer is the poetic self, a self one creates by taking root in the ground and Time of reading and hands-on practice. Ideally, the poetic self is complete, not in quest of its selfness, emotionally mature, at ease, and open to any adventure one can take with language. The poetic self is also perfectly at home in the realm of poetic reality, because that realm requires imagination and invention in order to exist.
Here is the catch to all of this. The poetic self cannot be formed until the personal self of the writer is established, achieving what I shall call the unified self. Descartes famously divided the mind from the body, introducing the sometimes useful dualism we lean on to wade through certain intellectual waters. It’s the old mind-body divide, which places the mind above the body, and claims that what the mind grasps constitutes reality. Cartesian philosophy depends on logic and rationality, implying that those modes are the highest order of thought. As I say, this philosophy may be useful, but it excludes the function of the imagination; Cartesian philosophy is also materialistic, emphasizing physical reality—what we know must have a physical manifestation in order to verify the knowledge. Poetic reality, however, because it is “half-created” by the imagination, often registers matters that are counterintuitive, because there truly are things we can grasp that escape logic and rationality. History clearly tells us such truths. Art tells us other irrational, invisible truths. In order to appreciate art and in order to create it, the artist must achieve unified selfhood, and a unified self does not separate the mind from the body. In fact, a unified self is a triangular structure, requiring the integration of the mind and the body and the world. In my formulation the “world” is composed of Nature and Time. We might substitute “place,” broadly understood, for the world. The idea is one truly discovers one’s self in the World. Our being depends on a place to be, a place to which one belongs. And ultimately it is this belonging that completes a unified being. A unified being then goes on with the work of participating in a culture, and may along the way create some literature.
Diagram of the Unified Self
………World/Nature/Time (Where we are; where we come from)
……….|…..unified……..| the force that draws together the three points of the triangle
……..|……..self…………..| is the imagination, operating in an outward turning spiral
……|……………………………..| thus the model is expansive and connective, rather than isolating
(what we think)…………..(what we do)
Poetry must be more than a means to perpetuate the idol of the self. And the poet, it should be obvious, is under no obligation to begin with the self or to fiddle with the self at all. Amazing! We’re free! Speaking of fiddling, Marianne Moore has something to say on the subject. In her hundred-year-old poem, called—what else?—“Poetry,” she observes:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. …..Reading it, however with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in …..it after all, a place for the genuine. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise …..if it must, these things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are …..useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the …..same thing may be said for all of us, that we …..…..do not admire what …..…..we cannot understand: the bat …..…..…..holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under …..a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base- …..ball fan, the statistician—case after case …..…..could be cited did …..…..…..one wish it; nor is it valid …..…..to discriminate against “business documents and
school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction …..however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, …..nor till the poets among us can be …..…..“literalists of …..the imagination”—above ……….insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”, shall we have …..it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion— …..the raw material of poetry in …..…..all its rawness, and …..…..that which is on the other hand, …..…..…..genuine, you are interested in poetry.
I love that Moore rhymes “‘literalists of’” with “‘the imagination’—above,” and “shall we” with “poetry,” suggesting this is not a solo endeavor, but a collective, human effort to be in the World and therefore belong to it. This is some pretty, strange music. While this poem clearly presents Marianne Moore’s views, it is not a poem about her. If this is a poem about the self in any way, it is about the sense of self we have in common, especially when our curiosity leads us to peruse a poem written by someone else, perhaps by someone we’ve never heard of. I’d say this poem reaches beyond the self, and is staking the claim that the poem is in the World, and one “interested in poetry” simply goes looking for it. Going into the world ought to stimulate one’s imagination, and more.
Going into the world happens to be something I did as a boy. When I was 8 my grandparents gave me a portable tape recorder, about the size of a shoebox. My habit was to load the tape recorder with batteries and an empty cassette tape and take off into the woods. I’d walk in the woods and along streams making up stories off the cuff, recording the so-called tales as I went. These tales usually involved mountain-men, frontier adventures, rescuing an injured animal, or some combination of these materials. In terms of these materials, though, I was inventing things that weren’t really there. The woods were simply the place where my boyish narrative inventions could happen. When both sides of the cassette were full I went home. At night I would listen to the tape over and over. This was my bedtime “reading” for a period. Except it wasn’t really reading. It was listening, and in the background of my voice I could hear the real rustle of leaves and the real sound of trickling water. Years passed before I thought more carefully about this formative experience. What was I doing? I wasn’t trying to find my self, nor was I initiating my august literary career. I was doing something much more basic and vital: I was beginning the process of belonging to the world, at least the world I was able to encounter at the time. Forty-four years later that is pretty much the world I belong to still. At the age of 8 I had no idea what literature was and certainly had not read anything that could be described as literature, but I was doing something that would be important for my later literary self, and I would one day realize that literary self began before I knew anything about it, in the World.
The literature I encountered as a youth that really stuck was never encountered in school or in a book. It was in the world. One such couplet I’ve recalled all these years I encountered in a truck stop restroom. I entered the stall and noticed a few scraps of graffiti on the wall. One went like this:
Here I sit my buns a-flexin’, Just gave birth to another Texan.
Nearby was another claim:
The shithouse poet strikes againe!
I still think the anglicized “againe” is a nice touch. This is the sort of stuff that makes an 8-or-10-year-old boy marvel at the world and the wonders to be found in it. The subject of a poem is almost irrelevant. As readers we are tolerant of most any subject, from a red wheel-barrow to a snake, from a psychological crisis to a broken marriage, from the clarity of a memory to the fog of obscurity, from grief to praise. The work of composing a good poem is in the details, the craft of the line and syntax, the music of the phrasing, the imagery and other figures, the sophistication of the metaphor—in other words, the poem’s formal features, whether they are conventional or invented for the specific purposes of the poem. And tending to the poem’s formal features requires invention, that is, the old imagination has to be in the ON position. The bawdy poet just quoted had something imaginative going on in order to rhyme “a-flexin’” with “-er Texan.” It must have been a delight for this anonymous soul to inscribe that couplet on the filthy wall. If we don’t take delight in our work then we’re missing part of what it means to be a writer.
And yet, I realize we are increasingly faced with some very human questions. Is the real world we must live in irredeemably violent? Are human suffering and the destruction of Nature inevitable? Are the collapse of cultures and civilizations unavoidable facts of history? The answer is no, but merely rejecting such possibilities is too simple. I think we must accept that there are people in the world who subscribe to such nihilistic views, and there have been a smaller number, historically, who promote such views. Those of us who reject irredeemable violence and waste and fraud and greed and deception and self-importance, must do two things. We must be candid and admit the real presence of such evil forces, and we must at the same time find ways around them, to subvert them, to expose their sham, and to create a way forward that is sane, decent, and hopeful. That’s what I think true creativity is—an expression of hope, even if it also registers despair. It’s a paradox that leads to the peace that passeth understanding. If we get outside ourselves and beyond our particular selves to inhabit a world-conferred self of belonging, from which we are inspired to add creation to Creation, then we can find that sort of peace. And taking up such a quest is what we’re supposed to do, with patience, forgiveness, and hard-earned wisdom. And then we’re obliged to give it back to the World and Time, to keep the richness of life alive. It is a hard fight, but we are on the side that will prevail. Civilizations come and go, but their arts have a curious way of surviving them.
Consider this rather loaded stanza from Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls,” written way back in the 1380s. This poem, composed in the rhyme royal stanza Chaucer introduced to English, presents a search for love in all of its forms, but we might also hear in the yearning a desire to get hold of poetry. Certainly the language is suggestive of the hands-on task of making art:
The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne, Th’ assay so sharp, so hard the conqueringe, The dredful joye alway that slit so yerne, Al this mene I by Love, that my feelinge Astonieth with his wonderful werkinge So sore, ywis, that whan I on him think, Nat woot I wel wher that I flete or sinke.” (ll. 1-7)
The practice of love in its various forms, as in literary practice, partakes of the world, depends on time, and requires any self to go beyond itself. Love and literary craft both also require imagination and involve more than a little ambiguity. As Chaucer says, we often don’t know whether we’re floating or sinking, we simply know we’ve plunged into the water.
The language and figuration a poem uses may reveal the state of the poet’s mind or mood. This is often the case in the inward-gazing personal lyric. But the language and figuration of a poem may also reveal features of the actual world, and that usually requires an outward-gaze, a dependence on the tangible things of the world perceived by human senses, and the hard words we use to register such perception. This is often the case with narrative poems, because, presumably, a story happens in the world of touch and taste, sight and sound, and smell—the world of action and doing and solidity. Yet even the personal lyric can utilize the language and figures of the world, if the poet allows the poem to escape his or her personal barnyard. If the poetic self rightly belongs to the World, then the poem will come from the World and belong to it as well, and the reader will therefore have the satisfying experience of belonging to that rich poetic world. If these kinds of assertions have any validity, then I should say I’ve ceased to talk about craft, and have now veered into what I think of as the poet’s stance, how we approach the effort and obligations of writing well and beyond the self, the clarified starting point from which we begin the murky labor of returning literary expression to the world that originates it.
A friend of mine recently noted how much he loved T.S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” the third section of Four Quartets. Both of us being Kentucky boys, we admitted that neither of us was sure how to pronounce “Salvages,” but we also agreed how much we like the poem. I’d say the language of the poem sounds familiar, and therefore we feel we, too, belong to the complicated, not quite happy world of the poem, as it makes its way through a spiritual reckoning of an intelligent and austere poetic self with the realities of the world. Here is the first stanza of “The Dry Salvages” to get the language in our ears:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable, Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier; Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable, Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting. His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom, In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard, In the smell of grapes on the autumn table, And the evening circle in the winter gaslight. (ll. 1-15)
These lines, published in 1943, may speak to our own time as well, in particular, to “what [we] choose to forget,” or don’t even realize we’ve forgotten, and our worship of various machines. It’s worth noting that each section of Four Quartets is named for a real place in the world. “The Dry Salvages,” refers to a group of rocks off the coast of Massachusetts. I mention this because I want to point out that a poem so concerned with the human spirit is actually set in the World, and therefore in Time.
I first read Four Quartets in a graduate seminar expertly and generously taught by Andrew Hudgins. It was fortunate that I encountered this poem under Andrew’s leadership. He understands poetic ambition is not an ego trip for the poet. Rather, true poetic ambition is to write a poem that matters to the real world we all live in, and so escapes the province of the mere poetic self, and the perspective and personal experience all of that entails. When we’re talking about a major poetic achievement, we are ultimately talking about things that matter to us all, through all Time. The great poem is the human and worldly poem, the poem that places itself in Time and is there for all, and is there for the World. The personality and the ego of the poetic self who may have made the poem are actually gone, and the poem enters the world as a paper boat set free in a stream to float away and to be claimed by Time. Few poems have such a life; rarity is an unmistakable feature of our art. The bar is high and the odds are against us, but the adventure of doing the work is its own reward.
Sadly, we’re not looking these days for a poem as comprehensive and demanding, or as beautiful, as Four Quartets. Instead, we’re attentive to the poem that speaks well to the moment, and our gut-instinct perception of the moment. Poetry now is all too often the quick response to a reality that will be different tomorrow. Great art, however, feeds us through all Time and leads us forward as we fold “identity” into the unified self, and seek to belong to the complexities of the World, not as isolated souls, but as a vast and varied community of Being.
“No man is an island entire of himself,” said Old John Donne. I would add no poem is an island entire of itself. We all belong to the World and to Time. Eliot’s claims about the strong brown god of the river are not unlike the observations Langston Hughes makes in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The language, and imagery, and the “distance” of self from subject, are remarkably similar. Yet in both poems, the self is swallowed by the twin rivers of the World and Time.
The object of the poem is to meet the World. This involves bringing the poetic self into the World, and that creates a poetic reality. In that realm the poetic self occupies a spectrum, spanning from detailed memory on one end to detailed imagination on the other. This is the span of Time, with a capital T. Ideally, one should go beyond memory to history. And then, going forward, one should imagine not the future, but timelessness. The two poles of the spectrum often draw from each other, blurring the line between memory and imagination. This blurry poetic reality is necessarily blurry because it is composed of the actual and the imaginary with no beginning or end. At some level then, once the poetic self is hovering in the World of poetic reality, the poem itself is out of the poet’s hands. The self has escaped the self. The poem becomes itself.
Obviously one’s work usually falls short of such a standard, and perhaps that’s unavoidable. What did Beckett claim? “Fail again, fail better.”
I’d like to conclude by observing the journey of the self in Louis Simpson’s poem from the early 1960s, “Love, My Machine.”
Love, My Machine
Love, my machine, We rise by this escape, We travel on the shocks we make.
For every man and woman Is an immortal spirit Trapped and dazed on a star shoot.
Tokyo, come in! Yuzuru Karagiri, do you read me? San Francisco, darkest of cities, do you read me?
Here is eternal space, Here is eternal solitude. Is it any different with you on earth?
There are so many here! Here’s Gandhi, here’s Jesus, Moses, and all the other practical people.
By the light of the stars This night is serious. I am going into the night to find a world of my own.
This is from Simpson’s book, At The End of the Open Road, a title that references Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” (found in Leaves of Grass, a book I also studied first, in its whole, with Andrew Hudgins, incidentally). We understand therefore, that Simpson is hearing voices other than his own—and that’s a good thing. On the back of Simpson’s book is an excerpt from a review published in the Kansas City Star. The comments nicely summarize what I’ve been hoping to articulate: “Simpson’s poetry has the unusual virtue of making connection with the larger realities—some of them public—of present experience. He escapes the limitations of the self, but maintains his poetic identity. . . . His love lyrics achieve a balance of sensualism and intellectualism akin to wisdom—the truth of poetry. Simpson is one of the finest poets writing today.” My only quibble with this quote is why should “making connection with the larger realities” be considered an “unusual virtue?” I think making such connections is what the whole endeavor is about! This is a keyhole-glimpse of the state of American poetry and criticism from over 50 years ago. Do we still turn to poetry for, of all things, wisdom? Do we anticipate a poet who can “escape the limitations of the self?” In our present age of immediacy and distraction do we even know what wisdom is? Are we at risk of diminishing the true purpose of selfhood by being too possessive of it?
Simpson’s poem offers a singular perspective, but the self of this poetic voice is universal, comprehensive, expansive. The “I” escapes the clutches of the self, with purpose and good humor, and with a ding-dong of wisdom. It evokes a world we know, yet don’t know in the ways of the poem; it presents a refreshing and relieving way of Being. The reader, above all, is involved in this poem as if we are the recipients of its affection and, surely, we are glad for the invitation to be there, with the reality of this poem, with the interwoven realities of literature, and with the timeless World that claims us as her own.
The crisis of the self that is everywhere evident did not begin with the presidential election of 2016. It is a problem we have struggled with for a long time. The goal, however, is not to fragment the self or to particularize it. Instead, the object is to belong to the World, as trees and rivers do, and thereby permit the World to unify the self, so that our Being in the world is just and complete and integrated with all other Being. This has been both our desire and our responsibility from the beginning. I believe literature can help us satisfy that desire and fulfill the responsibility we have to ourselves and to Time.