From My Bright Abyss
Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable. This is as true in life as it is in art. Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we were honest with ourselves, exhausted. What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us? This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem. The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it. All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love.
Art needs some ultimate concern, to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. As belief in God waned among late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artists, death became their ultimate concern. Dickinson, Stevens, Beckett, Camus – these are the great devotional poets of death. Postmodernism sought to eliminate death in the frenzy of the instant, to deflect it with irony and hard-edged surfaces in which, because nothing was valued more than anything else, nothing was subject to ultimate confirmation or denial. This was a retreat from the cold eye cast on death by the modernists, and the art of postmodernism is, as a direct consequence, less urgent. I suspect that the only possible development now is to begin finding a way to once more imagine ourselves into and out of death, though I also feel quite certain that the old religious palliatives, at least those related to the Christian idea of Heaven, are inadequate.
The three living novelists whose work means most to me are Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Fanny Howe (Indivisible), and Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping and Gilead). All these writers seem to me to have not only the linguistic and metaphorical capacities of great poets (Howe is a poet) but also genuine visionary feeling. My own predispositions have everything to do with my preference, of course: I believe in visionary feeling and experience, and in the capacity of art to realize those things. I also believe that visionary art is a higher achievement than art that merely concerns itself with the world that is right in front of us. Thus I don’t respond as deeply to William Carlos Williams as I do to T. S. Eliot, and I much prefer Wallace Stevens (the earlier work) to, say, Elizabeth Bishop. (To read “Sunday Morning” as it apparently asks to be read, to take its statements about reality and transcendence at face value, is to misread – to under-read – that poem. Its massive organ music and formal grandeur are not simply aiming at transcendence, they are claiming it.) Successful visionary art is a rare thing, and too much of it will leave one not simply blunted to its effects but also craving art that’s deeply attached to this world and nothing else. This latter category includes most of the art in existence – even much art that seems to be religious.
Some poets – surprisingly few – have a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its “thingness” and ramify beyond its own dimensions. Norman MacCaig: “Straws like tame lighnings lie about the grass / And hang zigzag on hedges.” Or: “The black cow is two native carriers / Bringing its belly home, slung from a pole.” What happens here is not “the extraordinary discovered with the ordinary,” a cliché of poetic perception. What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind, and matter, that reveals – and it does feel like revelation – a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see. Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.
What is poetry’s role when the world is burning? Encroaching environmental disaster and the relentless wars around the world have had, it seems, a paralyzing, sterilizing effect on much American poetry. It is less the magnitude of the crises than our apparent immunity to them, this death on which we all thrive, that is spinning our best energies into esoteric language games, or complacent retreats into nostalgias of form or subject matter, or shrill denunciations of a culture whose privileges we are not ready to renounce – or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament, that is much needed now, but it sometimes seems that we – and I use the plural seriously, I don’t exempt myself – are anxiously waiting for the devastation to reach our very streets, as it one day will, it most certainly will.