Monday, October 17, 2011

The sea grows old in it

The poet, like the electric [lightning] rod, must reach from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects down to the earth, and down to the dark wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures, his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen, and smelled and handled.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ah, Mr. Emerson. This seems about as good a description of poetry as one is likely to find. I love the image. Not a hand reaching up to grasp the hand of Zeus, the hurler of bolts, but merely a pointed rod that reaches higher than any surrounding objects. A pen-point, scratching the firmament. Not a conductor reaching down to the earth, but deeper, into the wet inkpot of the soul.

Not lofty thoughts, airy philosophies, gnostic arcana. Rather, ideas that come wrapped in the stuff of the senses. Ideas that must be unwrapped the way you'd peel an orange, pry open an oyster, stir up from the bottom of a bowl of soup.

The electric fire of the heavens captured and stored in the Leyden jar of physical self.

Take, for example, Marianne Moore's The Fish, a poem that has been endlessly analyzed without ever giving up its secrets. Anyone who stands on that rocky shore with the poet, looking into the wave-washed chasm -- the sea as fluid as breath, as hard as a chisel -- takes away a lesson as profound as any one might learn in school, perhaps without being able to articulate exactly what the lesson is. The experience is simply there, to be seen, smelled, handled, in the weave and wave of animal bodies, in the intricate rhyme and syllabication of the poem. Truth -- crow-blue, ink-bespattered, hatcheted, defiant.

I'd go further.

I'd say that Emerson's description of poetry can be equally applied to science, or to any human attempt to attract the spark of Zeus. One must lift one's rod beyond the scratch and tumble of the everyday, while keeping its foot buried in the dark wet soil of lived experience.