(This post originally appeared in October 2010.)
The poet Jane Hirshfield was last evening's guest of the college. As I read her work in anticipation of the visit, I found myself thinking of Rainer Maria Rilke, and in particular of the Duino Elegies, among my favorite poems.
"Does a poem enlarge the world,/ or only our idea of the world?" asks Hirshfield in one of her poems. She wrestles with the central paradox of artistic creation, a paradox that also concerned Rilke.
I recall reading somewhere that the painter Wassily Kandinsky could be transfixed, enraptured, by the sight of a collar button in the gutter. It is the nature of the artistic temperament to be acutely sensitive to the isness of things, what the photographer Edward Weston called "the thing itself." Hirshfield has a poem about a button ("It is its own story, completed," she writes). A button, a spoon, a blue mug. Tapioca, peaches, toast. The enrapturing insistence of the thing that exists independently of the artist who perceives it, even though we know that a thing cannot even be known to exist except in its perception. Still, the painter must paint and the poet must write because that too is part of the artistic temperament, but always there is an awareness of the unbridgeable distance between the thing and the expression of the thing.
"Why is it so difficult to speak simply?" asks Hirshfield in a poem. And in the very next poem she lets another artist answer:
"If you wish to move your reader,"Hirshfield continues:
Chekhov wrote, "you must write more coldly."
And so at the center of many great worksOne cannot, however, so easily escape the paradox:
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocentro perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds."
But still the vanishing point"Only when I am quiet for a long time," writes Hirshfield, "and do not speak/ do the objects of my life draw near." Near, yes, but always that irreducible gap, that disquieting lacuna inviting the pronoun I.
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.
Of course, what Hirshfield is dealing with here is not just the problem of artistic creation, but really the central problem of philosophy. How do we know? And how do we know that we know? What is the relation of the perceived particular -- in all of its redolent, enrapturing isness -- to the abstract general? How can we grasp the thing itself without the intrusion of the transformational I?
Silence and speech: These are the mutually annihilating qualities that define our humanness.
"Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate?" asks Rilke in the Ninth Duino Elegy. And Hirshfield:
I look at my unhandy hand,That is to say, to say. But Rilke adds: "But for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be."
Shaped as the hands of others are shaped.
Even the pen it holds is a mystery, really.
Rawhide, it writes,
and chair, and marble.
Praise the world to the Angel, not the untellable; you
can't impress him with the splendor you've felt; in the cosmos
where he more feelingly feels you're only a novice. So show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves.
Tell him things.