These Living Walls of Jet: Visiting the Open Houses of Poetry

By | 1 May 2012
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

from Czeslaw Milosz ‘Ars poetica?’

When Horace coined the phrase ut pictura poesis his aim was to encourage people to treat poetry as seriously as its sister art painting. These days painting and poetry, like all the creative disciplines, have one great plight in common: they must prove their immanence to a society that has relegated them to the status of entertainment (the exception, as Auden once pointed out, is cooking). So it’s not surprising that Horace’s phrase has been modified countless times over the last century to compare poetry to just about everything. In arguing here for poetry’s presence as an essential part of our own culture I leave it to the reader to decide whether the use of that holy realm of real estate as a point of comparison is apt, or merely indicative of a histrionic poet.

Let me start by asking you to imagine a house. Not your own home, but a dwelling you visit as a guest or stranger for the first time. Think about that moment of entering with all your senses on high alert. You take notice of the furnishings approvingly or disapprovingly, and you find yourself tempted to interpret the character of the occupants from the objects collected. But there is also something about being in an unfamiliar room that makes you feel slightly different yourself. You move around to get an idea of the place; you observe the way the windows frame the world outside; you start to feel at home or out of place, excited or dull; and all the time you’re taking your bearings anew, as if being in a new space stimulated you to experience yourself in a new way.

In Italy, on entering a house as a guest, especially for the first time, it is customary to say ‘permesso?’, which literally means ‘permission’, as in, ‘May I?’. This expression has become so customary that rather than being inflected as a question it is often stated as if the word were part of a ritual for acknowledging the moment of crossing a threshold into a new world.

I wanted to begin by evoking this sensation because I see similarities with the way we encounter a poem. The word ‘stanza’, which we use to denote the paragraphs into which poems are divided, come from the Italian word for ‘room’. John Donne was aware of this we he wrote ‘The Canonization’, the fourth stanza of which contains one of my favourite Donne lines:

Wee can dye by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tombes or hearse
Our legend bee, it will be fit for verse;
And if no peece of Chronicle wee prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty roomes;
As well a well wrought urne becomes
The greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombes,
And by these hymnes, all shall approve
Us Canoniz’d for Love.

‘We’ll build in sonnets pretty roomes’ is characteristic of Donne’s wit and playfulness. For Samuel Johnson it might have been a perfect example of the Metaphysical’s intellectual showiness – Donne more interested to prove he can pun across languages, than to write poetry. But for me there is something about Donne’s ostentatious metaphor that resonates with deeper truths. Indeed I want to explore how a poem is a room, one in which words find space to harmonize with each other in fresh ways, and in which we as readers come to experience ourselves and take our bearings anew.

The obvious starting points are those verbal echoes of rhyme, alliteration, and other figures of repetition and variation that create a verbal architecture in the poem. This architectural analogy is not limited to traditional verse. All poetry must have a structural integrity, at the level of form, theme, syntax, word. A trope evoked frequently in creative writing classrooms in this context is that of the puzzle. The writer searches doggedly for the exact word to fit a particular passage. Once it has been found it becomes clear that it could only be that word and no other, as if words were jigsaw pieces. It is a limited simile, though, because it suggests a static system in which each element has only one ideal place. Similarly, in using architectural images here, I do not want to suggest that words are locked in place, riveted like structural traves that may bring down the house if one is removed. Language is a dynamic system. Czeslaw Milosz is closer to the state of things when he talks of the art of studying the possible relationships and connections between words; what Coleridge once described (using a neologism of Donne’s, incidentally) as the ‘interinanimation of words’. Like the house of language which, for Heidegger, became a metaphor for our active dwelling in the world, the rooms of poetry are fluid spaces of encounter.

The most important of these encounters is perhaps with language. Dylan Thomas once described how poems are not a still-life, or an experience put down on paper, so much as an event that can be transformative. Unlike its showier cousin, prose, poetry doesn’t often rely on those two cornerstones of dynamism: plot and character. It has a different sort of energy, one which lies in language itself. Indeed, in many ways language is the protagonist of poetry. In a poem every word is a proper noun. As the Italian scholar Remo Ceserani says, language functions as a sort of Greek chorus: moral voice, archetype and collective unconscious. Never neutral, invisible or plain, despite the repeated efforts of certain strains of realism. Seamus Heaney saw language as a current that sweeps us up. The poem’s impetus may start in personal experience, but it moves beyond that quickly: ‘sound and meaning rise like a tide out of language to carry individual utterance away upon a current stronger and deeper than the individual could have anticipated’.

Importantly, it is the stanza of poetry that allows language to take on the role of heroine. The successful poem is one in which the reader enters to take stock of herself, and of language, just as a tourist might enter a church or a temple simply to take a deep breath. But like us, words too, need these refuges. Often language is so battered and dematerialized that individual words appear threadbare. A poem aims to create the context in which words can resonate more richly. It’s like going to a wedding: the intimacy and sense of occasion are such that when the speakers stand to evoke words and ideas that elsewhere would sound like clichés, they rediscover an authenticity that moves the audience to tears.

The community that comes together to celebrate a wedding, reminds us that focusing exclusively on language, and its experience by the self, can be dangerous. For there is another sense in which poetry has been a refuge from the world. For much of the twentieth-century the ‘I’ has found itself in crisis in Western literature. Modern life tends to alienate us from any communality, and shut us up within our subjective selves like isolated bubbles of relativism. This hyper-subjectivism makes it more and more difficult to believe in the reality of other people and the world around us. Fragmentation, a lack of encounter with the sacred, and a monotone impressionism characterize much of our artistic production. The poem has become a bunker or barricade for the self in its two extremes of subjectivity: confessionalism and hermeticism. Such a state of affairs was also felt in Donne’s age. The Copernican Revolution seems to have led to a cultural crisis not dissimilar to our own, at least as the ‘Anatomy of the World’ describes:

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kinde, of which he is, but hee.

The phoenix is a wonderful figure of comparison for this crisis in self. For not only is it a symbol of instability, as it must consume and reinvent itself in continuation, it also lives in isolation – only a single phoenix was thought to exist at any one time.

So it is to the image of the open house, the house as conviviality, coming together, the moment of voicing, ‘permesso!’ that I would like to return. The poem as dynamic crossing of the threshold to encounter a new room of language that alters us slightly. The room after all returns in another poem by Donne, ‘The Good Morrow’. Here, like man, the room is a microcosm and mirror of the world at large as it makes ‘one little room an everywhere’.

And now good morrow to our waking soules,
Which watch not one another out of feare;
For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let Maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.

That it is love that turns a room into an everywhere, and two lovers into one perfect unity, is worth thinking about for a moment. For the young Donne the love in question was thickly infused with Platonism, love of a type that struggled to find its feet in modernity. But once again, Donne’s words sink their foundations into a truer ground, and this allows them to resonate further down the ages; for love, itself, is a microcosm of community. And this brings us back to poetry. Since poetry is made from the stuff of language, and words are products of human society, they embody the ideal not only of communication, but of community. If, as Auden wrote, a poet is before everything else a person who is passionately in love with language, then he is also necessarily a believer in the possibility of human love and a citizenry more widely. In the Dyer’s Hand, Auden expressed this as follows: ‘Poetry can do one hundred and one things – delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and happening.’

Donne’s poetry is infused with the same spirit. There is a love for and playfulness in regards to the world at large, an affirmation of the dignity of the human condition and of the struggle for individuality. One final image from Donne evokes this well. In ‘The Flea’ that most intimate of insects becomes a microcosm of the lovers:

This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of Jet.

I love the way Donne’s comparison here equates the flea with a you and I, thereby resisting any attempt to dismiss it as a simplified humanism in which man is the yardstick for reality. Rather, it suggests we must seek to draw connections between ourselves and others, and between ourselves and the world at large, and thereby hope to understand a little more clearly the state of reality in which we exist. It is in poetry’s living walls of jet that we begin to do this.

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