Continuing an occasional series of essays into the Art of Poetry
The poet must have an ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest & the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child (ST Coleridge)
What of those champions of poetry, the poets themselves, or in Shelley’s words those, ‘ministers of a benificient power seated on the throne of their own souls.’ To these errant knights (& knightesses of course), the spirit of Poetry is a fire that burns within the psyche, sometimes fiercely, sometimes embers, but always there. Transmigrating mind-to-mind through the means of metempsychosis, Poetry is a symbiotic tutelary spirit which latches itself onto the soul & mind of a poet when, as Wordsworth said with perfection, these especial individuals ‘cannot chuse but feel.’ Imagine a tree reflected in a river… we all can see the image shimmering on the water, but the poet possesses an ability to reach into the water, pluck out a leaf & place it on a page. The elaborate & noble diction they have adopted to portray their inspirations affects a certain uniform & harmonious recurrence of sound that can at once be recognized only as poetry.‘I wanted not only height of fancy,’ said Dryden, ‘but dignity of words to set it off,’ & as the poets write they will instantly & innately know what is worthy of immortality & what is mere dross to be discarded at once.
On completing their poems, the creators are then propelled to sing their discoveries to the world, a driving spirit described by Shelley as the,‘essential attribute of poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which animate my own bosom.’ Alas, as Don Marquis states with saccharine accuracy, ‘publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ Fortunately, some of these petals are whipped back over our heads on a wafting breeze, to enter the clouds of fame which float by high above us, waiting for those stressless moments whenever we feel at peace with the world enough to lie on our backs & gaze at the skies. These skyset works belong to all time, as when Roman poet, Horace, declared;
I have completed a monument, more lasting than bronze & loftier than the majestic plan for the pyramids
According to Indian poetics, the principle cause of poetood is Pratibha, or genius, a certain gift received at birth. ‘I have discovered I am a poet, it is not my fault at all,’ said the vernal Rimbaud, for to be a poet is not a vocation, but a life. ‘There’s no money in poetry,’ said Robert Graves, ‘but then there’s no poetry in money, either.’ With Poethood, there first comes a feeling of stupendous affinity to the art, a moment of high epiphany, when the young & fertile mind is, as Alexander Pope reports, ‘fired at first sight with what the muse imparts!” CS Lewis noted such a poetic awakening in his poem Dymer;
For nineteen years they worked upon his soul
Refining, chipping, moulding & adorning
Then came the moment that outdid the whole
The ripple of rude life without a warning!
In his Prelude William Wordsworth has excellently described the early energies of Poethood when he ‘wantoned in wild poesy… with fancy on the stir from day to day & all my young affection out of doors.‘ Other poets have remarked on the sensations of falling in love with poetry.
I am seventeen. The hopeful, dreamy age, as they say – & I have begun, a child touch’d by the muse, to express my beliefs, my hopes, my feelings, all those things proper to poets – this I call Spring. (Rimbaud)
In this poor body, composed of one hundred bones and nine openings, is something called spirit, a flimsy curtain swept this way and that by the slightest breeze. It is spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life. (Basho)
Each poet is the inheritor of a great tradition, & also its interpretor. It is as if a mystical engraved baton is passed down from poet to poet, with each new acolyte making their own individual notches in the wood. TS Elliot has given us perhaps the greatest description of the Poetic Tradition;
Tradition… cannot be inherited, & if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; & the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer & within it the whole of the literature of his own country had a simultaneous existence & composes a simultaneous order
What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that proceeded it. The existing monuments are an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered
‘The first study for a man who wants to be poet,’ continued Rimbaud, ‘is the knowledge of himself, complete… as soon as he knows it he must cultivate it.’ A poet must then daily attend the University of Life in order to produce experiences to fill their memory banks, creating a stock of images to draw upon when their rhyming manua is aroused. Longinus connects poetry directly to the life of the poet, laying down the principle that nothing short of sublime living yields sublime poetry. The three pillars upon which the poet must stand are literature, travel & love. ‘I believe that every English poet should read the English classics,’ said Robert Graves, ‘master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them, travel abroad, experience the horrors of sordid passion, and – if he is lucky enough – know the love of an honest woman.’ As regards the literary pillar, Indian theory lays distinct emphasis on scholastic Vyutpatthi (training) and Abhyaasa (steadfast practice) to fortify and regulate the gift of genius. The poet must be both industrious & a master of technique, for only a natural spirit backed up by artful skill, exploration of new methods & learning of the solid type may produce a work to treasure for its, as Mary Shelley noted, ‘complete enginery of a poet.’
The one thing that a poet should make the greatest relevance during their studies is a sense of the historuical nature & patterns of the art.‘What is to be insisted upon,’ stated TS Elliot ‘is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past & that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.’ Theis sense of the past constitutes the living fibre of all proper poetry, a light of direction with which ‘poets of genius,’ as Voltaire so prosaically stated, ‘make a completely new path thro’ Parnassus that never existed before, into a region where no man has yet trodden, & there seeks out & explores the unknown.’ Eventually, the new poet will find an untouched spot beside the streams of Parnassus & begin to brew their mead. ‘You must,’ wrtote the German poet Rilke ‘require a great deal of talent & maturity before contributing something of your own.’ Adding the ambrosia of their inspirations & the herbs of their own artistry, the new poets produce a new & unique manna, when they become, in Shelley’s words, ‘a portion of the loveliness which they make more lovely!’
A larger portion of the poet’s task is directed to the assimilation of poetic experience, the accumulation of which inevitably increases the poetical ability. To define the true poetic experience one must perceive it as a moment of exultation, the drawing together of aspects of existence in an epiphany of feeling. How was Spenser as he laid the Faerie Queene scrolls at the feet of Queen Elizabeth… how was Keats as he wrote a sonnet at the summit of Ben Nevis… how was Owen as he composed to the roar of the Kaiser’s shellfire… how was Byron as he swam the tantalising waters of the Hellespont betwixt Asia & Europe… how was Wordsworth as he took a first walk beside Rydal Water with his sister Dorothy… how was Dante as wrote ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here,‘ a moment before entering the cantos of his Inferno. These moments, & the effect they have on a poet, have been perfectly summarized by Shelley when he declared;
I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains & lakes & the sea, & the solitude of forests: Danger, which sports upon the brink of the precipices, has been my playmate. I have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, & lived under the eye of Mont Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sail’d down mighty rivers & seen the sun rise & set, & the stars come forth, whilst I have sail’d night & day down a rapid stream among mountains. I have seen populous cities, & watched the passions which rise & spread, & sink & change, amongst assembled multitudes of men. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny & war; cities & villages reduced to scattered groups of black & roofless houses, & the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds. I have conversed with living men of genius
The majestic spirit of Poetry contains a spark of divine fire, & when placed upon a page woven into a line of true poetry, the fire should glimmer before the eye, & upon intonation enrapture the mind. This is known as analeptic mimesis & the poet should be able to recognize these moments which drive the art. When following a course of study in which these scattered divine moments are identified, appreciated & thus absorbed, the divine spark shall settle in the poets themselves. If you feel yourself a poet, when composing you should find or invent forms you feel most comfortable with, through which you may continue your personal conversation with the muse. You will see in these future works of art your own precious & appropriate inheritance, a piece of you which speaks with your own voice, & for the lucky few a voice that can speak down the ages. Most will find it difficult to be married to one’s muse for a lifetime, & there shall inevitably come a time when, following a gradual estrangement & diminishing of power, the muse abandons the poet. Sir Walter Scott perfectly captures the sensation of losing his inspiration with;
Receding now the dying numbers ring
Fainter & fainter down the rugged dell
& now the mountain breezes scarcely bring
A wandering witch-note of a distant spell
& now tis silent all…
When Byron noted, ‘my task is done, my song hath ceas’d, my theme has died into an echo!’ we may observe how a poet’s life & words are intrinsically connected, that being a poet is akin to writing a poem itself. The first onrush of poetry in youth matches a poem’s initial burst of life. This is followed by the calm & mature thought of a poem’s polishing, which mirrors the mature poet happy in their creative work. Then, when the poem is finally set in stone, the reign of fancy over, it hovers like an epitaph above a dead poet’s grave.
Eventually a poet’s work shall be concluded, thro’ retirement or death, or as Robert Graves opined, ‘something dies in the poet. Perhaps he has compromised his poetic integrity by valuing some range of experience or other – literary, religious, philosophical, dramatic, political or social – above the poetic.’ It is now that the true Parnassian prize awaits – a slow-moving posthumous accession into the eternal pantheon by the mutual agreement of futurity. Even Shakespeare was slow to permeate into society, for the court of posterity is measured in centuries & not years. The Bard himself wrote;
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
As the poet becomes dust & words & memories, time begins to sit in judgement upon their contributions to the art. As the years pass by, their posthumous fame becomes more solid, until they have earn’d a place in the Immortal Arena, upon the slopes of Parnassus where the pantheon of poets are gather’d. For posterity, their essence is contain’d in more than just the poetry they left behind. Minds & souls are reflected in their prefaces, letters, influences, life, libraries & those pencil-mark’d footnotes that litter the books therein, for poets comment upon their role even as they perform it.