Last week, C.K. Williams gave the annual Poetry Society lecture in London where he quoted Goethe who said (this is paraphrased – Williams said the words quickly, and I scribbled down what I could): “The poet’s requisite trance is the most fragile element in his armory."
I have been thinking about the poet’s trance—that room we enter (or room that enters us) in the middle of, or just before, writing a poem: a necessary space fusing silence and music, detachment and emotion, calm and energy. It’s a room of stirring clarity and peaceful vitality. The Goethe quote is not unlike Wordsworth’s “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
It’s a state that poets wait for, long for. We fear it will not come.
I imagine that Keats wrote, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains...” and then he stepped into this eloquent armour.
The trance is not just for poets. It’s also useful for those who pray, play tennis, kiss, perform surgery, build a bookcase, and perform other activities that require creativity, focus, imagination, assimilated learning and knowledge, spontaneity, and an affectionate attachment to the subject of the endeavour.
I am preparing to teach a class at the London School of Jewish Studies on the biblical Eve. We will look at the text in the Hebrew and English translations, study classic commentaries, and then look at poems that explore Eve. I have been asking myself the question: did Eve go into a “poet’s trance” when the serpent spoke to her or was she in a trance up until the moment the serpent began to speak to her?
“And God said, Let’s make man in Our image. . . God created Man, in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.26-27)
The text repeats the idea of creating the human being at least three times, and the idea of creating a person in “God’s image” is also repeated three times. The repetition of both emphasizes the significance of human life. Rashi, the medieval French commentator and grammarian, explains that the enigmatic phrase should be read “with God’s image,” emphasizing that God has no physicality. Rashi offers this metaphor: God used a kind of stamp reflecting the divine unphysical qualities and created the human form with that stamp. The bodies of humans correspond to a counterpart in the spiritual world. Because Eve was created with God’s image, she lived inside a kind of passionate clarity: she was aware of how the physical world paralleled the spiritual one. The following lines by Blake could describe Eve’s awareness of how hidden truths were buried in the veil of the natural world:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. (“Auguries of Innocence”: 1-4)
She lived in the mode of the poet’s trance – vivid clarity, focused creativity, and a spontaneous sanity saturated existence. The snake led her out of the trance room and into the room of rationalization and bewilderment. The connections between the divine and the physical world became less apparent. Harmony was no longer the default; everything suddenly seemed out of sync.
I will end this post with Marie Howe’s poem “Part of Eve’s Discussion,” a prose poem, which captures Eve’s disorientation, a sense of having stepped out of the trance and into a world of confusion, much like the world we live in today (unless we are lucky enough to find ourselves in moments where we can put on Goethe’s eloquent armour):
"It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand, and flies, just before it flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop, very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say, it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only all the time."