I copped that title from one of the Rome students (hey Chloe!), who gave a rather sophisticated talk on the notion that the poetic impulse inherently springs from the desire for something unattainable. (Oh, yeah: I’m still in Rome. Like Shelley, I drowned in Italy and what bits of me washed up are buried there for now.)
In its original, Aristotelian meaning, ars poetica means the art of, or the nature of, poetry. Anyway, I got to thinking about how unrequited, unrequitable, or forbidden love, and their attendant depths of loss and longing, have always been the subjects that interest me most as a poet. I think I stand with a significant majority of poets in that impulse. We write as an act of exorcism, or as a way of having our beloved, on the page, particularly if we cannot in real life; we write to bring our dead back, we write to redirect grief. We write our letter to the world that never wrote to us. The tropes and devices of poetry offer us ways to express our deepest longings without the consequences that might attend acting on them in real life. James Merrill spoke of using the second person in love poems in order to obviate discussion of his sexuality – he referred to the pronoun “you as “a fig leaf.” This impulse is probably what prompted Merrill to develop the dazzlingly ornate linguistic puzzles and flourishes that characterize so much of his work. If he had had nothing to obfuscate, we’d probably be without some of his best work.
“All the new thinking is about loss,” as Robert Hass famously put it. “In this, it resembles all the old thinking.” In Persian poetry there is a constantly recurring motif of the nightingale and its love for the rose. The nightingale endlessly trilling for the beautiful but thorned rose san symbolize the poet’s love for God, for an earthly love, for any praiseworthy object, but it also bespeaks a longing for unattainable perfection, for the exact right expression of something, sublime or terrible or… inexpressible. It’s the unslakable desire for the creative act itself.
Dig this. My introduction to Keats, Shelley, and the Persians came at the age of thirteen, when I was in a school production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (The title comes from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam.) The young protagonist, a teenager on his way to college and besotted with Romantic poetry – in love with love, drunk on it the way Sufi poets are drunk on the wine of divine love – was played by Jon, the boy whose parents I ran into outside that hotel in the middle of wherever I was. Years after our own chaste little ninth-grade romance, Jon went on to date the grandchild of Czeslaw Milosz, who says in his poem “Ars Poetica?”
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.
By the time Jon was seeing her, I was seeing Wallace Stevens and James Merrill more than Khyyam or Keats, and embarking on a passionate romance with a boy whose violent early death would inform my writing forever – though, in all honesty, it was less his death, in some ways, than the sense I always had when we were together, that I loved him far more than he would ever be capable of loving me. “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.” Robert Hass again (who worked closely with Milosz), from the same poem, one that was recited in the workshop room in Rome too, and half of us could sing along because we all know, as poets, that part of our work is trying to find the metal (the mettle?) to build the bridge that can span those distances. It’s impossible. But like Sisyphus, or Tantalus, you’re consigned to having to try again and again.
The other day, out of the blue, a friend sent me a hyperlink, saying “Do you know this poem?” It was Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover.” I’m telling you, man – there is no accident! There was a moment back there, in Rome, when one of the students (Hi, Zac!) gave a recitation of that poem that knocked the wind out of me – not only because the poem is so beautiful to hear spoken, but because the reciter himself almost to lift off the ground as he did it. It was that moment that got me thinking about why recitation is such a powerful act; why poems go into us so deeply that to speak them from memory can bring on a state of transcendence.
Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, and by all accounts I know of, a celibate homosexual. He suffered from anguished depression for much of his life. In spite of which – or because of which, I can’t tell you – his poems are characterized by some of the most inventive, ecstatic, joyous and complicated sounds and rhythms in any 19th century verse in English. “The Windhover” perhaps in particular, speaks as well as anything I know for the potential that exists in sublimating the pain of unfulfillable longing. Do yourself a favor and read this aloud.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend; the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird--the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it; sheer plod makes plow down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.