from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 7 January 2013

shadow and ambiguity in poetry

Ambiguity. That's the essence of what I was speaking of in the Saturday poetry workshop. Poems need ambiguity. And mystery. Hints and glimpses. And room for our imaginations to engage with the half-spoken, half-seen.

'Don’t come to me with the entire truth', says Olav H Hauge in Robert Bly's translation. 'Don’t bring the ocean if I feel thirsty
 / nor heaven if I ask for light;
 / But bring a hint, some dew, a particle, / 
as birds carry only drops away from water, / and the wind a grain of salt.'

As I write this I remember how men sometimes say a women is often more seductive with some small items of clothing than fully nude. As a woman, I'm not sure it's the same the other way round – but there is certainly a psychological truth in it. Knowing a little is more attractive, or at least seductive, energetically speaking, than knowing everything there is to know, isn't it? Whether we're talking about another human, a subject, a landscape or an idea, it's the wish to know more that invites pursuit into a deeper level of the 'other' with whom we're engaging.

So while I'm not arguing against accessibility, really – that's a different concern – I am questioning the usefulness, or quality, of a poem that is all surface, nothing to discover. (There is a whole category of poetry that is concerned with healing, catharsis, spirituality and the therapeutic – think David Whyte, Mary Oliver, John O'Donohue – and I'm not addressing that category in what I say here at all. That kind of direct addressing of joy and sorrow has its own place. And there is also the political poem – another category again.)

But for a poem to have gravitas and depth of meaning we need, both as writers and readers, to step into the crucible and cook, along with the poem. An exchange goes on, and we are left, however minutely, changed. It's almost a co-creation, and the difference is that of the gap between fast food that titillates the taste buds but offers no deep nourishment, and a meal created with love with handpicked organically grown wholesome fresh ingredients.

A good poem, like a symbol, gives up its meaning over time and continues to nourish us at a soul level.

So on Saturday when I was leading the workshop on the sublime, negative capability, etc etc, I was thinking about, firstly, ambiguity: in relation to the sublime in art, the human response is almost always mixed. An apprehension of pure beauty never involves sheer unadulterated pleasure, I'd say; the perception of beauty in the sublime might bring joy but is likely to be mixed with awe and often fear and/or sorrow; not least, perhaps, because we are aware of the transience of everything, and live, if we dare to look, on the edge of loss.

I think too about how close ecstasy and agony are. I think about how the Passion of Christ, as it is called, was actually his pilgrimage towards, and then the act of, death.

I was thinking, then, too, about difficult subjects and painful emotions; how a poem needs to carry in its body an awareness of the subtlety and complexity of everything: nothing is truly black or white, happy or sad, 'good' or 'bad'. This means that it also might include shadows, both in the chiaroscuro sense of art, of the contrast between and ultimate blending of dark and light, but also in the Jungian sense of things that make us uncomfortable, too; things that resonate as darker truths, that arise from, or provoke, more complex responses.

I believe it was poet Czeslaw Milosz who said 'What has no shadow has no strength to live.' (That, I'd say, is a sublime statement about the sublime.)

In his wonderful monograph with artist Margot McLean, Jungian James Hillman quotes Gaston Bachelard: 'Singleness of meaning is only superficial imagination.' Hillman continues: 'Material that only is what it is, uncomplicated, unambiguous, yields only the sentimental and the pretty. [It] must offer depth to be truly imaginative and this depth is conceived in the theory of the sublime as dark, vast, boundless, awe-full, terror-arousing, etc.’

Buddhist poet Jane Hirshfield, speaking of poetry, writes about inner silence, a thing unexpressed. She says that certain poems convey a sense that something is being withheld or unexpressed, and point to a depth of experience that resonates behind the poem: ‘just like the sun at midnight, it is felt most deeply [by the reader] when unseen.’ She continues: ‘In even the simplest of such poems, complexity hovers: sign of a consciousness developed by long consideration, long encounter with the blunt and delicate forces of existence. Such poems have a shadow because they have being and substance, an inescapable sense of history within which they see what they know and convey it to us. Such poems know more than they tell. They keep secrets. . . One of the laws of poetry is that no good poem can be wholly safe or wholly pure.'

I'm reminded of my friend Julie-Ann Rowell's poem 'Crossing the Dart', which she kindly gave me permission to reproduce in my Writing the Bright Moment, and I hope she won't mind my reproducing here. It seems to me to exemplify perfectly the idea of shadow, mystery, the unspoken, ambiguity:

Crossing the Dart

The black tongue of the river
lured, and we tumbled to it
losing our blue beaker in the gorse.
The wind scalped, we plunged on,
a rabble of dirty-faced kids
blind to the zinc-white sky, down
to the lip of the rapids that gorged
through granite. We attempted to cross
roped together by our hands
and we might have been lost
but achieved the virgin side
we wanted to trample, conquer,
raise our flag, plant our emblem.
It was me, the youngest,
who stumbled upon the dead lamb –
my first carcass, ribs extant,
eyeless, splayed, wool rotted,
fly ridden. I was nudged to turn
its skull with my toe, a trophy
on the dead side of the river
I wished we hadn’t crossed.

© Julie-Ann Rowell

And the dark too needs its due. Speaking of this, and in particular Philip Larkin's poem 'High Windows', Hirshfield muses on difficult emotions and their place in poetry: '[It] may be that the bitterness, vanity, selfishness and fear that to some degree inhabit all of us may also bring the shadow’s complex gifts into the work of a poet… perhaps a cruel eye, if kept in check... may make – at least at times – for a better poet than a lazy eye or a stupid or sleeping one, or one that willingly blinds itself to the more harsh aspects of the world and the human... Kay Ryan has observed: “It’s as if such poets are holding a knife by the blade while they write.” In the attempt to cut neither the reader nor themselves, an astonishing tenderness may emerge.’

And finally, from Hirshfield again: 'a poem that struggles against its own bitterness may seem gallant; one that struggles against the saccharin will be merely pitiful.'

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