The Ear of the Behearer

A Reaction to Eugenio Montale’s “The Poet in Our Time”

There is a tension between subject and object and that makes poetry. Tension between what I saw, heard, felt, remembered, imagined, and how that moves through me and filters onto the page, or onto the tongue, thus winding up again in the eye/ear of the hearer/reader. (And there is a further tension, then, one hopes, between poem and “behearer,” “energy transferred” etc.) Tension between the transparency/opaqueness of how it gets said, the control/freedom of the verse, distance/proximity of the speaker to what gets said, and probably many others that I’m omitting. I think of Pessoa. There is a tension there between what might be a mundane, everyday experience/observation, and the problem of the speaker, who is an imaginary “heteronym.” Thus if Pessoa says in a poem, a flower is just a flower, a stone is just a stone, nature is just nature and it has nothing to say to me other than that, the tension is created by the fact that the person who’s saying this doesn’t actually exist. Now this might seem like cheating, making the persona him- or herself the star of the poem so to speak, its “problematizing” element, but if so, it is a thoroughly modern tension (that of authenticity/identity) (which is not to say that it was never done before), and perhaps a necessary one, at that.

But for now I want to focus a little more closely on how a poem gets made, at least from my point of view. It seems to me that in reaching for the lofty and “important,” which is how most of us are taught poems are made, we miss the very things that oddly enough make the poem universal and useful to others, that is, our particular experience as individuals. “The subject of poetry which has been most important to me,” Montale writes, “is the human condition considered in itself, not this or that historical event.” (In parentheses he adds, “the subject, I think, of every possible form of poetry,” which seems a bit too broad a claim but underscores the urgency of this, for him.) To which I can only say, Amen, and then immediately step back and examine all the ways in which it both is and isn’t true.

First of all it needs to be pointed out what isn’t there when I decide to reach after something lofty and write an important poem. And I can only speak for myself here, because this was certainly my strategy for writing poems up until as recently as yesterday. I mean it’s a very recent and ongoing struggle, to get beyond the urge to say the profound and down to a faith in actual experience. Because that’s what’s missing in the former kind of poem. Faith – that what I see is important, is meaningful enough on its own, without the added gloss or heave to lift it into the universal. So the moment I try to connect the cardinal I see on the branch outside to the Passion of Spring, or Christ’s Ascension, or anything other than the robin or cardinal or bluejay I see in the tree, it ironically has the effect of isolating that vision from anyone who will read/hear it. The reason is, because I am pushing it away from myself into some transcendent plane (or am attempting to), which does not push it closer to others, who are down here on earth with me in their own everydayness, but away from them as well.

So it seals off what had been a living, breathing bird in a kind of “art package” with no air inside it.

To the medieval mind this would’ve been incomprehensible. There is no individual experience! The cardinal you see on the branch is not a particular cardinal, it is all cardinals, it points at the Archetype of the Cardinal, and you must make it as general and close to that type as you possibly can, so that everyone can appreciate and understand it. But it is precisely because we don’t think this way anymore that we must instead go the other way, it is the intensely personal that people accept and identify with. And you could go into a million reasons for this – we are so isolated that we need to see into the secret of someone else’s life to connect with them, God is Dead, there is no overriding plan, etc. But at the end of the day, I would largely agree with Montale, poetry is a “precise truth, not a general truth.”

There is a magic in this idea. Taken to its furthest extreme, it lifts the personal experience out of the mundane and infuses it with a numinous essence. If, as Montale writes, one can hear symphonies in one’s head while waiting in line at the post office, one can create them, there, too. Last week I wrote about the poignancy of a woman waving at a distant passenger train, the awkwardness of taking leave of someone at a bar. There is the miracle of how people speak, the spontaneous expression, the dance of gesture, the expressiveness of the glance. There is the quality of light on various surfaces and at different times of the day, the murmur of traffic and rivers, the strange feelings that come over one while merely sitting in rooms, looking out the window. When any or all of these things rise vividly to the surface of one’s “poet,” then writing poetry can seem a simple and joyful thing. But I remember the horror of freaking out on some mixture of drugs in San Francisco, when I could see down to the essence of every single person around me on the streets, a hard kernal of fear mingled with tenderness longing to escape. A valuable vision, but not one to endure every day.

The opposite danger seems to lie in what I would call the “Fuñes” syndrome, that famous character of Borges’ who had such a vivid, extraordinary memory that he couldn’t forget a single leaf on a single tree if he had once seen it. I was reminded of this by the last line of Montale’s essay, re. “memory’s most urgent task,” i.e. forgetting. The danger is that one dissolve so thoroughly into the significance of things that one loses all sense of perspective, the ability to give the poem that slight extra sheen, that knife-twist that makes it resonate and reverberate in the behearer. This is where the lesson of Pessoa, at least of persona, comes in, it seems to me. That is, you are you, you have your own rhythms and obsessions and perspectives and interest in the things, life, and speech around you. Use that. Trust it. If there is anything to you and if you are interested in growth and change, if you are at least brave enough to be a poet in the first place, your stance will change, the perspective will shift, not as much as Pessoa’s but at least enough to keep things interesting and fresh.

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