The Ear of the Behearer, p. II

Consider how a poem is made. First there has to be attention, which can either be receptive (a softening) or penetrative (a keenness). That has to happen first, because in truth, the stuff that makes poetry is floating around us all the time, as plentiful as air and light. It could be anything, but it tends to be those things that already have something dynamic about them – a bit of speech or song, image, movement, interaction, maybe something out of a book or film, almost never something from TV (which does not even have the projective qualities of film) – something, in other words, where there is an exchange botched that demands the qualities of poetry to complete and communicate its significance.

That sounds more specific than I wanted it to be. And I don’t want to get too far into philosophy to explain it. But let’s say there is an instant that seems to suggest a poem in the poet’s mind. Most often that would begin with a complex (made up of any or several of the above-mentioned elements) that bursts through into speech, i.e., image having something to say, whether it’s a face, a bird, a gesture, a glance, and the fact of its not having been said with perfect completeness already, so the further lift of the poem is demanded to give it its say. This seems to be often how it happens with me. There will be a flash of recognition at some visual, emotional, or aural thing (hence “complex”) that resolves itself into a line, which suggests a rhythm as a sort of map to proceed (if the whole thing doesn’t come out at once).

In a sense, this is what one might mean in supposing that “things” – whether of nature or the “inert” world – want us to see them; they might have a perfect completeness of exchange amongst themselves, but in order for anyone else to recognize and appreciate that little discharge of energy, the poet (or dancer or painter or…) must come along and capture that and distill it again. And this particular exchange is not one of taking profit, with the aim of mining out some ore that can be consumed. In fact it is one of total giving, a giving of attention, energy, emotion, over to the thing for the duration of the exchange. And in this sense I think of it as a dance, with the product being the poem itself as a record of that dance for others to enjoy.

So the question of audience becomes almost central. If there is no one to see the dance, what is the point, who is it for? What is the distance between familiarity and bafflement, between understanding and incomprehension, where is the mystery located and how does one drop the clues? Audience matters tremendously for all these questions. The dancer is never just dancing with his or her partner (the poem), but with those observing the dance. Of course this is something to have thought about, not to think about while the dance is afoot. This seems to add a layer to the analogies that Valery draws between poetry and dancing, but it complicates his equating of prose with walking. I for one don’t enjoy watching people walk, but I do like to read novels. This seems like one of the typically back-handed compliments the two genres are constantly paying each other. Perhaps, if one insists on retaining dance for the realm of poetry, a more apt analogy would be to compare prose to a race, or some other kind of sporting event with a definite end and a need for absolute efficiency of motion, but that nevertheless holds some interest for the spectator.

But to return to the terms of that exchange… It is curious to me, and I would be very interested if anyone could devise a way of studying this, how remarkably similar the act of writing seems to be to physical activity, especially that of an intensive kind. I am struck by how many writers are known to have written standing up, for instance – Hemingway, Rilke, Pessoa come immediately to mind. I seem to recall Kafka being particularly proud of having stayed up all night writing, bragging to his maid when she came in the morning, like a prize fighter who’d just gone 15 rounds. And how other acts of physical gratification – eating, drinking, sex – seem so readily to either arrive as sublimated urges the moment one sits down to write, or to stand in for writing itself. Is there some sort of exertion that takes place at a cellular level when writing is going on, could that be measured? Has anyone tried?

Perhaps I’m “dancing” now around the questions I raised in the first half of this, but if so, it’s because I truly don’t know how to answer them. Language itself breaks at the edge of the dance between the thing itself and the poet, who must yet somehow put the record of his or her dance into words. All I know is that the investment has to be total, because there’s no other way to somehow perform the magic trick of reproducing the irreducible thing that nature is and does. But one final consideration would be to wonder what feeds that total giving, replenishes the store that gets burned up in the exertion of the dance, as the dancer must eat and drink and rest to restore the body.

World, one supposes, and I think of Rilke’s line about being “too full of World,” in other words too full of the myriad complexes of image/thought/speech that the body of the poet digests and turns into poems, the excess that brings a sense of irritation and overripeness when one simply isn’t able to write. Like food, World in the Rilkean sense doesn’t all have the same nutritional value, and it can’t be stored up forever without transmuting and passing through in some other way. We speak of “writing towards exhaustion,” but this works as well in a similar way to food in the dancer’s belly, dance in the dancer’s limbs. Each dance seems like the last possible performance, and yet somehow the next is already promised by its very finality, the living need to store up and expend again.

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2 Responses to The Ear of the Behearer, p. II

  1. TreyM says:

    I agree and have thought about many of these interesting issues. I’ve come to take writing as such a physical activity that I have a hard time finding the concentration necessary outside of the morning and/or early afternoon, when I’m most energetic. And I think your dance analogy is quite fitting, although when I’ve tried to make my own analogy, I use mathematics–after having been “trained” in math, certain moves come as reflexes, all while under a spell of complete and utter concentration for the end result. But of course this comparison lacks the many artistic intangibles of poetry and dance, and relies completely on formula, unlike the poem writing process. That gray area is such a difficult one to elucidate.

  2. dhadbawnik says:

    I can’t find the Valery essay the dance analogy was taken from, but it’s worth checking out…

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