Poetry Is. . .

They say with time our memories change, as we forget certain details, and later add others which serve to bolster our image of who we are and who we’ve been. Maybe that’s true, superficially, but then we take a look at our dreams and if we’re honest we cannot help but remember exactly, and this because it is much more difficult—perhaps impossible—to change one’s dreams in any fundamental way. I suppose the power of poetry is that it gives us yet another way to measure how far we’ve come, this time by taking stock of our dreams and also our memories, as it is these two together to which the poet, at the height of their creative power, refers most often. Dreams and memories: two of the most notoriously difficult phenomena to translate into words, yet the poet is convinced that words are all they need to do precisely that.

The poet sees the word not as a vehicle for what he or she wants to say, but as an object in its own right, substantial for the fact it has an affect on the things around it. The poetic word has a weight and density to rival any physical object, and this because it has a history all its own, which imbues it with significance and which has formed it into a substance of a kind that perhaps dreams too are made of. It is not so intangible, ethereal, flighty, or ungrounded as it might seem at first glance. Rather, it may just be the most immediate point of access to that which has moved and shaped everything that we humans have been and have become, and which now resides in our very bones, its presence felt as an aching in our gut, or as a knot in our throat, or as a leap of the heart—but whose heart? The heart, I mean to say: the heart which beats upon the ground at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, for example, in that final moment which Hemingway believed each and every one of us should face head on, rather than shrink away from; the heart that is the clod of Europe dropping into the depths of the tempestuous Atlantic, which John Donne turned the reader’s attention to—perhaps for the first time with such wonder—in order to posit that all the continent of Europe was made the lesser, for losing it to the sea. But this sophisticated image might just be the same heart which a five-year-old girl draws a dozen times without thinking about it too deeply, on the picture she gives in all innocence and with all the love in her world to her Nana, on her Nana’s birthday.

For the one who perceives how all the world may somehow be connected to that one word, heart, he or she begins to see how they may begin to speak with, and to, all which exists which is not merely a world of the immediately material moment, and not merely the world of the individual whom some have described as being ‘an island unto itself’, but rather—if we take John Donne at his word—to such a world which has formed nations, and to such a world which has made inter-connected incalculable multitudes of people in addition to such simple materials as what makes up the earth itself, its clay and dust. A world accessible to any and all who might look to a word such as heart, and then—and here’s where the poet emerges—wonder just how far back in time they may be able to go with it, where others exist who would still be able to understand them should they utter it, as they maybe point to their chest, thus making it possible, perhaps, to find kinship even in the most remote corners of the Earth, and this because, surely, such a thing as what that word means, was, even there, always present.

The poet is the one who considers it valid to ask such questions, and to wonder such things, because he or she perceives the weighty significance—the history—of even the most commonplace word, and perceives too how the careful use of any and every word may just grant them access to social orders and cultures and people far back in the depths of history, whose physical remains, it’s true, have probably—inevitably—disintegrated, without a trace, but who may have left behind, at least, a word; a dream; a vision. One of them must have left behind the first word, too, and it was this one who happened to make all of poetry possible. I wonder if it would be possible to one day return to that original source—but that would require a great poet indeed.

The stone tablets archaeologists have dug up so far have proven more likely to be documents of accounting than to be anything so profound as, say, the epic of Gilgamesh. They are often simple, fastidious tallies of a community’s livestock, or the reckonings of some trade with a nearby village. Not so profound, but still, they give us clues as to who we were at the beginning of our history, and, in fact, we draw up contracts to this day which are much the same. Nonetheless, there was a moment, maybe even further back in time, when someone made a cut into stone for a reason not immediately clear—a reason altogether different from concerns which were more pragmatic, or economical. Likely the very first cut born from such immaterial cause was made so far back in time that it was not into stone, but instead a tree. Or maybe it was the tracing of a finger dabbed in blood or berry juice, to make a drawing upon a cave wall. Within the shelter of a cave someone would have had time enough to proceed with all the care of a Chinese calligraphist, as they brought out some image about which, without being conscious of it, he or she had spent the night dreaming. The real object, of which that image was a representation, no doubt struck them down to their very core the day before, in their waking life, so stayed with them into the dark of night. And it couldn’t have been something ordinary, like a blade of grass, or a cloud passing. No, probably it was some animal, which entered into the cave-dweller’s dreams because of their deep, gnawing hunger: the image, then, a projection of what that person wanted; of what their whole tribe wanted, perhaps, as they gathered around it in wonder, and—perhaps more significantly—in agreement.

There something magical happened, as the inanimate surface of the cave—inanimate, but which they had taken a liking to, on account of it providing them shelter—was now talking to them. And what could be more miraculous, but for someone to imbue some indifferent, inanimate material with something like life: with meaning, significance, and then a motivating spirit, until it seemed the surfaces of the earth itself had vibrating within them such wisdom which is immensely difficult to put into words.

While walking upon the surface of the world, unable to perceive the depths below, someone, at some point, must have realized that they hadn’t seen another person in days, and that it was possible they had somehow travelled farther than any other living creature had before them. Maybe their gaze drifted to the far horizon before they looked back, and then again forward, and maybe then their eyes fell to the ground and their attention was cast about their feet, here and there, until finally they took up a commonplace object, like a stone or a few stones, to assemble them into a small structure no more than a foot high: into a sculpture which some people have called an inukshuk. Their intention was to let another know—anyone who might come this way later—that someone else had been there, too. No doubt it was reassuring, for these others, to know that they were not so far removed from at least one other person. And as I write this, I cannot help but notice how the inukshuk looks something like a three-dimensional version of a Chinese symbol, and then I remember too where it is said the first people in North America came from.

Anyways, I think this may be how poets use words, and that this is what poetry aims to do.


Author’s Postscript: This is an essay I wrote in a day, about five weeks ago, at the request of another publication, and I am almost positive it will be much longer than five weeks more before it is published on their website. This timeline has been irritating for me for the fact that I did not plan to write this essay, but wrote it immediately upon request, and within the bounds of their chosen theme, yet it has since been suspended in whatever limbo they’ve got over there as a result of their process and the amount of submissions they receive, etc. It is for this reason that I decided to publish it here, as a contribution to my own project and as a marker of my personal growth as a writer, rather than wait for them to find a place for it in their project. I hope you enjoyed reading it!

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