As Familiar As Memory

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This is the second in a series by Martin Farawell on the core principles underlying our Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain poetry immersion sessions for teachers. The first in the series is, I Imagine, Therefore I Am.

Martin Farawell
Program Director, Poetry

This week, we continue our discussion of some of the Core Principles behind Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain, the poetry exploration groups the Dodge Poetry Program offers to New Jersey Teachers.

Jim Haba, Founding Director of the Dodge Poetry Program and Festival, wrote the original core principles nearly two decades ago. The Second Core Principle reads:

Listening/reading and speaking/writing are aspects of the same activity.

Shortly after coming to work at Dodge, I suggested we try to create articulations of the Core Principles. Those original notes evolved into the essay below.

As Familiar as Memory:
On the Relationship Between Reading and Writing

When Richard Hugo asserted that we have written every poem we have ever loved,[1] he may have meant that having to re-imagine the poem as a reader is essentially the same creative act as imagining it as a writer.  I suspect he intended something much simpler and, at the same time, more profound: that the act of either reading or writing a poem that fully engages our entire selves is essentially the same act.  What we often think of as two distinctly different experiences – one, the almost spooky sensation of having a poem, perhaps written hundreds of years ago, feel as familiar as a memory from our own lives; the other, the feeling that a poem we’ve written came from beyond ourselves – are actually two pathways into one experience.

What interferes with our understanding of this is that often we are not fully engaged in many of the poems we either read or write.  Some poems that we read, however well-crafted, simply do not connect with us.  Others that we write, no matter how much time we spend trying to craft them, never quite make the connection to the deepest sources within us.  We all know this frustration which, sadly, is so often in the forefront of our minds that we mistake the object we wrestle with for poetry.  But in our better moments, when our disappointment hasn’t soured into disappointment with ourselves, we understand that this experience is simply part of the struggle and that what we often call failed poems, those of our own or others, are merely the vestiges of the process we go through to try to make that deeper connection.

That deeper connection, the experience of being profoundly engaged, is what draws us back so strongly that we are willing to endure the struggle to get there, as readers and writers, despite repeated so-called failures.  (We can learn much from Thomas Edison’s perspective on the thousands of experiments it took to find the one filament that would illuminate the light bulb.  Asked how he could persevere through so many failures, Edison supposedly replied that he’d never failed, he’d simply “discovered” ten thousand ways that didn’t work.)

Perhaps the nature of electricity itself can offer some insight:  In his lectures on the metaphysical poets, William C. Dell has argued that Samuel Johnson misstated the case: the metaphysical poets did not get their effect through the “violent yoking together” of opposites, but from the jolt that results when opposites (negative and positive) are sufficiently charged to leap across to each other.  The connection is dynamic, created by the tension between opposites, and not superimposed by a “yoke.”[2] If we extend this metaphor to all poetry, we can begin to understand Ezra Pound’s, “Literature is language charged with meaning.  Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”[3]

Electricity can never exist in either the negative or positive pole in isolation; it exists only as an arc of energy occurring when both extremes are sufficiently charged to make the leap across to each other.  That electric arc can never be merely negative or merely positive; it cannot even be explained as a mix of half one and half the other: it is fully negative and fully positive simultaneously.  It is the connection itself, the arc of pure energy that creates something entirely new and which we call electricity.

When extreme poles of human experience—intellect and emotion, discipline and spontaneity, conscious and unconscious, physical and spiritual—are charged to their full energies, they leap across to each other in a connection as powerful and as difficult to define as the leaping and dancing energy of electricity.  That moment of connection is what keeps sending us back to poetry, whether we are reading or writing it.

Thousands of years before the Western discovery of electricity, Taoists in the Far East spoke of chi, the energy that courses through and connects everything, and that is generated by the constant interplay of opposites: dark and light, male and female, subject and object.  The Taoists’ dynamic symbol for this interplay is a circle containing the infinite intertwining of the opposite extremes of yin and yang: at no point can one exist except in relation to the other.  The symbol itself is not meant to be static, as it so often appears on the printed page, but dynamic, constantly spinning as darkness and light flow eternally into and out of each other.  The physical grace and strength of the Tai Chi master, who studies an art rooted in the interplay of physicality and spirituality, is a testament to the power of connecting polar opposites.

The charge we experience when we are either reading or writing a poem that fully engages our entire selves is the energy released by the spontaneous sparking of all aspects of the self.  In our everyday, compartmentalized lives, we are constantly repressing some aspect of ourselves.  The playfulness that comes so easily with a toddler on the living room floor, for example, would be a source of humiliation in the boardroom.  When a particularly stressful day summons up old insecurities, we struggle to find some way to push them down until the task at hand is done.  Those tasks may sometimes require that we be analytical or intuitive, controlling or yielding, but rarely do they demand that we use all of ourselves.  According to modern psychology, an essential marker for being socially well-adjusted is the ability to clearly delineate which aspects of personality are most appropriately engaged to meet specific challenges.  In most cultures, the inability to compartmentalize appropriately is judged as an indication of a lack of social skills or of mental illness.

Only exceptional events, defining moments in our lives that change us profoundly, impact on our entire selves and call all of us, all of our resources, into action.  A poem is often an attempt to capture such a defining moment.  No wonder reading or writing poetry can sometimes seem so difficult.  More often than not, we are like Edison fashioning filaments out of bamboo, bewildered when they don’t light up.  As Philip Levine points out, the experience of having all aspects of the self light up at once, of being most fully ourselves, is so rare that we often attribute it to some outside source we call inspiration or the muse.

Robert Frost wrote, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”[4] These defining moments may not always be what we would call “happy,” yet there is a kind of joy, or a relishing, in discovering that we can make art out of them, and, like happiness, they might be called “vertical experiences.” However brief they may be, they enter our entire selves—head, heart, guts, every aspect of us from the most intellectual to the most primitive—and become part of who we are.  These are the experiences that bring the best poems out of us, and this is the way the best poems enter us.

These are the poems we never forget.  Many of us can recall, often in vivid detail, our first encounters with particular poems.  Some have altered our perceptions of ourselves, or of our world, as profoundly as any experience in our own lives.  The reason for this, though rarely commented on, is obvious:  connecting to a poem that profoundly engages us is a major experience in our own lives.

Through years of close analysis of text, we are conditioned to think of the poem as an “it,” an arrangement of lines on a page.  But the poem on the page is merely a lifeless thing until it engages an open and responsive reader or listener.  This is not to suggest, as some reading theories do, that a text only has whatever meaning an individual reader in a particular moment ascribes to it.  We are not even discussing meaning here.  We are trying to suggest that whatever a poem is (and who has come across an adequate definition?), it is neither an it nor a thing: it is an experience.

A. E. Housman has written that he had to be careful not to let lines from poems float into consciousness while he was shaving because the bristling of his beard would stop his razor in mid-stroke.  Galway Kinnell has described the physical sensation accompanying this experience of a poem as like a chilled hand gripping the nape of his neck and running its fingers up the back of his head.  Perhaps the most famous example is Emily Dickinson’s, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”

These descriptions of powerful encounters with poetry are of physical, sensual experiences.  As Robert Pinsky writes, the poet’s medium is not language; it is the reader’s body.[5] Pinsky’s claim can be extended to include more than the mere engagement of ear, mouth and breath because, physiologically, our bodies do not distinguish between a real and a vividly imagined event.  If you have ever wakened from a nightmare bathed in sweat, or felt your stomach flop and heart race in anticipation of something that finally never occurred, you know this is true.

This physiological response is not always the result of an automatic unconscious reflex; it can be consciously manipulated.  Physical therapists can lower their patients’ blood pressure by having them imagine themselves in a soothing, peaceful place.  Those we call “Method” actors can step onto a bare stage and convince us they are walking along a beach, not through mime, but by deliberately journeying inside memory and vividly re-imagining the specific sensual experience of walking through sand:  The image in the mind is transmitted to the actor’s body, and we “feel” them walking on a sandy beach.

The vividly imagined poem, like a nightmare, a meditation image, or an actor’s sense-memory exercise, comes alive in the body.  It’s no wonder then that the experience of certain poems stays with us.  Every memorable experience, whatever we have learned of importance in our lives, has come to us in this way.

Whatever we know of importance about love, death, honesty, cowardice, loyalty, has come to us through the senses, through the body.  Such words remain mere abstractions unless we’ve lived through an experience that has made them real to us.  It’s one thing to read the platitude that we should have compassion for others, quite another to be mugged, or in a car accident, and have total strangers come selflessly to our aid, or, perhaps an even more powerful lesson, to have them deny us.

It is no wonder that spiritual leaders have always used parables to teach moral lessons.  They know that only by vividly imagining ourselves living the story will we understand it in a deeply personal way.  It is this experience that plants the lesson in memory.

Poets, too, have always understood the essential value of experience, which is why so many have argued against the emphasis on paraphrase in how poetry is so often taught.  They know a poem is never our analysis of it, never the sum of what we might say about it, but something far more deeply rooted in us than any merely intellectual construct.  If anthropology teaches us anything, it is that those roots are ancient, part of what is most basic, most primitive in us.  The urge toward poetry, toward dance and incantation, was present in us from the instant we emerged on earth.

Isn’t this urge even more primitive than that?  When the first frogs in early Spring fill every pond we pass with pulsing song, or the katydids and crickets transform an August night into one continuous throb, aren’t we hearing in those mating calls – the perfect blend of rhythmic incantation and pure desire – the first love poems?  Is the origin of poetry in our own animal nature?  If we believe in evolution, we must believe that this need to find some rhythmic utterance to express our deepest desires is that ancient.  Is it possible the rhythms in nature, in poetry, resonate so deeply within us because they spring from and return us to those places in us that are pre-verbal?

Of course we know our experience of a poem is never merely physical (feeling a change in our breath or pulse) any more than it is merely intellectual (discerning the system of medieval Catholicism that underlies Dante’s Divine Comedy).  The great poem is never merely anything; it is completely physical and completely intellectual.  This makes perfect sense if we remember the negative and positive poles of electricity:  The poem cannot be explained as an equal mix of half one extreme and half the other; it fully engages all the extremes of the self.

Nor is this model, of all aspects of the self connecting at once, a form of solipsism.  As Galway Kinnell points out, it is only by going far enough into the self—getting beyond the merely personal and entering the profoundly personal—that we discover our deepest connections to others.  “Others” includes, for Kinnell, not only other human beings, but also animals, insects, plants, and rocks.[6] The paradox is that when we are most fully ourselves, we are also most fully connected with the “other.”  This may explain that mysterious feeling of speaking from outside or beyond our mere selves that poets sometimes experience while writing poems, or the equally powerful experience for readers of discovering the truest expression of our selves in a poem written by someone else.

If every poem that has fully engaged us has become a part of our experiences, and thus a part of us, then when we write most deeply from ourselves we are also speaking most fully in the voices that have entered us.  When we go beyond the merely personal into the profoundly personal, we are speaking in what Wallace Stevens calls, “the voice that is great within us.”[7] Ultimately, it is the human voice speaking of its experience on earth: our myriad voices merging together into something we call poetry much as the voices of frogs and crickets merge into one unmistakable song.  And although that song is unmistakable, we know that the songs of no two crickets or frogs or poets are exactly alike.

When we write in this way, we hope the reader will enter the experience of the poem as deeply as we did in creating it.  Isn’t the goal, as Pinsky and others have claimed, to reproduce the poem in the reader’s body?  If we succeed, then the poet’s and reader’s experience of living through the deep connection to poetry, a connection that is beyond explication, are one and the same.  The poem by another that enters us deeply connects to the extremes of self as powerfully as one of our own poems.

Perhaps even more.  It might be we struggle in writing to recreate the experiences we have had as readers.  Despite how private and personal these experiences may sometimes seem, they are also communal: To be moved by a great poem is to enter the community of everyone who has ever been moved by it.  If we imagine following such interconnections back through poem after poem, we realize this community is timeless.  We are one with the first creature that lifted its voice and struggled to articulate its place on earth, and we are one with the other who heard that utterance and found some way to answer.

“I Imagine, Therfore I Am” and “As Familiar As Memory” are copyrighted (©) by Martin Farawell. Please do not reprint in part or in full without permission.

Works Cited

1 Hugo, Richard, “Statements of Faith,” The Triggering Town. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979) 70.

2 Dell, William C., Lectures: “The Art of Poetry.”  (Montclair, NJ, 1983).

3 Pound, Ezra, “How to Read,” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. (New York: New Directions, 1968) 23.

4 Frost, Robert, “Happiness Makes Up in Height for What it Lacks in Length,” The Poetry of Robert Frost:The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. Ed. Edward Connery Latham. (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1964) 333.

5 Pinsky, Robert, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) 8.

6 Kinnell, Galway, Walking Down the Stairs. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978) 23.

7 Stevens, Wallace, “Evening Without Angels,” Collected Poems. (New York: Vintage, 1990) 136.

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