On Poetry: Looking Out From a Poem’s Second Floor Windows

For the Valley News
Saturday, March 12, 2016
As a poet and reader of poetry, I never cease to be amazed by the difference difference makes. I feel this intuitively first and consciously second. A surprising connection between different things in a poem can instill it with transcendent surprise.

Because poetry is often a two-story house — literal on the ground floor and figurative on the second — the act of comparing two very different things allows the poet to construct high above the ground floor. The late great poet Lucille Clifton corroborated this poetic methodology in an interview I conducted with her a few weeks before she died in 2010.

“I’m a carpenter,” she announced proudly, “and I follow the carpenter’s rule.” Her claim made both etymological and metaphorical sense; the word poem derives from the Greek word poiesis, which simply means “a made thing.”

Difference constitutes not only an essential tool for building above the first literal floor of the poem’s house, but the very building materials as well. The architecture of this two-story house may appear incongruous at first with the figurative on top of the literal, but the closer one examines it, the more she sees that the figurative construction of the second story depends on the literal joists and beams of the first story as it shifts in its ascent from the immediately familiar and actual to the strange and wildly sensible.

As a way of illustrating this poetic construction to my students, I announce to them from the attic of my small two-story house that “the heart is a radiator.” After regarding me quizzically for a few moments as if I’ve just taken leave of my senses, I lower my retractable stairway by adding: “because it leaks, it clanks, it heats up, and it cools down.” Then they are suddenly with me peering out the dormers.

That I indulged in difference or incongruity by so freely equating the heart to a radiator confuses and even intimidates my students initially. But then, with a little imaginative help, they feel at home on “the second floor” of higher sense, realizing that their imaginations, bizarre and dream-like as they might be, possess a type of intelligence that connects dissimilar things in a way that their literal minds just can’t, and in a way that is exhilarating, enlightening and entertaining. Without it, one is left lamenting a lack in his or her friend, or as Robert Frost opined in his poem Revelation, “Tis a pity if the case require/ (Or so we say) that in the end/ We speak the literal to inspire/ The understanding of a friend.”

Gazing out the window of poetry’s second floor at the infinitely complex world, one doesn’t have to make an extravagant leap to what the 19th century American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “unifying instinct” of nature.

“By and by,” he wrote in his essay The American Scholar, “nature finds how to join two things and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out from one stem.”

Walt Whitman read this and other similar insights in Emerson’s writings, particularly his essay The Poet, and articulated for the first time in literary history the idea of the transpersonal self, that self that crosses over from the speaker of the poem to the other. Or, as Whitman puts it himself at the opening of his great poem Song of Myself, “…what I assume you shall assume./ Every atom that belongs to me as good belongs to you.”

Similarly, the poet John Keats about 35 years before Whitman published Song of Myself, observed at the precocious age of 23 in a letter

to his brother George that the poet must learn “to exist in uncertainty, mysteries, doubt without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” Keats might also have included difference as one of the criteria for what he called “negative capability.”

How fascinating to discover that the poetic catalyst responsible for converting dissimilar things into powerful ironic likenesses lies also at the heart of compassion, that human capacity for seeing oneself in something totally different.

Two American poems — written around the same time, in the late 1970s — that come immediately to mind as memorable examples of such conversions are In the Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop and Hook by James Wright. In the first, Bishop remembers a childhood experience of waiting for her aunt Consuelo at the dentist’s office. While sitting in the waiting room, she hears her aunt cry out in pain, a sound that triggers a profound out-of-the-body experience in which Bishop realizes in her first startling social revelation that she “was her foolish aunt…an I,” as well as “one of them,” too. By them, Bishop means the “black, naked women” she’s sheepishly been gazing at in the National Geographic in the waiting room. She then goes on to make her first compassionate connection to others by thinking through the subterfuge of difference to the human commonalities she discovers at the conclusion of her questions about her connection to others, no matter how dissimilar they may be. “Why should I be my aunt,/ or me, or anyone?/ What similarities—/boots, hands, the family voice/ I felt in my throat, or even/ the National Geographic/ and those awful hanging breasts— /held us all together/ or made us all just one?”

In James Wright’s poem, Hook, Wright encounters “a young Sioux” on a cold street corner in Minneapolis who has a hook in place of his arm as the result of “a bad time [he] had with a woman.” Wright has also had a bad time with a woman, but he’s better off financially than the young Sioux. But rather than give the Sioux money for the bus, Wright accepts money from the Sioux. “Did you ever feel a man hold/ Sixty five cents/ In a hook/ And place it/ Gently/ In your freezing hand?” he addresses the reader, and then concludes, “I took it./ It wasn’t the money I needed./ But I took it.” Wright grasps the counter-intuitive greater gift of giving by receiving in this instance and in so doing erases any superficial differences between him and the young Sioux whose hook takes on sudden, powerful symbolism of mutual compassion in its gentle delivery, more so than any literal hand could.

These two poems don’t only meet W. H. Auden’s criterion for poetry as “memorable speech,” but tell “the news that stays news” about our human capacity both to live in poetry’s two-story house, and to transcend differences that seem initially impassable.

Chard deNiord is Vermont’s poet laureate. He lives in Westminster West.

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