Recall, Orpheus: Upon the End of National Poetry Month
The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, William Blake, 1826
by Ed Simon
Recall, Jacob. The Hebrew patriarch’s nocturnal wrestling with that unnamed angel, presumed to be God Himself. The story is sublimely strange, in the manner of the scriptures at their most powerful. As a book, or rather a collection of books, the poetry of the Bible is the most true when it is the most inexplicable. To whit, Jacob fought with the supernatural being, and prevailed, earning him his blessed new name “Israel” (“he who fights with God”), but when desiring to learn the name of his assailant, God demurs. Genesis 32:29: “And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?” The patriarch is victorious in all but ever finding what the true name is for this being he has wrestled with. The story remains supremely disquieting in what it doesn’t say.
There is one possible interpretation, rooted in the Axial Age beliefs of the men who repeated such stories and the scribes who wrote them down, and in many ways an interpretation that remains true in a primal and visceral way. That is that the story conveys the singular, powerful, and literally magical possibilities within language – the supreme, spooky, transcendent capabilities inherent within the Word. There is significance in a name, and in a manner all words are names of a sort. Men and women of Jacob’s day understood how powerful the word could be, to know someone’s name was to have the possibility to supernaturally control them. This being, this God, who Jacob struggled with could lose the night-battle, but must never lose the war. Jacob can never know His true name. This is the fear that motivates the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain, it is not a simple issue of the perceived disrespect inherent in blasphemy, rather it is to prevent the use of magical language so as to ensnare or somehow control the being which created the universe. In this way, creatures must never have dominion over their creator, and the Word must remain ineffable. In the beginning there my have been the Word, but it must endlessly defer to itself.
The word is simultaneously profane, that which we use to communicate everyday; and the Word is sacred, that which exists and justifies the ground of being. This is worth remembering, for it is just as true today as it was in Jacob’s era. There is magic in poetry, not just as a metaphor but in a literal sense as well. Narrative, fiction, language, prosody, all of these, despite the calipers of criticism, maintains a sort of charged and enchanted power. There is something sacred in poetry which is greater than and before that of even religion, and this power of language – to conjure completely different worlds that exist only in the grammatical relationships of abstract words to one another, to maintain the ability to affect the objective world of material existence, and to function as totems of meaning which can travel from mind to mind – was as true for Jacob wrestling with his angel as it is for any of us wrestling with meaning today.
In the ancient world of the Mediterranean, Greek and Jew alike were united in this alphabetic predisposition, that letters, words, and language were uniquely capable of a special kind of power. This is not an entropic jeremiad, I do not believe that the power of language has lost any of its magic; it still permeates and pulses through conversation, paper, and now unseen electrons. The power of language is so all-encompassing a medium, that like a fish in water, we don’t even need to recognize it for its magic to work. Where ancient papyri were perhaps inscribed with special combinations of letters used to protect, condemn, conjure, and divinate, the great literary lines of our own culture spread meme-like throughout the system of interconnected humans, which constitute our species. Not all combinations of letters are equal of course, just as a misplaced diacritical in ancient Hebrew could indicate the wrong vowel and thus nullify any power a given line may have had, a misplaced word that makes a line unmemorable can negate the effectiveness of the poetic line. If the first part of my argument is that poetry remains in some sense enchanted, the second is that no poem can be fully enchanting if there is not a line which can function as a fragment shored against your ruin. Not all lines can be memorable; indeed a hypothetical cento of only excellent turns of phrase negates the power of the memorable line, which defines itself contextually in opposition to the ones that act as mere supporting actors. But when a line aphoristically rises to the level of magic, then being able to call it forth is like the power of knowing God’s real name.
In lyric, or in the now sadly discarded genre of epic, the memorable line is the fundamental currency. If a poem does not have a line that sticks inside your skull it is not a good poem. For the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. As the ancient Hebrews and Greeks understood, the abecedarian that was human language constitutes a communal tongue shared by all of us, our best thoughts are often crafted by others, for as William Burroughs said the word was a virus, but viruses are the very substance of inoculation. Poems are remembered by phrases: “In Xanadu did Kublah Khan,” or a “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “Do not go gentle into that good night.” These fragments are like pottery shards we excavate from a site and imperfectly glue together to constitute our own self-hoods. We do this because a thing of beauty is a joy forever. And though no poem is as supposedly as lovely as a tree, the tree only has existence because we are able to name it.
National Poetry Month recently ended in that cruelest of months. Critics may take aim at the kitschification of poetry which once supposedly existed at the heights of Parnassian influence, as if now the American Academy of Poets and the Poetry Foundation have conspired to force Orpheus to write copy for those magnets and greeting cards with inspirational sayings on them available for purchase near the checkout line at Whole Foods. That is the critique of the entropic jeremiad, it not necessarily (or at least not always) mine. As the only things that have ever been done at large scale have only ever been facilitated through the power of language, it is very much true that poets unironically are, always have been, and always will be, the unacknowledged legislators of the world. This is true for both good and evil, kitschification is irrelevant to that. No amount of either denigration or celebration can either exult or diminish the simple fact that language is all-consumingly powerful, and poetry is the most distilled, crystalline, and perfect example of language.
All language is magical, and all poetry is language, but not all language is poetry. The unique capabilities of verse are that it simultaneously refers to something beyond itself as all language does (whether something real or not) while also drawing attention to its own artifice. In this way poetry is both the means of expression, and the object itself. Poetry, through the use of certain incantatory affects which we call rhythm, meter, rhyme, consonance, assonance, metaphor, simile and so on makes its own artifice obvious, and thus is honest about and admits its magic. Poetry can be about all sorts of things; it can be political, religious, personal, propagandistic, doggerel, what have you. But one of the most important subjects of every poem, without exception, is the idea of poetry itself. If all language, in its infinite, endlessly recursive ability to create new worlds and to alter the one that we’re living in, is a form of magic, than poetry is when that system becomes self-conscious. Poetry is when language thinks about itself. It is not about consciousness; it is consciousness.
Perhaps the fears about a decline in poetry (which is a priori impossible since wherever language exists poetry must by definition) are because we simply do not recognize the fact that our very lives are poems themselves, and that the stuff of verse is in the protean everyday. We always have been, and still are, composed of poetry, lines of verse always rattle about in our heads, whether promoted by the academy or not. Those svengalis of Madison Avenue are sometimes great poets, often those fragments shorn against our ruin were penned there. Witness one example: the Foot, Cone & Belding slogan for insecticide, “Raid Kills Bugs Dead,” which was written by the Beat poet Lew Welch when he worked in advertising and is a perfect example of spondaic bimeter. Or if not advertising, then surely popular music should be seen as a reservoir of contemporary poetry without controversy, harkening back to when the Psalms were sung. As the novelist Michael Chabon once said, Warren Zevon’s line “Little old lady got mutilated late last night” from “Werewolves of London” taught him everything he needed to know about consonance, assonance, and alliteration.
W.H. Auden wrote that “A poem makes nothing happen,” and in a way he is right. Like the great God of the medieval mystics, a poem exists unto itself, and only for itself, meaning radiating out from it. A poem sells nothing but itself, not even insecticide. But of course poems make things happen, whether we see them as poems or not, for language makes things happen, because to know the name of God gives you dominion over him even if you are His creation. As we are the creation of language, the ability to manipulate that language generates its own power. This is true whether there is a month to acknowledge that power or not, because it exists whether we see it or not. As for God, one assumes our prayers are appreciated, but hardly necessary for His existence. The same is true for poetry.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.