What’s Donne Isn’t Done: On Ideas of Order and the Machinery of Poetry


Jonathan Brennan: Aberdaron, St Hywyn, 2012 (CC)

by Daniel Tobin

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

We are driving down the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales on our pilgrimage to Aberdaron. We intend to pay our respects to the memory and work of the other great Welsh poet whose surname is Thomas, the somewhat less famous of the two, but no less remarkable however contrary temperamentally. R.S. Thomas served for many years as clergyman of the Church of Wales in this remote village. As we descend the hill along the narrow roadway a stretch of moiling ocean opens into view beside a thin strand. Above the village, St. Hywyn’s double nave appears to preside modestly and benignly, like a shearwater at rest on a rocky verge, unmoving. For those who know the poetry of R.S. Thomas there is something at once deeply grounded, layered, and nonetheless ethereal in the sensibility, at once retrospective and prospective, at once mindful of the reaches that came before, of the urgencies of its time, and of the reaches that stretch out ahead and that can be glimpsed at best darkly through the imperfect glass of a searching mind. There is also rage in the work, blessed rage, of the kind Wallace Stevens definitively conjured in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Thomas, like Stevens’ unnamed vocalist at the edge of the human, also sang beyond the genius of the sea, though for him religion still offered compelling protocols for the life and the imagination.  We took a long time wandering in and out of the church, looking out over the shingle beach with its one great stone washed ashore, micron by micron over eons, then walked further up the thickly hedged road, before heading down again to the village and the one sparsely populated hotel for a meal.

The traditional way to posit an idea of order is to regard it as some long-lost unity of being that once was resident in a Golden Age or an Eden, or maybe in an Unmoved Mover or Watchmaker God—a God distant and removed, however ingenious, a supreme being but a being nonetheless among lesser beings.  That, however, is not the traditional understanding of God established biblically, which is a God who in God’s very transcendence establishes immanence: God is at once beyond being and the source of all being—I AM THAT IAM, the Uncreated without which there is no creation. When in his poem “The Ecstasy” John Donne muses “blood labors to beget / Spirits” he is suggesting, at the very least, that whatever might have been lost of ideal Reality will be recoverable for each life, if only as a seemingly impossible possibility.  The theology embedded in Donne’s poetry is liminal from this standpoint—we are fallen creatures, but we are here to labor and beget ourselves and each other out of our fallen state by aligning our labors with God’s.  That singular labor is love. One poem nearer to our own time that places itself on this threshold and turns with a backward look toward the ideal in the face of violence is Robert Hayden’s “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’.” The poem begins “today,” in a no less fraught moment in history, with the news from Selma and Saigon. Hayden’s poem juxtaposes all the human turmoil evoked by just those names with “the serene great picture” that the poet loves, and returns to see again and again as an enduring vision of something beyond the brutalities and injustices of history, yet somehow present through art:

Here space and time exist in light
The eye like the eye of faith believes
The seen, the known
dissolves in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

Surely, had he been living in Hayden’s time, Donne himself would have recognized Hayden’s own genius immediately for evoking an order of reality that offers something beyond solace—an idea or prospect of eternity. Indeed, by the poem’s end the reader encounters “the shadow of its joy.” Donne’s particular religious perspective, enlarged by the throes of history, I believe, would have found no impediment in Hayden’s Baha’i faith, as heterodox as Donne was in certain aspects of his thinking, and as perspicacious of the future. He would have recognized an art that nonetheless sought to center itself in some transfiguring vision, without neglecting the brutal facts of life. And what could be more a yoking together of the heterogeneous than time and eternity in Hayden’s “illusive flesh of light / that was, was not, forever is?” Stamping the theme with her incomparable genius, Emily Dickinson in “This World is not Conclusion” takes a more austere and radical stand on the subject:

This World is not Conclusion
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
It beckons, and it baffles—
Philosophy—don’t know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity, must go—
To guess it, puzzles scholars—
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown—
Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies—
Blushes, if any see—
Plucks at a twig of Evidence—
And asks a Vine, the way—
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit—
Strong Hallelujahs roll—
Narcotics cannot stop the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul—

Dickinson’s great poem denies any stock encounter with an “idea of order” that renders religion as it is practiced, a mere narcotic. Hers is an order that baffles as it beckons, one that could easily bring one into the volatile orbit of the world’s contempt. Christ on the cross for Dickinson is hardly a reassuring figure. Imitatio Christi means being crucified oneself—so much for sexualized religious ecstasy. Of course, being an uncompromising genius attuned to the intellectual concerns of her day (despite the limitations conferred on her by gender in her society) she likewise adapts the language of Darwinian evolution for her own purposes. Dickinson’s Species that “stands beyond” is invisible, more suggestive of something akin to Donne’s spirits the blood labors to beget than the wholly materialist animal, governed by physical mechanism, the survival of the fittest. The world is not conclusion, but God is not found in twigs of evidence, in pre-established figures of the sacred—Vine, Wine. God is a Tooth and, in a reversal of the Eucharistic meal, God eats you, slowly, perhaps in what Donne called elsewhere “the commissary of Destiny.” If the goal in death is to obtain a “spiritual body” then the passage to such transfiguration is no easy path to glory.

What John Donne only hints at in “The Ecstasy,” what Hayden seeks to see past in “Monet’s Waterlillies[sic],” and what Dickinson establishes in “This World is not Conclusion” in a manner that subverts the categorical thinking of religion and science equally is an idea of order that privileges prospect over retrospect, emergence over Golden Ages and Edens. It is an idea that certainly stirred R.S. Thomas, looking out as he often did from his resident perch above Aberdaron into the North Sea’s expansive offing. His poem “Emerging” speculates brilliantly on the matter:

Well, I said, better to wait
for him on some peninsula
of the spirit. Surely for one
with patience he will happen by
once in a while. It was the heart
spoke.  The mind, sceptical as always
of the anthropomorphisms
of the fancy, knew he must be put together
like a poem or a composition
in music, that what he conforms to
is art. A promontory is a bare
place: no God leans down
out of the air to take the hand
extended to him.  The generations have
watched there
in vain. We are beginning to see
now it is matter is the scaffolding
of spirit: that the poem emerges
from the morphemes and phonemes: that
as form in sculpture is the prisoner
of the hard rock, so in every life
it is the plain facts and natural happenings
that conceal God and reveal him to us
little by little under the mind’s tooling.

Compared to Donne’s elaborate conceit-making and structural orchestration, Thomas’s “Emerging” looks bare, sculpted as it is to the mind’s honed edge of unadorned realization—a kind of Giacometti visage fashioned out of words. Dickinson, I believe, would approve of Thomas’s refusal of anthropomorphisms, his regard for them as fancy, including perhaps even a three-personed God. In Donne, blood labors to beget spirits; in Thomas we need to look deeper still—matter itself, and the very components of language.  All things emerge, like art, through scales of reality into greater reality, bearing up those materials of which they are composed. Emergence trumps divergence, the real trumps the nominal. Nothing is residual for Thomas. The “plain facts and natural happenings” will bear this out. The God of “Emerging” is not a Watchmaker God, the demiurgic god of the Deists, a latter day “supreme being” standing behind if not beside all other beings, not what theologian David Bentley Hart calls the false god of “some stubborn tacit anthropomorphism that is in fact diametrically at odds with the God of classical theism”— not to mention the ultimate reality communicated in the “perennial philosophies” of all great faiths.[1] God, rather, is “put together” in an analogous way to a work of art, the embodiment of all beauty, as emergent paradoxically as physical reality and sentience—as immanence—because it is our consciousness of God “under the mind’s tooling” that emerges while the Being of God as Ground of Being endures revelatory in its very transcendence. “Emerging” appears to articulate what I’ve called in another context a subtending metaphysics.    At the same time, Hart would caution against overstating the case, for immanence cannot stand on its own viably and meaningfully, but must find its own sustaining actuality “analogically” within the divine transcendence, which is always greater because it is infinite.[2] Immanence, emergence, is merely one manifestation of the divine superabundance that always exceeds, even as it embodies all contingent reality.

As such, it is not the poet’s job to “prove” the existence of God or to confirm or disconfirm doctrine. Dante’s journey in the middle of life through Hell, Purgatory, and on into Heaven substantially reflects the faith of his time through the prism of Thomism. The poem is invested at every possible level with that vision.  It is itself, obviously, not a proof of the real reality underlying or beyond our life in the senses. Donne speculates in his poem “The Canonization” of lovers “proving” their love, Shakespeare’s love needs to be “proved” in Sonnet 116, and Larkin almost but not quite “proves” love’s survival after death in his great latter day of almost eternal endurance, “An Arundel Tomb.” R.S. Thomas’s direct appeal to theories of emergence obviously is not proof of any theory. Yet, it is compelling because Thomas makes it so in the poem’s attentive and surprising arc of the mind wrestling with one idea of the ultimate manifesting itself from below, not above. The same is true of Dickinson’s “The World is not Conclusion.” It is more than a little interesting that in our time the idea of order as process, as emergence; rather than statically removed, the Unmoved Mover has gained considerable traction across fields of thought. Drawing on neuroscience, many philosophers view consciousness as an emergent phenomenon in a way that matches R.S. Thomas’s vision of God in his poem “Emerging.” At the same time, a version of the idea of emergence at the heart of Thomas’s poem goes back to the heresy of Italian theologian Socinus in the sixth century. Socinus believed that God was neither omnipotent nor omniscient but rather grew in “godliness” with the development of the universe.  Thomas places something like that conception of God in the mind, in the consciousness. God is slowly revealed through “the mind’s tooling.” The view also resonates strongly with Teilhard de Chardin’s process-driven “divine milieu”, where evolution carries forward the teleological code of Christ emergent in material reality within its mechanisms until all physical reality achieves what Teilhard calls the ‘Omega Point’: the point where physics and metaphysics come into perfect alignment, like a kind of cosmic spirit level. From an entirely scientific perspective, the physicist Freeman Dyson wholly embraces the Socinian view of God in process when he declares: “I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what the mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.”[3] In short, though aligning his metaphysics with contemporary physics, Dyson implicitly affirms the anagogic level of meaning, the level of complete insight, as an advent of our evolution. “The analogical imagination—that “outmoded” metaphysical explanation for all that exists”—[4] re-emerges as the definition of a world defined by unity-in-difference.

There is a site on the internet where someone claims to prove that Google manifests many of the traditional attributes of God, most notably omniscience. Though I doubt the incipient divinity of the Google search engine, it’s remarkable that the Net itself is an emergent system, or as one expert in statistical mechanics reflects: “While entirely of human design, the emerging network appears to have more in common with a cell or an ecological system than with a Swiss watch.”[5] The apparently random nature of the Net exhibits “non-random topology,” which only means that its evolving pattern of connections challenges physicists “to unearth the signatures of order from the apparent chaos of millions of nodes and links.”[6] Though it grows exponentially without recourse to scale—and is therefore “scale free” like organic and ecological systems—what statisticians call “power-law distributions” arise naturally, and these laws invest the Net with properties leading to “the appearance of hierarchy.” In short, within the Net scale manifests out of scale-free randomness, order grows out of a seeming chaos of decentralize associations and, remarkably, this phenomenon mirrors the more tangible manifestations of physical reality. The result in this emergent prioritization of links and domains is “a small world” with only a relatively few numbers of clicks separating anyone from anyone else at any given time.[7] This small world phenomenon reflects more or less the close ties of ancestry revealed in the gene pool—approximately six degrees of separation. Apparently, no man is an island, even when one is alone in one’s room clicking away at web sites. What the Net exhibits through the application of its protocols, the terms that make the Net a cooperative system, what enable it to be a nexus founded on orderly emergence, entails a combination of dynamics and architecture that evolves in vital communion. Dynamics and architecture: the very attributes required for making an Internet, a universe, an emergent God, a creation, certainly a poem.

Perhaps not far removed from such apparently divergent reflections is the by now well-worn idea of order that a poem is a machine made of words. That statement has become commonplace since William Carlos Williams summarized his manifesto for poetry during the first half of the twentieth century.  The Objectivist poetics of Williams and Zukofsky, like the next generation Projective poetics of Charles Olson, share an essentially futurist vision with many painters and sculptors emerging during the same period. That futurist vision is in many ways the imaginative by product of an Industrial Revolution bound to the ideal of progress that–it is not too much to say–created a fetish of the machine. The mind-warping implications of the quantum world we now inhabit even at our scale of remove have far and away revolutionized our conception of the machine such that chips the size of atoms can store more information than the Library of Congress and the ancient Library of Alexandria combined. It is not surprising that we have internalized this fetish for the future: we regard ourselves as machines, the conscious part of a cosmos evolving in a vast system of mechanisms. At least that is the case apparently, since we have yet to crack the code of unifying the infinitely small with the infinitely vast. Perhaps string theory will accomplish that miracle. At the same time, in its small world, the practice of poetry during the latter part of the twentieth century gravitated toward “organic form.” The term embraces so-called free verse, and is large enough to include a wide range of poetic practice. What “organic form” generally admits is a strong mistrust of “fixed forms” and metrical composition; though Denise Levertov’s richer definition suggests something broader and more inclusive. She understands organic form to be “based on an intuition of order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories.” Such poetry, she affirms, is inherently “exploratory.”[8]

To orient one’s own understanding of poetry and the world by Levertov’s vantage is to invert the commonly mechanistic view of reality. If the Net, as is apparently the case, evolves in the manner of cellular or ecological systems, then our prevailing tendency to conceptualize reality according to the assumptions of a mechanistic universe—the Swiss watchmaker’s universe of outdated Newtonian physics, or the universe of the Watchmaker God—needs radical revision. Charles Olson’s “composition by field” leading to more experimental poetics finds an unlikely cue in this assumption. When we view the landscape of poetry from Levertov’s equally resonant prospect, however, we find others in fact had already been there. In his Biographia Literaria Samuel Taylor Coleridge elaborates the essential distinction between the modern and postmodern notions of organic form—the distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata: nature naturing, so to speak, and nature natured. Natura naturans is nothing other than Levertov’s form beyond forms or, better, it is the principle of forming that underlies all formation. It is, in short, the dynamics of form-making when we consider form from a teleological perspective. Natura-naturata is the plethora of forms things take, the “creative works” of which Levertov speaks. The concept bespeaks the architecture of forms as they have come to be, in the case of the poet’s work the finished poem. Building on the thought of medieval philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Coleridge aligns the two modes, natura naturans and natura naturata. The purpose of nature naturing is to form that which has been natured. Losing sight of the former leads to a vision of the world divested into objects, mechanistic, static and, in the case of poetry, an idolization of the “fixed form,” of the formalist. Losing sight of the latter leads to purposeless flow; it leads to the infinitely roiling energies of the quantum state devoid of any emergent properties. In the case of poetry, losing sight of architecture leads to shapelessness, the inability to arrive at closure or perhaps even to make sense. Dynamics requires architecture; architecture requires dynamics. Both require a greater purpose emerging out of potential’s endlessly incipient play.

Most notably, for Coleridge, the same mutually transformative vision characterizes the human place through the power of the imagination. Like nature naturing, for Coleridge the primary imagination is dynamic and ever-present. As he states in his Biogrpahia Literaria, the primary imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” The voice deep within us greater than ourselves is the echo of the Voice that speaks to Moses out of the burning bush—I am that I am: YHWH.[9] Imagination manifests essentially the dynamics of the divine image in human form. The secondary imagination comes under the purview of the will, and differs for Coleridge only “in degree” and in “the mode of its operation.”[10] It is the application by which things such as poems are made. In Coleridge’s view, as Malcolm Guite neatly states, the human mind “is not a ghost in the machine or a mist thrown up by the mere movement of matter,” it is “correspondent to something else beyond itself, and beyond the cosmos it inhabits.”[11] In Guite’s view, one might say, the correspondent breeze of the Romantics is the elusive but recognizable trace of the world’s emergence to a divine state that in Hayden’s words “was not, was, forever, is.” Emergence is a concept required by creatures of time to express a Reality that always eludes us and therefore always calls us forward.  For John Donne, in retrospect, the equivalent “signifier” encoding this divine / human correspondence is “wit.” The “sight of God” is both the object and the “wit,” Donne declares in his “Second Anniversary,” which suggests the divine image is at once the motivating dynamic of existence and the ultimate architecture of its end, at once circumference and center; or as Dante figured at the end of the Paradiso, a circle squared, the principal paradigm of which is the Logos incarnated into physical form, which is also the principle by which and through which all comes into being.

From Coleridge’s time onward so idealized a vision of the human place in the cosmos appears more and more remote, more and more compromised by the pressures of reality as lived and discerned on this limited scale of existence. The divine image, if invoked at all, appears better captured by the cutting words of Yeats’ Crazy Jane to the Bishop:

Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement,
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

The seemingly heretical Crazy Jane alludes in these lines—surprisingly enough– to St. Augustine who first observed that Christ, the Word-made-flesh, was born between urine and feces like everyone else. In saying exactly as much, Crazy Jane reveals that she is a more orthodox theologian and better student of Church history than the bishop who would have her live in “a heavenly mansion / Not in some foul sty.” As a machine made of words, Yeats’ “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” is very much a strictly “formal” poem: strong on structure, composed in three six line stanzas, the long “i” sounds rhyming through the first two stanzas between alternating unrhymed lines, and the rhyme in the third stanza taking up the sonic “n” resonance from the previous stanzas to arrive at its raging conclusion. For all its carefully shaped structure and steady iambic tetrameters, indeed through those very attributes, the poem’s dynamics are ferocious. What is at stake is how one lives in the fallen world, though beyond that the poem offers nothing less than a vision of reality, however unremittingly austere. Yeats is adamant for both: for expressing the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” and for “Unity of Being.” To have the heart’s dynamics, or the mind’s, for that matter without the desire for some comprehending vision is to curtail a poem’s range and impact. Yeats’ is an inherently analogical vision despite his “un-christened” heart, as Seamus Heaney once called it.

Nearer to our own historical moment, one hears something of the same Yeatsian ferocity in Andrew Hudgins’ “Piss Christ.” It is a poem written with a similarly piercing awareness of historical and theological insight, likewise hovering between belief and transgression:

If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
Glory, Christ transformed into light by light…

Through the strong anaphora of its opening lines “Piss Christ” seeks to subvert the assumption of the artist’s apparent heresy. We know already that Andres Serrano’s infamous artwork “Piss Christ” caused a firestorm, such that the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States came under scrutiny—and funding cuts—due to what was hailed as a sensational transgression against taste and religious values. Hudgins repositions our vantage, and he does so by foregrounding the reader’s “not knowing” or “un-knowing” over what we think we know. If only it were true that we could change our perception—our presumption of physical reality, and not just a work of art, so dramatically. By appealing to our “unknowing,” rather than our ignorance, Hudgins draws on a long history of apophatic thinking, of contemplative practice that finds the divine in darkness rather than in light. The remarkable arc of this first sentence, so apparently matter-of-fact, a straight-forward ekphrastic response, is that it begins in the mire of physicality and evolves wondrously into resurrection and light before giving us the reason: “because the blood and urine burn like a halo, / and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.”  The internal repetition of the word “light” twice carries forward the pattern of anaphora established earlier, and as such Hudgins’ rhetorical entry modulates into something closer to ritual, the way an oasis might appear in a desert out of rippling waves rising out of the sands. Ironically, we are lowered by the strophe-long sentence and Hudgins’ ten- to-twelve syllable loosely iambic line into the vat, and simultaneously raised up by the same movement into the light of resurrection.

Having moved the reader with cinematic elegance through the artistic and theological subject and substance of the poem, Hudgins in the second strophe offers something akin to an exegesis of Serrano’s self- polluted icon. Hudgins and Crazy Jane embrace the same theology, and it is nothing other than orthodox. That theology requires nothing less than the profoundest change to our stock assumptions about what is sacred and what is profane.  The celebrant has been transmogrified into the apologist, and both tones are necessary to the poem:

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine.  Blood, feces, urine—
the fallen world is made of what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross, and blood and urine smeared his legs—
the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole
and irreducible point of his descent:
God plunged in human waste, and radiant.

This second strophe re-frames the poem’s ritual use of the “base” materials of our material existence, now rendered in all their vivid materiality. Christ, “if there was a Christ,” is wholly human right down to the fluids. Especially blood. Hudgins is no closet Gnostic as was, evidently, Senator Jesse Helms who so fervently condemned Serrano’s art. In a brilliant verb choice, Christ “skids” into this world like all of us, like an accident in the process of happening. The process of happening: in Christ, “if there was a Christ,” God enters into the process of happening to be “mutilated,” “humiliated” as a mutable human being composed of mutable matter—both of those words emerging in the poem as sonic echoes of Pontius Pilate. Now Hudgins’ other verbs shift from the slightly comical “skidding” to the theologically profound “voided” and “thrown.” Both have the same depth of significance associatively and figuratively as Donne’s use of the word “knot” in his “The Progress of the Soul,” the knot of all causes.”  To void one’s self is unavoidable at the moment of death, but voiding the poem has in mind also alludes to the earliest known Christian statement of faith in St. Paul’s Letter to the Phillipians 2: 5-11, as well as an entire tradition of theological speculation. In Phillipians, the Greek word denoting Christ’s essential nature is kenosis, self-emptying. Christ through the incarnation is emptied into the fallen world and, in turn, through the crucifixion the source of the world’s fallen nature has been voided, that is, redeemed—“the whole / and irreducible point of his descent.” The word kenosis is itself a metaphor, a figure, referring to the emptying of a cask or vessel, and is linked in St. Paul’s early creed to the figure of the servant who is bonded to repay a debt, an existence-altering redemption. God’s self-emptying, his voiding of divinity into the humanity of Christ is the point. That point is really two points, Alpha and Omega, become one in the figure of Christ. In the beginning is the end, in the end the beginning. God in Christ, “if there was a Christ,” empties his very being into the body of the world. Christ, “if there was a Christ,” is thrown here as we have been thrown, as the whole of everything is thrown into chance, into the limitless associations, into the profane matrix, the land of unlikeness, and then into the sacred net in which all things are embodied, wholly themselves (haeccity) and through that discrete life, nonetheless into the very Likeness (which for a poet like Gerard Manley for Hopkins, Christ) that sustains each one in the being of their seeming unlikeness. This is the case, such figurations would have it, whether we are fallen from an ideal origin, or emergent toward some unfathomable pleroma.

“If there was a Christ” is in many ways the pivotal phrase in Hudgins’ poem, for it articulates succinctly the prevailing skepticism that would have been anathema certainly in Donne’s time, and it does so even for a poet like Hudgins who is obsessed with religious matters. At the same time, the poem’s theologically robust and visionary ending belies the poet’s ironic contingency clause, his theological hedge. If there wasn’t a Christ there should have been, the poem implies, for without Christ, the Logos, the Word, or an equivalent figure, we are nothing more than the voidable, expendable matter of ourselves—piss is piss, shit is shit, blood is blood, all unredeemable—unable to be transfigured either by God or artist or politician or poet. In the land of unlikeness where the associations that make the world do not add up and dissimilarity finally reigns supreme, unredeemed, there can be no summation and no real art for there can be no basis for meaning. Babel is babble, the only artistic currency.

From the standpoint of his implicit, if not explicit, religious optimism, Robert Hayden endorsed the underlying likeness of things, and that is precisely what enabled him to write the poems he wrote and to embrace the vision of a positive destiny for America.[12] Hayden’s Ba’ha’i faith overtly shapes his poetry. Hudgins’s Christian faith, or his wryly transgressive version of it, bears the same shaping power. There are, of course, many other poets for whom some deeply felt religious impetus exerts similar influence. But does one really need to appeal to the emblematic in one’s poetry, to the expressly figural, to align one’s work with some underlying idea of order? Mark Jarman raises this question in his thirteenth “Unholy Sonnet:”

Drunk on the Umbrian hills at dusk and drunk
On one pink cloud that stood beside the moon,
Drunk on the moon, a marble smile, and drunk,
Two young Americans, on one another,
Far from home and wanting this forever—
Who needed God? We had our bodies, bread,
And glasses of a raw, green local wine,
And watched our Godless perfect darkness breed
Enormous softly burning ancient stars.
Who needed God?

Who needed God? The answer to Jarman’s question is: they didn’t, at least not consciously. And nor, perhaps, does anyone in such a perfectly ideal setting, those young bodies unencumbered by disease, hunger, age, blessed with good bread and good wine, inhabiting their own sacrament of two on that Umbrian hillside: latter day lovers who desire nothing of Donne’s earth-transfiguring pattern of love. In this sonnet, a rueful homage to Donne, time itself and so inevitably memory and consciousness press the question:

And why do I ask now?
Because I’m older and think God stirs
In details that keep bringing back the time,
Details that are just as vivid now—
Our bodies, bread, a sharp Umbrian wine.

Here, the emblems of faith have been divested of their sacramental significance and the details of life, remembered meaningfully, become sacraments efficacious of God’s presence. This volta from the overt emblem to the detail is empowering. It is no great matter that Jarman transposes body, bread and wine—the constituent elements of the Eucharist—into profane proxies. In this reverse transubstantiation they become the real presence of God incarnated into memory. Is this, in fact, sacred or profane? The question is irrelevant in a world consecrated by God through God’s own self-emptying presence.

In both “The Canonization” and in his Holy Sonnet 14, John Donne’s theological metaphors live in the layers of tradition even as they lay siege to the traditional fire wall between sacred and profane. If the Divine Image present in the world as established by the Incarnation destabilizes that neat separation, then the equally traditional and orthodox understanding of God’s kenosis as the machine of incarnation—the necessary product of God’s divine economy—has the impact of placing as much sacral emphasis on the seemingly innocuous detail as the high flown figure. God emptied into the world’s encompassing net of relations is the answering and completing pattern to the pattern begged by the world “from above” in Donne’s “The Canonization.” One might say that the process of kenosis establishes a pattern of love that enables the pattern to gain validity from below, an answering emergence that has ethical implications and not only creative ones. Christ himself, “if there was a Christ,” spent far more time with the cast-offs of society who needed to be healed than with the well-heeled who often cast them off. Together the two patterns are really one pattern, intended to be signified by the word “Incarnation.”

Yet, the world is nothing if not worldly. The late Michael Donaghy offers a stirring essentially contemporary secular riff on such matters in a manner that echoes Donne’s own witty inventiveness. In the case of “More Machines” metaphysics blurs into physics, and vice-versa. “More Machines” begins with the equivalent of a “thought experiment” posed to determine the physical nature of a body in motion, only the body in motion is love itself, and love as in Donne’s poem must embody and express a pattern:

The clock of love? A smallish round affair
That fits in the palm. A handy prop
Like any of these: compare
The pebble, the pearl, and the water drop.
They’re all well made. But only one will prove
A fitting timepiece for our love.

Here, we find the rhyme “prove / love” now at the poem’s outset instead of its end as in Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb,” and echoing likewise both Donne’s “The Canonization” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116.” Donaghy intends to place his work squarely in their company. Donne’s “The Canonization” is a particularly complex feat of metaphorical, structural, and metaphysical engineering, no less than Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and Donaghy does not back away from the challenge. The physical timepieces, pebble, pearl and water drop, introduce three metaphors into the poem, each of which is tested by the poet’s imagination for its adequacy as a pattern suitable to express the reality of love. In short, the poet is self-reflexively dry-running his metaphors in the body of the poem as the poem proceeds, and he is doing so within a stanza structure that alternates abab before landing on a definitive couplet, cc. While the first stanza introduces the thought experiment, the second questions the adequacy of the pebble, and does so by entering the pebble’s consciousness if, that is, a pebble could have consciousness. From the pebble’s point of view all of existence unfolds almost at hyper-speed—the sun is “a meteor,” the day is “a strobe;” and yet “its machinery moves imperceptibly / Like the stars on continental drift.” Because the pebble moves at an almost impossibly slow rate of speed, it paradoxically perceives reality moving at impossibly rapid speeds. Yet the pebble is not, the poet concludes, adequate for timing human love since as the poem tells us “it never stops.” Donaghy’s wit is sharp, and here that wit implicitly contends with Donne’s idealized lovers. Implicit, too, is the implication that Donne’s figures are no longer adequate to express love in a pattern suitable to a time that has become thoroughly desacralized.

Donaghy begins to test the second metaphor– the water drop–by quietly destabilizing the poem’s structure and enjambing the second stanza into the third. That enjambment performs the action of the water drop descending. It also modulates the speaker’s voice into that of a lab technician. The drop “falls from the spigot during a summer storm / A distance of three feet.” At the medial caesura the speaker poses a question: “What does it see?” Water drops do not see, of course, and so the pseudo-scientific speaker reveals his pose. With each move the poem makes, Donaghy subverts its speaker’s apparent rational remove with perceptions and questions that would be non-sequiturs, in a world parceled into separate realities. What does the water drop see? Reality as stasis: “lightning fixed forever on a hot slate sky,” “birds fixed in an eternal V.” At the same time, unlike the seemingly stationary pebble, the drop’s very movement allows it to fall so fast “it knows no growth or changes.” Movement has become stasis, stasis becomes movement—the inverse of the pebble’s reality, which leads to the inverse paradox. What does the water drop measure? “A quick dog fuck,” the speaker tells us in an observation neither scientific nor expectedly poetic in its tone. Thus, the water drop “serves the beast as the stone serves God.” We can see now that the poem’s metaphorical testing, its succession of simultaneously physical and metaphorical thought experiments and hyperbolic use of relativity theory has come to the crux. It is a vision of reality at cross purposes. Now the poem proposes its final metaphor, its own true figure for the pattern of love:

But our love doesn’t hold with natural law.
Accept this small glass planet then, a shard
Grown smooth inside an oyster’s craw.
Like us, it learns to opalesce
In darkness, in cold depths, in timelessness.

In the end, Donaghy’s poem turns neither to any iteration of a Watchmaker God, nor to natural law, but to a version of the metaphysical worldview of microcosm and macrocosm, of the part in the whole, the whole in the part. The pearl is “a small glass planet.” As a figure, it is at once analogically pearl and planet, planet and pearl. Microcosm manifests macrocosm. Despite the scale difference through the figure microcosm is co-extensive with macrocosm, just as time is coterminous with eternity as Plato dreamed—time as a moving image of eternity. Donaghy’s pearl is not like the planet, it is the planet without ever ceasing to be itself—entirely anagogical. Appropriately without any express appeal to theological considerations, the pearl of “More Machines” offers a pattern of love evolving over time, “learning,” and doing so in the darkness and cold depths of its familiar milieu—emergent from below. In its final turn the poem shifts gears from metaphor to simile—“Like us”—as it turns its focus from the figure of the pearl to the life of the lovers. From self-reflexive conceit-making we enter life. Donaghy’s “More Machines,” like all great poems conceived of, themselves, metaphorically as machines, open to the life always emergent beyond their aesthetic mechanisms. The milieu of the lovers’ formation, like that of the pearl, is ultimately a version of “timelessness,” a version of heaven here, another “midwinter spring in its own season” to borrow from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” and evolving in mutual, anagogical, participation. It is Michael Donaghy’s belated variant of John Donne’s “knot, of all causes,” a mutation so to speak for a more secular and, as if it were possible, even more fractious time. Without any direct appeal to some Divine Image, the pearl of Michael Donaghy’s “More Machines” illuminates the promise of a prospect not entirely knowable but nonetheless available to the mind of the poet, and to anyone with the eyes to see imaginatively. That in itself, one might say, is a pearl of great price.




[1] See David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[2] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003) 179ff.

[3] Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (New York: Perennial, 2004) 119.

[4]Lynch, 259-260.

[5]Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, “The Physics of the Web,” Physics World (July, 2001) 33.

[6]Barabasi, 34.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Denise Levertov, “Some Notes on Organic Form,” in The Poet’s Work. Ed. Reginald Gibbons (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1979) 255.

[9] See Guite, 169.

[10] Quoted in Guite, 169.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Robert Hayden, Collected Prose (An Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984) 84.

About the Author

Daniel Tobin is the author of six books of poems, Where the World is Made, Double Life, The Narrows, Second Things, Belated Heavens (winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry), and The Net (2014). His seventh book of poems, From Nothing, is forthcoming in 2016. He is the author of the critical studies Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Awake in America, and the editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: The Selected Early Poems and Lola Ridge, and Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art. His awards include the “The Discovery/The Nation Award,” The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, and fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Cover image: Hefin Owen: Aberdaron Church, 2019 (CC)

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