Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Ignorance of the Poet

There is a certain ignorance the poet must achieve if she is to write honestly; and it has various levels.  One is the ignorance of the outcome of the poem at the outset—the “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” Robert Frost tells us about.  This is axiomatic enough to be trite although we need reminding every now and then.  Another is the ignorance of truth as writeable—it cannot be written.

One of my pet peeves is the workshop leader who urges us to “write what cannot be written” and then lets us off as we think that the unsayable is something we’re merely afraid to say and that must be said.  This is therapy, not poetry.  Since the truth cannot be written, does not exist in words, what we try to do is create an experience of the presence of truth.  This is not doctrinal in any way although I do draw from Thomas Merton’s Inner Experience in my phrasing.

When I first read “time held me green and dying/though I sang in my chains like the sea” by Dylan Thomas (in “Fern Hill”) I was gripped by the experience of truth and became a devotee of it on the spot (although I tried not to be for a long time).  I can break down the words and phrasing all I want, interpret the poem all I want but I cannot speak, put into words, the truth of the poem for it lies outside its own words.  This is true with every great poem, the ones that move us in ways we cannot and need not explain and understand.  At best, we can only be present with the poem—but that’s enough, in fact it may be all.

I cannot tell you how to achieve this in your own poems but I can tell you that in order to write you must write a lot.  You must write beyond therapy.  You must write until you are unconscious of your knowledge.  As Matt in The Fantasticks says, “I defy knowledge and achieve ignorance.”

So long for now.

No comments:

Post a Comment