- Out of Notebooks
In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James says that the life of religion consists of the belief “that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Much poetry, however, comes out of the process of failing to so adjust, or of the torment and struggle to adjust, the dissonance and raucousness of the work of it. I believe a poet’s task is to tell the struggle, to attempt to reveal the order or our dream of it. Poetry that convincingly and freshly declares knowledge of that harmony or makes sweet music of that agreement is very rare. Thomas Traherne and Henry Vaughan do it. Such poetry may be a little superfluous, for who needs to have represented what has been so supremely experienced? To satisfy religious desire, Gerard Manley Hopkins turned language itself into a kind of gigantomachy.
In a certain Australian tribe, boys about to be initiated are taken from their mothers by masked men, carried outside the village, made to lie on the ground, and then covered entirely with sticks and branches. They are “buried” in order to experience an artificial night, estranged from the familiar natural night of stars and moon. They are interred in absolute darkness, surrounded by terrifying creatures, until the arrival of their god is signaled by the sound of bull-roarers. These experiences are repeated throughout the initiation period: removal, burial, darkness and death, terror, and the arrival of the god. In a secular time, forms of poetry are like that: in and of nature, they yet are not natural, but cultural. The artificial surround, the hermeticism of form make a poet more alert to the presence of gods and their terrifying assistants; but unlike the initiate, the poet is not just the sufferer and receptor, but also the respondent, giving shape to the formless divine darkness. In the sounds of the poem coming into being, you hear and pursue the sound of bull-roarers; the rough music of the poem in its beginnings is the noise of the approaching deity.
In one of his essays, Mircea Eliade says that poets try to remake the world, to see it as if neither time nor history exists, and that this attitude is much like that of the “primitive,” of the person in traditional society. We don’t [End Page 19] live in a traditional society. Most poets coming out of the European tradition, certainly those in North America, write out of the ruins or remnants or inchoate beginnings of dozens of different traditions: religious, mythological, familial, and political. I know that a poet seeks and, when fortunate, succeeds in seeing (to borrow Eliade’s phrase) in illo tempore: in the First Time, the Early Time, in or near Paradise, which means “walled garden.” But poets write of and with the body, which is pure contingency, time, and an image of history. I may desire to remake or resee the world in its First Time, as it was in the beginning, but I know in that moment of desire that I will produce a picture of impossibility, that I write out of the contingency of body, hour, event. If the “pure” or “primitive” poet seeks to remake the world, he or she does so in the shadow of Nimrod, master builder of the Tower of Babel.
Paradise is where objects have a hard, bright singleness not numbed or clouded by habit, by what Baudelaire calls “the heavy darkness of communal and day-to-day existence.” The more habituated we become, while objects proliferate so riotously in our culture, the harder it is to keep the sensors alive and sharp, to preserve our Edenic sense. Maybe we are so flooded by objects of habit that we are nearly always distracted from the shining particulars of existence that strike us on every page of Homer, and so we tend to seek meanings, privileged meanings, in whatever is idiosyncratic or strange. We insist more and more on certain moments, picked from the bin of identical parts, as unique, freighted with meaning or consequence—the privilege of details noticed, notions entertained. The...