The Poetic Sensibility

When writing about writing and how it is done and understood, I must acknowledge the bitter truth: there is no way to teach the poetic sensibility and practice will not cultivate it. The poetic sensibility is either present in you, or evolves as you come of age. No matter how much you study or emulate the techniques and practices I’m trying to illustrate (and attempting to demonstrate,) without the eye—without the sensibility—technical precision means nothing…

If you were to see a willow tree expelling pollen, what type of correlation can be made to imbue this image with poetry? When a willow tree is expelling pollen, it is raining DNA and therefore life itself is literally raining from the sky. It is this type of correlation that gives poetic color to the familiar.

During the time I spent in New York City, a city full of aesthetic art-deco architecture and historical sites steeped in lore and legend, the most striking and poetic visual I encountered was a solitary flower just outside The Strand, a book store teeming with beautiful and colorful poetry. What made this image so memorable was how it stood in absentia of other flowers of its type. The reason for it being there was, to me, unknown, but it was there, fledgling, struggling to get the light blotted out by the monoliths of our civilization. I knelt beside the flower to see how it was getting any light. And I discovered something I didn’t think was possible. The flower wasn’t receiving light directly; it was growing from reflections cast, and shafts of bent light through skyscraper windows.

It was lit by Pale Fire, a line from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, later appropriated by Vladimir Nabokov in his book of the same name. The flower and the book became intimately linked. This imbued an ordinary flower with a rich, four-dimensional history, a history from which an entire world of embedded poetry can spring.

I have thought about that flower a lot, what kind of flower it was, and what happened to its kind. Which, in itself, brought to mind the published work of Tupac Shakur, The Rose that Grew from Concrete. I had never seen this kind of flower before and it really hadn’t bloomed, but it seemed to be trying.

In Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, the narrative voice alternates between two fictional characters, John Shade–the author of the 999 line poem and his editor, a foreigner from Zembla by the name of Charles Kinbote. The element that is most remarkable, to me, is how Shade believes that by writing about the universe, we gain understanding of it.

In one of the best works of literature ever written, and my personal favorite, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or as it is alternatively translated, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel does the equivalent of creating what may be the first four dimensional novel in history, as every object is imbued with an unspoken, associative history to later be recalled spontaneously.

The important aspect of Proust’s art is its lack of equivocation and bombast; although it is related to points in time, it is not necessarily allegorical in nature. Dissertations can expound upon and bring a better awareness of recurring elements within the novel, but it’s all pretty much right there. For example, in the version that I read, the narrator Marcel, who is not Proust, recalls a moment when he dips Madeline cake into tea and it produces a type of transcendent state of being, and it causes him, as a child, to hear a sort of holy music.  He uses time and object association instead of symbol and idea representation, although he does both, but it is later when he is in his own home, as he relates in a collection published under his name On Art and Literature, he dips his toast in tea and that intangible, holy music comes back to him some thirty years after the original experience. This would later be reproduced in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past.

The idea that dipping bread into tea can trigger such moments is the art, and the poetic value of it is in the spontaneity in which it forces itself to the forefront of the poet’s mind. These are not recollections or déjà vu; these are relived sensations, tying points in time together.

More has been written about Marcel Proust than just about any other writer since his time, with the exception of perhaps Nabokov and Hemingway, so I don’t intend to turn this into a dissertation on Proust.  There are over four thousand pages in Remembrance of Things Past, so there is far more in its pages than any critic, despite their acuity, has the ability, or the time, to unpack. Howard Moss’s The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust is the best condensation of the leviathan work of world literature, along with a wonderful book by Jonah Lehrer, a beautiful marriage of science and art; Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  [Nabokov] offered his opinion in his collection, Lectures on Literature. So we’ll move along. Nothing to see here.

An example that will not be universally agreed upon as being poetic, is one of the most touching moments of mutual consolation in literature, and comparable to A Tutti Contente, from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The prevalent interpretation (which is brought to the fore in Salieri’s analysis in the film Amadeus)of consolation in this opera takes place when the man, who began the story in joyous exaltation, in the measuring of his marriage bed, becomes disenchanted with his wife, and in A Tutti Contente, speaks the only kind words he has spoken to her in months because he believes she is someone else. It is this type of consolation to be found in the most memorable scene in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

A little context: Raskolnikov is a penniless student an ex-tutor who has resorted to murder; the murder of an elderly pawn broker and, to compound his crime, the murder of her invalid sibling. That’s just dirty pool, Radia. Although the intention is robbery, Raskolnikov is seen throughout the early part of the novel giving away money only acquired by pawning invaluable, personal items; a silver cigarette case, his father’s watch. For example, he leaves money for the drunken Marmeladov’s family when he leaves his home, knowing he has no more money, and no way to get any. And once he has committed the murder, he hides the plunder under a stone and then never makes use of it. His punishment is not the punishment of the crime by law, it is the punishment endured by the guilty conscience shrinking under an ideal he no longer believes in.

The scene I’m referring to, I’ve been told, is not in most English translations of Pretuplene e Nakazami due to the amount of Russian Mat found in the original. Russian Mat is an organized language of obscenity in the Russian speaking world, a type of slang used by the vulgar and profane. The scene to which I refer takes place between the prostitute Sofya (Marmeladov’s daughter) and the murderer Raskolnikov after Marmeladov’s death. After confessing to his crime to Sofya, she forgives him, and he responds by kissing the prostitute’s feet.

This may not translate into poetry or romance for everyone, but to me it’s one of the most memorable moments in the history of literature, even if it’s not included in the English translations, or even if I misread the Russian copy I had. Either is possible, and it might be an invented memory, but it is undeniably poetic. There is more beauty in this than all the rotating rom-com reunion shots in cinema and it takes place between a murderer and a prostitute. So, my sense of what qualifies as poetic may be questionable.

To look at another example that can be considered questionable, Anna Karenina’s choice to be alone in a grave rather than alone in a world without love, is also a poetic gesture. And by poetic gesture, she throws herself in front of a train and dies. Moments of tragedy have been imbued with poetry from the beginning of human literature. Consider what leads to Hamlet’s most famous scene (well, that is debatable; as nearly everything he says is an exercise in what the poetic sensibility should be,) in which he speaks to the skull of a jester, a familial friend he had known as a child, yes: Yorick. A fellow of infinite jest, I’m told.

The juxtaposition of the macabre (he is holding the skull of a former friend whom he adoration) and the beautiful elaboration on the character of Yorick is what makes the scene work so well. This is how the terrible can be beautiful; it just takes the right sensibility to put it together. This leit-motif of memento mori was common for the time. It also hints at how time modifies memory and change events based on changing the emotion associated with its memory: ‘He hath bore me on his back a thousand times’ can be distorted, (he describes it as abhorrent.) This is a scene of a man talking to the skull of a dead and beloved friend and it is poetic and beautiful.

This is how the correlation between the leit-motif of memento mori (Remember, you’re going to die) and the response to this is the contemplation of legacy (Please do not think about your legacy before you die, you’ll die earlier just to enhance it) and the transience of earthly beauty. It can be argued that one of the most beautiful and most quoted poems of all time, Edward Fitzgerald’s ‘translation’ of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, is ostensibly dedicated—depending on the interpretation—to telling you that you’re going to die, but this has beauty in it, so, Khayyam suggests, drink wine. Or at the very least, don’t let the fact that everything you have is going to be taken no matter what you do take away from what you do enjoy.

The moving finger writes, and having writ,

Moves on;

Nor all thy piety, nor wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all your tears wash out one word of it.

The poetic sensibility arises in people who see change as a never-ending process and that it is the transience of life that gives us the incentive to hold dear to us such beauty. Poetics is the application of human sensibilities mixed with linguistic skill. You don’t have to be a walking dictionary to do poetry properly. Dr. Seuss wrote one of the most famous works in English literature, Green Eggs and Ham, with one-hundred and fifty words. Ulysses, by James Joyce, on the other hand, uses about 25,000-30,000 words. But there is one part in which the juxtaposition of the unchangeable and the changeable are somewhat inverted when Bloom discusses with Stephen the death of his son, Rudy, who died at eleven days, although he doesn’t imagine him this way; he imagines him at eleven years, and through this poetic license and imprint, something resembling immortality emerges. But even that is ephemeral.

When we’re held accountable for our civilization, what survives the ravages of time to represent our souls, our art and culture will probably not be recognizable, or considered degenerate, to the species that will inevitably succeed us. What then is truly immortal within systems of expression? Well, in our case, it is the need to express. It is definitive.

Works of expression can define entire epochs. Consider Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock; it defined a generation, not through its accuracy, but in the details, through its clumsy humanity. You can hear bombs dropping, sirens blaring–the sounds of chaos, but in the end, he finishes it off perfectly, with resolution. It’s not intended to be perfectly rendered, anyone can do something with technical precision and accuracy, but the clumsy, flailing, jarring notes of individuality; it is clumsy, frail, on the cusp between definition and degradation–and that is why it’s so definitively human.

The poetic sensibility is what separates photographs, taken by photographers, from van Gogh paintings, because there is (or so I’ve been told) imperfection in his representation of nature. Unless he saw the world in a way people who criticize him do not–people who admire the perfection of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but scoff at Vincent van Gogh’s talent. He is to be maligned because he saw the world in a way only people with this sensibility could see. That’s the point of all the chaos in his brushstrokes. It is the chaos of his mind and that is what we’re looking at in his paintings, not landscapes, but mindscapes, dependent upon our poetic sensibility to understand the consolation granted through such chaos.

Yes, he could paint. He could paint as realistically as anyone at that time could. In an era where a machine can do what only the best of masters could a century earlier, van Gogh found a way to make representations human again. In fact nearing the later stages of his life, Rembrandt, considered by many to be the finest portrait painter the world has ever seen, began to go in a direction that would have become what van Gogh did had he lived. His dishonored masterpiece–the one of the barbarian’s lair–is a primordial example of expressionism, where the artistry is evident in the passion of the strokes as much as it is in the accuracy of the depiction.

Simon Schama said it best when he said that, at a certain point in Rembrandt’s life, he stopped carrying about the ‘noisy, outward show’ of life and turned on a ‘quiet, inner radiance.’ This inner radiance is what vibrates on the canvas of Starry Night Over the Rhyne, the other Starry Night painted by Vincent van Gogh. It was revolutionary and completely new, and it took a generation, and van Gogh’s death, to vindicate him and realize what he had done as genuinely revolutionary.

You cannot change the way someone sees the world. And it’s true to say the poetic sensibility can be nurtured and sharpened, it cannot be given to someone. You can be taught about poetic traditions, poetic techniques and styles and masters of poetics, but you can’t be taught the sensibility required to be authentically poetic.

It has been said that no class on philosophy can substitute for enough hours spent watching the world from a bus window. Anyone who has spent more than ten consecutive hours looking out a window becomes, for that duration, a philosopher. If constraint can turn someone into a philosopher, what, if anything, can turn someone into a poet?

Thinking. Seeing patterns and important correlations between things of no importance independently. It doesn’t always work. Studying the work of other poets can help you, as long as you know how to incorporate what you know without imitating.

I’ve done other work, essays and novels and plays and what not, but the way Victorian classic verse conveys a sense of music in tone and meter is my favorite way of composing. I was first acquainted with it the way many of my friends in the South were: through the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, a poet to which I have been compared for my stylistic approach. The reason for the comparison is probably not (solely) considerate of style; but more of readership in America, or at least in the American south.

At any given point you may be able to recall to mind maybe, at most, one hundred artists to which you could accurately define as poetic. If only 300 people in the population have the proper sense of the poetic, what percentage of the population is that?

It’s not exactly encouraging to see what percentage of the population individuals constitute:  .0000000428571429% is the percentage of the world that is you, that was Balzac, Chekhov, Mozart and Mary Shelley. If we suppose that across the language barrier there are 10 million poets, our access is fundamentally limited; the National Virtual Translation Center recognizes around 7,000 languages. The most erudite of intellectuals can lay claim to fluency in 3 to 5 of those languages, so that severely limits the ability for poets in the rest of those languages to be considered.

I wrote most of this chapter at a bar with a friend of mine in Anderson, SC. I asked her to name five poets.

She named Brandon Nobles (an up-and-comer with great potential and talent, I hear) Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. (I expect she was being deliberately facetious.) If one considers how many languages there are, and compares that to how many they can name, well, I’ll say this: it doesn’t make you feel important.

I have studied language for the better part of my life and I’d claim true fluency in two languages; I have a good grasp of Italian, French, and German, and know enough of the rest just to get by. The fluency of which I speak amounts to being able to read and write in the language, the ability to debate science and philosophy, and the ability for thorough knowledge of synonyms and puns. It takes years. And people have jobs and other such stuff to do. If it’s not important to their life, or in some way improves it, it isn’t important enough to spend years learning.

So, grant the linguistic and philology students about 5 languages to work with among 7,000, and this brings down the percentage of poets available to reach you considerably. To an English speaker, W.B. Yeats may be the final word on classical, Victorian poetry; that is because classical, Victorian poetry is the only poetry that falls within their purview. This is no slight on people who major in English. If it takes years to learn to appreciate the poetry of Sun Tzu in its native tone, the original is going to only disturb the way your anticipation of language syntax is structured and become obtrusive upon fond memories of prior translations. Ask me how I know.

An English translation will, for 99% of the population, suffice for anyone wishing to study The Art of War. The same is true of the beauty of the Arabian Nights, the Songs of Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes from the Christian Holy Bible, and the aforementioned Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which, after learning enough poetry to appreciate the tone in its original—I preferred the English translation, the tone, the structure, everything about it appealed to my English sensibilities.

So when an English poet believes one poet to be superior to another, particularly a poet whose work is being read in translation, nobody flinches. Someone who pipes up and says ‘read it in its native language’ are just like those people who say of inadequate movie adaptations ‘read the books!’  And they’re assholes for so doing.

It’s important to recognize that different languages are, for the main part, different in more areas than sound arrangement and script. The arrangement of the words is different and (can) be unnatural to the native English speaker. The linguistic typology is different. Consider Irish (or Gaelic), a verb-subject-object language. The English rendering of Phil walked home, is in Gaelic rendered Home walked Phil. In subject-object-verb languages, it would be Sam home walked. There are subject-verb-object languages, like English and Russian, then there are verb-object-subject languages, like Baure and Malagasy, in which the rendering would be Walked Sam home.

There are object-verb-subject and object-subject-verb languages as well, and most of these methods of writing are entirely alien to English speakers. A better run-down of this can be found in Charles F. Meyer’s Introducing English Linguistic International, Student Edition and in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal (2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.) Basic Word Order: Functional Principles by Russell S. Tomlin is good too, if somewhat out of date.

It is disheartening and hard to accept, for me at least, that there is a world of poetry being written that will never fall into my purview. This limits us to popular poets; and poetry, in the new millennium takes place within music. Modern music and lyrics have taken the spot once reserved for poetry to convey poetic ideas. There is genuine poetry to be found in music of all sorts; there is poetry in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Alkan, Mozart, Liszt and Chopin; there is poetry in modern music, hip-hop, by its very nature, lends itself to poetic intention and execution.

When I began this essay, I mentioned correlation and representation as important elements of poetry. There is a song by Tupac, which I will discuss for a moment, which works with correlation and representation in a grand way: Thugs Mansion. I know it may seem as though I’m breaking some intellectual rule by even mentioning rap (I like basketball too! Go ahead, judge me) but it is the poetry of modern America, for good or ill. While I believe that emotions are best expressed through tone and atmosphere, that’s not the end of consideration. For example, consider this verse, the first in Thugs Mansion:

A place to spend my quiet nights,

          Time to unwind,

         So much pressure in this life of mine;         I cry at times.

         I once contemplated suicide,      

         And would’ve tried,

         But when I held that nine

         All I could see was my mama’s eyes.

         No one knows my struggles;

         They only see the trouble–       Not knowing it’s hard to carry on      When no one loves you. 

The reason this works, despite the directness, is because of the directness. Before Tupac, poetry in rap was described pejoratively as backpacking; by blending poetry and the streets, a form of hip-hop that has been imitated by just about everyone since Tupac. Rakim. NWA, and Public Enemy were excellent social critics in their own right; Rakim would be an outstanding intellectual, on par with a professor in technical lyricism if he didn’t think he had to be an Islamic muller when he backpacks.

Tupac gave poetic expression to the struggles of black people in America during an era in which black Americans were reliving a sort of civil rights struggle. I won’t pretend to know what it’s about, because I don’t know what it’s like to be black. But this voice, running the streets, carrying guns was given a conscience. Tupac was certainly imbued with the poetic sensibility and enjoyed popularity in his lifetime, but his death drew a lot more attention to his message. From Changes.

“I made a G today.”

         But you made it in a sleazy way,         Sellin’ crack to the kids.          

“But I gotta get paid.”    

Hey, that’s the way it is.

The importance of this stanza cannot be overstated. People put into situations such as poverty are not always acting immorally; it is not immoral to do what you have to do to survive. Giving voice to this struggle is what made Tupac a success, an icon of late 20th century hip-hop. He was a poet, with the poetic sensibility, who just happened to use hip-hop stylings to get it out. Another example of poetics in mainstream hip-hop can be seen in Eminem’s better work.

On his second mainstream release, Eminem produced two songs that touched on so many themes inherent in poetry that, by twenty-six, his legacy was cemented as more than a rapper; he was a satirist with a high awareness of the messages he was able to convey and Stan was a thoughtful piece of social commentary as well as being a genuinely lovely piece of music. Stan may be his most critically applauded work because it works on many, many levels, touching on a number of themes; obsession, mental illness, misplaced love, rage, alienation, and isolation. And it does it to the strains of Dido’s famous refrain, ‘My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why, I got out of bed at all.’

It uses multiple narrative voices. Stan, the eponymous obsessed fan; the lamentations of his girlfriend are being echoed in the chorus, and the target of the misplaced affection, the artist, responding in the end. The equivocation that works the most is the evocation of another work of art, In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins, and its explicit connection to how the letter writer, Stan, feels about what has happened to him emotionally. This juxtaposition of the romanticism within the refrain, the slow degeneration of the fan’s ego, and a perfect correlation that demonstrates the relationship between works of art in a unique brand of anaphora and thematic echo within the piece:

You know the song by Phil Collins

In the Air of the Night,

About that guy who could have saved that other guy 

from drowning,

          But didn’t

         Then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?

          That’s kinda how this is; you could’ve rescued me 

from drowning,

         But now it’s too late; 

         I’m on a thousand downers now I’m drowsy.

         And all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call.

          I hope you know I ripped all your pictures off the wall.

        I loved you Slim, we could’ve been together;

         Think about it.

        You ruined it now; I hope you can’t sleep,     

         And you dream about it,

         And when you dream I hope you can’t sleep

         And you scream about it

         I hope your conscience eats at you,    And you can’t breathe without me.

This correlation between In the Air Tonight and the urban legend, about the drowning man, and the way the narrator feels about a life being derailed is a good example of art referencing art to tie thematic elements together. Depression manifests itself in many different ways. To typify it and associate it with drowning works because Stan drives his car over a bridge and in the end he drowns. It is conveyed with genuine anger. Not only has his desire to be acknowledged turned into hatred, it turns into the active desire to elicit pain in the same artist from whom he once found joy. It is more than a poem; it is a modern fable, and it changed the climate of what hip-hop was in the early 2000’s–for better or for worse—and set a new standard for intimacy in rap.

The setup and framework in establishing different narrative voices, the fan, the girlfriend (who is to die in the trunk of the car), and the conclusion letter sent by the target of the affection, uses many different poetic techniques to great effect; repetition there at the end (anaphora) of ‘and…’ and the chorus keeps the melancholic atmosphere pervasive throughout the song. At the beginning, the opening bars are sang to the sound of raindrops and the storm changes throughout the song, ends with the artist’s disbelief at what obsession and misplaced affection can do to someone psychologically. It works as a piece of poetry and a psychological exploration of fandom and hero worship.

The psychosexual element is a product of this identification with the object of affection, and by proxy is a means by which the fan can love himself, by loving his object of desire. The tearing down of his fan-inspired imagery, after he’s made an identification with the object, is a way of beginning to dismantle parts of himself. To look at this from the perspective of the person writing the piece, is to look at warring aspects of the ego–which adds a decidedly psychological element to the process of excising this demon. If I were to interpret the expression behind the writer’s decorative language, I would say, after looking within the piece, we look outside the piece at the circumstances and era in which it was written. There’s the microcosm, within the poem, and the macrocosm, outside; the writer is writing about the impact of writing. And exploring the impact of one’s writing is metaphysical and projectionist in nature. It is a way to externalize our own suffering and perhaps from it find catharsis or even comfort. It is this catharsis that leads so many to choose writing as a profession. It functions as psychoanalysis, a way to explore your fear and desire, and allows you to explore different aspects of humanity.

I leave you with the poem I wrote in response to that lone flower outside of The Strand;

It was a flower, not a brand,

On the sidewalk by the Strand.

Surrounded by those monoliths

Was this fledgling life unplanned.

Nobody stopped to notice;

Blinding light such shadows cast,

Surviving on pale fire,

The reflections through the glass.

It wasn’t in the scheme of things, not this,

It had no plan;

A miracle of nature to be paved away by man.

Leaving Time Square, with books, I went,

Back home to read, to work, to rent,

A place to stay, long moments spent;

Thinking of that flower, that pale fire,

Where it came from, where it went,

Once someone had to dig it up,

And replace it with cement.

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