This morning I looked at a letter I’d written to a friend almost five years ago. It’s amazing how the same issues about poetry keep coming back over and over. I could have written this yesterday:
I also think of “lucid dreaming”—you know, those dreams where you know you’re dreaming. Very occasionally I have had a very brief “lucid dream,” in which, for example, I might be walking down a path and then realize I’m dreaming and simultaneously realize I can stay in the dream if I try very hard to pay attention. I know if I just keep strolling down the path, I’ll wake up in a second, but if I look very closely at the shrubs at the edge of the path and the shapes of the clouds in the sky and so on, I will stay in the dream and it will in fact become more and more vivid . . .
The point is the analogy to poetry—paying intense attention to the sensual texture of the imagery so that it becomes more vivid and you enter into it—so that it becomes a story instead of just a vision, maybe not a story in the sense of a traditional narrative, but in the sense of an entered world, the sense of entry that results from commitment to an image, following it instead of just using it.
This idea of poetry that enters the world it imagines is still important to me. I don’t necessarily mean a fantasy world. It could be Harry Potter, but it could just as easily be a re-creation of the “real” world. It could simply by a lyrical wildflower. But I think there’s a difference between poetry that makes the commitment of entering its own world—whatever that world may be—and poetry that keeps its distance.
I don’t necessarily mean to criticize poetry that “keeps its distance.” It can have tremendous energy, freedom and spontaneity. It defends its freedom to visit multiple worlds, but I think that freedom is mental freedom. Your mind can go from San Francisco to Shanghai to the moon, but if you actually get into a space capsule and go to the moon, your body is stuck there.
I think there’s a kind of poetry that makes an equivalent commitment—an entering the body of the poem. Partly I’m talking about something pretty obvious. When Rowling creates the world of Harry Potter, she has to play by the rules of that world or else ruin the book, and in the same way Milton has to play by the rules of Paradise Lost—he can’t just interrupt the story of Adam eating the apple to tell the reader about a delicious apple tart he had the night before in a London pub, or start discussing the politics of Oliver Cromwell. But if he could—it might make a very different but very exciting poem! In a sense that’s what Ezra Pound does in the Cantos, and in fact I think much of modernism and postmodernism is all about holding onto that spontaneity, that freedom of mental movement.
Part of the attraction of that freedom, I think, is its honesty: it would be so refreshingly honest to hear Milton talk for once about his evening at the pub. But there’s also something lost in poetry where the consciousness is, well, flitting, and sometimes what’s lost is the sense of death. Once you commit yourself to the poem’s world, you immediately invite death in, too. It’s all Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died.” Even if there’s no narrative, once your body is in the room of the poem, there’s no escape.