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A NOTE ON POETRY

Poetry is a life sentence, to which poets are committed, with no chance of parole, and no time off for good behavior. There are a few other inmates in adjoining cells, all in for one reason or another, and sometimes I fear we might cut each other’s throats if we were all let out into the yard at the same time. But we do sometimes communicate, like The Count of Monte Cristo, by late night taps on the walls in code. And we do that joke, where no one needs to know the joke any more, but just calls out which number it is and everyone on the cellblock laughs if the number is recited with the right intonation.

But poetry’s a sentence under which we thrive, for the most part, and in most cases we are driven by “cosmic” forces to commit these feeble acts of soulful exclamation. We may be looked upon as unfit for society (see Plato), but we try to hum prettily as we do our time, to make the time most meaningful, to make the time most “timeless.” I love something Louise Bogan said, to the effect that “When I’m walking around, I’m an idiot, but when I sit down to write I’m the greatest genius in the world.” That, and the poem by Baudelaire of the albatross that soars majestically in the air but hobbles clumsily on shipdeck, is our mortal condition as confectioners or sky-catchers of poems.

For there’s something far more crucial that has entered into the equation, to do with the poetry of the saintly poets like Rumi, Attar, Yunus Emre, William Blake, etc… taken up by the hair of their hearts into the heights and shaken with unearthly vibrations. For poetry is also that which expresses after normal conversation has reached its limit of expression on matters not gotten at by rational discourse. And it heals, impels, leads us onto uncharted territories, expresses the inexpressible, turns usual perceptions on their heads to see more clearly, does all and none of these things, shows the paucity of trying to say something about poetry that isn’t itself a poem… It is poetry’s glittering verbalization of imagery through intensified speech that reaches into what Shaykh ibn-‘Arabi, great Sufi mystic, calls the “imaginal” world, slim interspace between the mental conjurations of our “realities,” and Reality itself, apprehended, for us, through the subtlest of Names and Attributes, all of which are this side of the Absolute. And we reach for the tools that will apprehend the traces, the scat left to lead to the living breath, by rolling out a barrel organ of words to try to capture that evanescent light for a moment between our human hands.

This may happen with William Carlos William’s very realistic, unideological plums, with a Haiku master’s cherry bough or spider, with Rumi’s Mathnawi epic of longing and Gnostic realization, all of which thrill us into being more truly human. The appearance of a poem into the air through intoxicated inspiration, or the innermost urgings to plumb the golden light of things, to open heart-chambers there from birth but lacking, until now, the secret key word for openings… finally makes us speechless when day is done.

We reach our cup out between our prison bars for one drop of it. And a light shines in our cell that wasn’t there before, and we are renewed again by a strange, deep, merciful reprieve.

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