The Strange Beauty of the Unfamiliar
We think of other poets as somehow foreign to our experience, people who dwell in other realms, especially if they’ve written in a different language. Translations never seem sufficient, we begin to suspect there’s some mystery we can only see darkly through the looking glass of the translator.
And then, when we finally can read the language well enough to see every nuance, we discover the poet was himself translating something else. Rimbaud tells us to “find Hortense!” Or perhaps he says we should seek her out, if you like that phrasing better. But he hardly tells us why, and he gives very few hints about her. We only know his words contain a universe, and she lives inside them.
Can we build our own universe with our words? And if we can, will there be the same kind of intensity? Can it contain everything, jonquils and shattered glass, warmth and shade and petals all mixed together? We need to create a space where the reader can live. But if we furnish it only with the rare and beautiful objects of art, what kind of life can be lived within?
Yes, I long believed in only what I could touch and hold and feel. It seemed our bodies were the entire world. And I still believe that even the gardens of art must be rooted in soil, rank with weeds, redolent with the constant upheaval of the plowed earth. But even that, now, is not enough. There must be something more.
Hommage à Bonnefoy
Learning a new language is like becoming someone else. It’s not just words or grammar, the structures of the language we use are like lenses transforming the ways we look on the world. I know you don’t believe me. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t lived it.
I spent much of that first cold winter huddled inside. I had dictionaries, and paper, and books. I slowly worked my way through the local poets, at first looking up every word. They were like a revelation, an unimagined universe: Norge and Reverdy, Jaccottet and Bosquet. And René Char, perhaps the most brilliant of them all. The most distant, the most foreign. I kept at it, convinced by small intuitive hints of the undiscovered within his words.
But Bonnefoy felt like home. He felt like a voice I could inhabit, a coat that fit us both. His sentences spoke to each other, his poems consumed him. For him, snow was a form of light. The idea changed my view.
And outside, there was snow everywhere. I had not imagined a world could be covered so well, with such silence. It felt as mysterious as this new language, and I walked carefully, and slowly, through both snowdrifts and words, not knowing what would come next.
Perhaps it was the very mystery that attracted me, the strange beauty of the unfamiliar, moving through the unknown to find the new. And one night, I walked across a fresh snowfield, my feet making the first tracks through the diamond soil. The wind had stopped completely.
Is it possible to make art out of our everyday experiences? If we simply write things down, exactly as they happened, is poetry possible? Can we ever say, “I mean every word?” Can we write modestly, and with exactness?
So there I was with Kate and young James in Hartford, halfway between a house in Vermont and Fairfield. We’d heard about the Wallace Stevens Walk, which was really just a series of small stone markers placed along the path he took to work each morning. Just a couple miles from the close in suburbs to the city center. His house is still there, the office building where he worked is still there, not much has changed.
None of the locals know about it, the guy at the parking gate had never heard of it. And it’s true the small granite markers are only a foot or two tall. There are thirteen of them spread out over two miles, and each is inscribed with one stanza of his blackbird poem.
The interesting thing about the poem is that Stevens believed completely in the imagination. Everything in the poem is made up, invented, fabricated in symbolic ways. It’s art as artifice, and it’s absolutely beautiful. It also has exactly nothing to do with what it’s like to walk along the street in Hartford, Connecticut, then or now.
The people who live there aren’t used to having poets carry out a pilgrimage. They really did call the police on us. Hard to blame them, after all, Hartford isn’t exactly a holy city, and I’m guessing most people who live in that neighborhood are fans of Robert Frost.
We should speak, while we can, of the role of water in poetry. Someone said a poem should have the form of water poured into a vase. Others have said there’s a pure, clear water we can drink, straight from the well. And others hold all poetry flows from the way a horse’s hoof touched the earth, on the side of a hill, where a spring still begins.
But I think it must be the small currents in a larger body of water, a river moving slowly, even a lake in which a woman swims. Notice how the water caresses her limbs, how it moves behind and with her, how once she’s swum through, it can never be quite the same. I want to write a poem to help you see and feel exactly the beauty I see and feel as I watch her move through the water, to know the desire I know in that moment, while she’s just offshore, and still moving.
But what artifice could replicate the unconscious art of her movement, could duplicate the feeling of watching water and wind and light harmonize around her form? How could we even think of writing such a poem? What would it look like? How would it sound?
I think we can only write it by giving up everything thing we know, by abandoning all, by throwing away the lens we use to see the world, and learning to see her clearly. Sometimes I think there is only one song, and it’s in the movements of a woman rising from the currents, drops of water still falling from her skin, sparkling in the sunlight as she moves closer.
I fell in love with a woman in Boston, but she wrote in ancient rhythms I could not understand. I studied and studied them, but never quite picked them up. Oh, I had plenty of time for reading that winter, with the long nights and the world blanketed in ice. But no matter how much Catullus I read, I still couldn’t understand. Sappho didn’t help, either.
I shifted to poets writing the line in English: Swinburne, Tennyson, Frost. They all seemed the same to me. What was the interest? Why add the extra syllable? The only things they had in common were birds: eagles, sparrows, swallows, ovenbirds, even a phoenix or two. I felt foolish, clumsy, lost.
And then it hit me. What do nightingales do? Think about it: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” In other words, “a thing / of beau / ty is / a joy / forev / er. ” It’s that last beat, that little tiny echo at the end that makes it memorable. A thrush may sing each song twice over, but the blackbird gains his innuendo by that small sibilant whistle at the end of the line.
I’d always thought that beauty came from perfect form, but now I discovered it was born in imperfection: the cup marred in a nearly hidden spot by the shaper’s hand, not because he doesn’t dare create a faultless, exquisite whole, but marred because of his own sense of humility. Even Ovid knew beauty could not be perfect, and wrote of Corrina’s flaws.
Copyright © October 2020 W.F. Lantry
W.F. Lantry’s poetry collections are The Terraced Mountain (Little Red Tree 2015), The Structure of Desire (Little Red Tree 2012) winner of a 2013 Nautilus Award in Poetry, The Language of Birds (2011) and a forthcoming collection, The Book of Maps. He received his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Honors include the National Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize, Crucible Editors' Poetry Prize, Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (Israel), Comment Magazine Poetry Award (Canada), Paris/Atlantic Young Writers Award (France), Old Red Kimono Paris Lake Poetry Prize and Potomac Review Prize. His work has appeared widely online and in print in journals such as Asian Cha, Gulf Coast and Valparaiso Poetry Review. He currently works in Washington, DC. and is editor of Peacock Journal. More at: http://wflantry.com.