Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
The Emergency of Poetry
The poet resembles the paramedic in that she or he arrives first at the accident of language. The unexpected forces new arrivals. Poetry is born of crisis or will seek it, often beginning in medias res—the middle where danger lies, and where the attention of the poet becomes conditional and vulnerable to subject matter. Crisis expands language through experience. Poetry embraces chaos and the unexpected as it transforms space through language and redefines place, renewing our relationship to reality. By confronting, accessing, and engaging the present, the poet strives to find an everywhere at once and seeks an emergency through language.
—To find an emergency through language that leads to immediacy and inevitability where new realities occur. Brenda Hillman does in her poem “Till It Finishes What It Does,” navigating through unlikely words (“comet, creosote, wren, Granite, saddle, pharmaceutical, nexus) that join the human, terrestrial, and cosmic as she relays a father’s crisis, which expands the intensity of language. Hillman’s phrasing, “Granite, wild at the hands / of quartz,” creates instant poetic instability that would require geographical eras.
on his lifebed, in the dusk, holding
the tail of a comet. Outside
the hospital, creosote;
the cactus wren is such a good packer.
Granite, wild at the hands
of quartz, rose in the saddle
of the mountains. (I’m writing this
with a pharmaceutical pen,
at the nexus of science & magic. . .) 1
The poet’s parenthetical address at the end of the first stanza is an admission that erodes both the speaker’s and our confidence in language. The remark also seems literal. Did the poet write this with a pen at the hospital? Here the “nexus” or link appears where the prescription of medicine and art might heal, their seeming magic.
The first half of the second and final stanza clarifies the necessary surgery and sacralizes the nature of poetic language and art, for we know that many hieroglyphs (heiros/sacred) descend directly from the more ancient cave paintings of animals. Here the father literally internalizes the magic totem through surgery while the poet recognizes it “like the spokes /of the sun disk,” an amulet that both artist and doctor use.
When all the visitors
had left the room,
the tiny valve of the pig beat inside
our father’s heart, like the spokes
of the sun disk, in a hieroglyph—
above the squiggly river symbol,
like meaning & its tributaries,
nothingness & art…2
The poem’s wonderful title “Till It Finishes What It Does,” attempts to prescribe and limit language that does not yet have emotional power, just as in the body it is the heart that finds cadence and finishes the physicality of feeling.
The subject of Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “Or,” is certainly no accident but arrives at the accident of language, traversing great lexical and social distances as the title, a conjunction that is often used in a racial context—white or black—echoes throughout the poem. Ellis heightens the notion of racism by imploding this conjunction “or” into a racial slur, “Oreo,” then using its sonoral power that meanders and collapses historical, capitalistic, mythic, diasporic, political, and geographical borders. Here are stanzas one, seven, eight, eleven, twelve and thirteen of his powerful thirteen stanza rant that incorporates varied jazz riffs.
Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
of category …
or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry
or fear of . . .
or terror or border.
Or all organized
“Or” resonates from categorization, the opposite of freedom, and skips like a dangerous stone gaining weight through “Zora” (Hurston), “Corporate,” “Moor” (indigenous black Africans), “Noir Orpheus,” “Senghor” (the Senegalese poet and statesman), “Diaspora,” “Electoral Corruption,” “Yoruba,” “border,” and “minorities” etc. In “Yoruba” Ellis alludes to the culturally rich Yoruba people, bordering the Bight of Benin (The Slave Coast), who are enslaved and deported to Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil, among other countries. With them the practice of Voodoo is also transported, and we glimpse a kind of poetic Voodoo in Ellis’ wonderful poem, one perhaps ascribed through white paranoia in the last stanza just quoted. The fragmented, stop and start nature of the poem—with its incomplete sentences—gains power in that it is almost “verb-less,” which is a metaphor for the abhorring nature of slavery, and this becomes the subtle yet crowning paradox of Ellis’ work. Zora Hurston, the black novelist and anthropologist who grew up in one of the first all-black towns in the U.S. (Eatonville, Florida), later exposed white men in power who took black women as concubines.
—To arrive unexpected. The inevitability of tradition and boredom in art finally lead to surprise and another type of inevitability/emergency, the breaking with form through culture and history, as Cummings demonstrates in “Buffalo Bill 's,” written in the early twenties.
Buffalo Bill 's
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat 4
The faux cultural icon that startles and entertains will become anonymous in death: “how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death”.
Surprise, immediacy, and inevitability have always been and always will be important aspects of poetry. In John Ashbery’s poem “As We Know” we are told, “The way we had come was all we could see.” 5 —Poetry often occurs beyond or outside “The way,” extending the borders of language.
The emergency of poetry involves not only accessing the present, but excessing it. In this way a new reality is created. Jorie Graham accomplishes this in “Prayer,” the first poem in her book Never. We read—
the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a miniscule muscle…
What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself, 6
Emmanuel Levinas in God, Death, and Time tells us, “The excess over the present is the life of the Infinite.” 7 What could be more real than an “excess over the present”?
Peter Gizzi confronts the dangers and ecstasies of the present in his poem “Beginning with a Phrase by Simone Weil”: “There is no better time than the present when we have lost everything.” Weil confronts the ontological problem of the present, that moment of absolute arrival and loss. Gizzi provides a wonderful improvisation on the subject, a riff that is as socially and scientifically attuned as it is poetic:
In the expanding model things slowly drift and everything better than the present is lost in no time.
A day mulches according to gravity
and the sow bug marches. Gone, the hinge cracks, the gate
swings a breeze… 8
Gizzi’s genius in adapting the Weil phrase lies in his ability to skim the froth of the actual present through detail: “A day mulches according to gravity / and the sow bug marches.” He also redefines the poetic present by writing a margined prose line that seethes, implodes with the high music and odd diction of what is not always poetic “cars/garbage/tar” while he alludes to Dickinson, another poet obsessed with “being”:
I heard a fly buzz. I heard re-
cars in the street and the garbage, footprints of a world, every
fly a perpetual window,
unalloyed life, gling, pinnacles of tar. 9
His poem moves along by continually improvising Weil’s phrase:
There is no better everything than loss when we have time. No
lack in the present better than everything. 10
How many poets have the courage to confront the present in such an absolute manner? Gizzi addresses this in a later poem from Threshold Songs, entitled “The Growing Edge”: “what does it mean / to be tough / or to write a poem / I mean the whole / vortex of home / buckling inside / a deep sea whine / flash lightning / birth storms / weather of pale / blinding life” 11
The continual dangers of language lie in the paradox of language. How to express the present through a language whose form and content reach back over 2500 years. The paradox that arises is born from the words themselves. W.S. Merwin comments on the poet’s attempt to capture the present through the age of language.
The moment you say paradox, you’re using language to express something that cannot be expressed, and that’s what poetry is: There is nothing but presence; on the other hand, there seems to be nothing but absence, and poetry is addressing this emerging presence, this speaking presence, but actually everything that we think of in the phenomenal world is absence. It’s the past and future. Very few things are actually present. 12
The present contains both ecstasy and danger because it is so expansive. Ideally the poet wishes to dilate the present until it seems to contain all time. Merwin continues describing our precarious relationship with the expansive present:
The present is the primary thing. The absolute primary thing, but everything else is secondary and relative as you try to deal with it. Our relation to it is dissolving. The present in a sense doesn’t exist in time. I really believe that the beginning of the universe is still there. The universe in a sense has not begun, and that beginning is there in every moment of the present. 13
The notion that “the beginning of the universe is there in every moment of the present” is fascinating and provides a key insight into the poet’s imagination. In a sense “the present” allows possibility, and it is through our art of attention that we find poetry within it. In “Just This” Merwin’s art presences itself with the perception of the entire universe in its evolution, but only as the speaker recalls his own genetic memory melding with the more distant geological and cosmic time:
and then the gathering of the first stars
unhurried in their flowering spaces
and far into the story the planets
cooling slowly and the ages of rain
then the seas starting to bear memory
the gaze of the first cell at its waking 14
Arriving at the emergency of language requires absolute attention, selflessness, and an abandonment to words. Franz Kafka arrives here in many of his short prose pieces. Here is “The Wish to Be a Red Indian,” so inflected with possibility that it becomes poetry.
If one were only an Indian, alert to each instant, and on
a coursing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering
fitfully over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs,
no need for spurs, and cast off one’s reins, no need for reins,
and barely saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn
heath when already horse’s head and neck would be gone. 15
Heights of language are often attained through the subjunctive or conditional, those expressing wished or imagined possibilities. The Indian’s vanishing into the landscape is dependent on his surroundings and becoming one with the horse. The poet or artist must become one, vanish into his or her subject matter. Aristotle writes “the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary.” 16
The emergency of language may appear to be narrative, but it often involves the danger of encountering multiple places in rapid succession and uniting them. Here’s the opening of Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat”:
As I was going down wild Rivers
I lost guide of my deck hands.
Yelping Indians had targeted and nailed
Their naked bodies to colored stakes.
I cared little for any crew, whether those
Of Flemish wheat or English cottons.
And when the ruckus and confusion ended,
The rivers gave green wish to my descent. 17
This is not Stevens’ “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,” but the embrace of chaos, and this speaker’s voyage—nothing less than an adolescent’s rebellion against parental control—is on a larger scale a rebellion against the Industrial Age’s mass control of the human spirit and commerce.
Rimbaud, more than any poet of his era, redefines place. The poet would often walk up to 20 miles a day, both in Europe and Ethiopia. In France the poet used to read and sometimes write while walking, a notion that makes “place” a kind of pregnant now where not only the body is moving, but words, phrases, finding their more vital syntax. “Lis ceci en marchant” 18 (Read here while walking), Rimbaud advised his friend Delahaye.
In Rimbaud’s Illuminations, multiple locations are sensually located in the present then denied. Here’s an example from “Après le deluge” (After the Flood):
Blood flowed at Bluebeard’s house—in the slaughterhouses, —
in the arenas where God’s seal of light blushed windows.
Blood and milk flowed.
Beavers labored. Coffee cups steamed in the bars.
In the mansion-like house with humid windows, children in mourning gazed at marvelous pictures.
A door slammed, and on the village square, the child
waved his arms, understood by weathervanes and wind cocks
everywhere in the dazzling rain. 19
It’s as if Rimbaud, by locating and denying place, becomes a universal present. He is in fact like the child “on the village square” who waves his arms and is understood “by weathervanes and wind cocks” in all possible directions, everywhere.
This is the genius of Rimbaud and it is no different in his poem “Vowels” where he confronts an emergency in language by inventing colors for each vowel. Why? —Certainly out of a frustration with the limits of language. Color does not evolve in a manner similar to words through the grammatical rules of language. Color is much more ancient and primal. Its language comes from the human body, earth, sky. Color is at once physical and metaphysical: red from blood or fire; blue from sea or sky. In “Vowels” the poet not only invents the colors but tells of their origins:
The black A, white E, Red I, green U, and blue O: Vowels,
someday I’ll tell of your dormant birth: The black
A’s hairy corset of shining flies which buzz
and buzz around such brutal stench
in shadow-gulfs; The E’s white of vapors and tents,
tall, lancing glaciers, white kings and supple flowers;
The I’s purples spit blood, laughter of alluring
lips angry or sorrowfully drunk. 20
Just as in “After the Flood” we sense that the notion of place is displaced. The vowels become colors, the colors in turn something else: The black / A’s hairy corset of shining flies which buzz / and buzz around such brutal stench / in shadow-gulf…” The poet’s impatience seems to burn from silence. Rimbaud is working sublimely in a field of color that Rothko will expand on 100 years later.
All of the radical invention recalls the poet’s claim at the end of A Season in Hell: “One must be absolutely modern.” It is Rimbaud’s obsession with the new in all things that drives not only the poet, but the traveler, the trader, and the explorer who extends not only the limits of the word, but the world with his body.
The late French poet Yves Bonnefoy believed that "Poetry is an act by which the relation of words to reality is renewed." 21 Renewing language often involves a crisis. The poet Angie Estes accomplishes this act in her poem “I Want to Talk About You,” a love poem that while marveling at flocks of starlings, recreates, improvises our relation to the world via these birds. Here’s the richly alliterative opening:
when starlings swell over Otmoor, east of Oxford, as the afternoon
light starts to fade. Fifty flocks of fifteen to twenty starlings, riff raff
who have spent the day foraging in fields and gardens suddenly rise
like a blanket tossed into the sky, a reveling that molts sorrows to roost
rows, roost rows to sorrows as they soar through aerial corridors and swerve
into the shape of a cowl that lengthens to a woolen scarf wrapping … 22
Estes’ command of language, in which words regenerate new words (“sorrows to roost/rows”) reminds one of Plath’s work. Here the pianissimo darkens (“shape of a cowl”) as this poem veers toward those despairs that lovers encounter “damned but driven on / by violent winds,” alluding to Dante’s The Inferno.
What’s most enthralling about this poem, whose title refers to John Coltrane's performance of that Billy Eckstine song, is Estes’ own improvisation as she creates anagrams of words (art slings / grass lint, / snarl gist, / gnarls sit) and induces an avian reality as the poem ends:
like the wave’s rain of sand or words falling
out of a sentence: art slings, we call them, grass lint, snarl gist, gnarls
sit. Art slings them this way, last grins, art slings swell, rove
over, red rover, red rover, send artlings right over, artlings
rove, moor to swell, write Otmoor all over 23
Again the speaker becomes her subject matter—starlings, matters of the heart—and embodies the place “Otmoor, east of Oxford,” until “the relation of words to reality is renewed" and origin of place is recreated: “red rover, red rover, send artlings right over, artlings / rove, moor to swell, write Otmoor all over”. A common child’s play-song summons the heavens, birds, and writes “Otmoor all over” as Eros not only re-accomplishes place but recreates it.
The emergency of poetry and its engagement with language lies in the impossibility of rescue: the impossibility of rescuing the present from the past, and presence from absence, while the poet attempts to cross new lexical, perceptual, and emotional boundaries. In his novel Gargoyles, Thomas Bernhard tells us, “Rescue lies in the place we do not go to because we cannot turn back.” 24
1. Hillman, Brenda. Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013), 46.
2. Ibid., 62.
3. Ellis, Thomas Sayers. Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010), 26.
4. Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems (1904-1962). George Firmage, ed. (NY: Liveright, 1976), 119.
5. Ashbery, John. Selected Poems (NY: Penguin, 1985), 259.
6. Graham, Jorie. From the New World: Poems 1976-2014 (NY: Harper Collins, 2015), 219.
7. Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise Than Being, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2006), 195.
8. Peter Gizzi, In Defense of Nothing (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2014), 117.
11. Ibid., 171-172.
12. A Tribute to W.S. Merwin. Mark Irwin, ed.(Boulder: Many Mountains Moving, 2000) 47.
13. Ibid., 52.
14. Merwin,W.S. The Shadow of Sirius (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2008), 112.
15. Kafka, Franz. Gesammelete Werke (Koln: Anaconda Verlag, 2013), 26. Translated by Mark Irwin.
16. Aristotle. Poetics, Ingram Bywater trans. (New York: Random House, 1954), 234.
17. Rimbaud, Arthur. Oeuvres Complètes. Renéville and Mouquet, eds.(Paris: Gallimard, 1946), 114. Translated from the French by Mark Irwin.
18. Borer, Alain. Rimbaud: L’heure de la fuite (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 76.
19. Rimbaud, Arthur. Oeuvres Complètes. Renéville and Mouquet, eds. (Paris: Gallimard, 1946), 151. Translated from the French by Mark Irwin.
20. Ibid., 128. Translated from the French by Mark Irwin.
21. Bonnefoy, Yves. Times Literary Supplement. August 12, 2005.
22. Estes, Angie. Enchantée (Oberlin: Oberlin College Press, 2013), 5.
23. Ibid., 6.
24. Bernhard, Thomas. Gargolyes, Richard & Clara Winston, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 181.
Mark Irwin is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Large White House Speaking (New Issues Press). His honors and awards include The Nation/Discovery Award, four Pushcart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, Colorado and Ohio Art Council Fellowships, two Colorado Book Awards, the James Wright Poetry Award, and fellowships from the Fulbright, Lilly, and Wurlitzer Foundations. He teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern California.