It’s a known fact that the most intense poetic sensibility capable of being experienced is impossible to render in words. It is, to all intents and purposes, mystical—like the vision-sensations that caused John of the Cross to write his poem “The Dark Night” (“La Noche Oscura”), or Teresa of Avila’s impalement by the arrows of divine love, which she could barely describe (Bernini doing a much better job in his sculpture of the same), or Rumi’s verses which follow Emily Dickinson’s wisdom centuries later and in another culture (though poetic sensibility is one culture, transcending epochs and civilizations) when she wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” Indeed, he could not do otherwise. Nor could John Keats when he was framing the intense tenderness and wisdom of his own sublimity, his vision-sensations. Nor can any poet.
I think the most telling quality of this sensibility, this vision-sensation is that at its height, which is equally its depth, it brings together those qualities, some common, some not so, that men in their heart of hearts most revere and most fear, namely divine love, intense tenderness, humility, courage (the courage to feel to one’s depths) and of course wisdom. It does so in a way that there is no morality to be discussed, no hierarchy of spiritual—or let’s just say human—qualities, no implicit value judgment; each informs the other and is equal with the other. Who can say wisdom is greater than love, or courage greater than humility? It is absurd even to consider such questions. What is worthy of consideration is that the human, when it is most human, is divine; and the divine when it is most divine is human.
If this conclusion sounds beguilingly Christian, so be it. But it is not a doctrine (much less a dogma), but a sensibility, and whatever there is of truth to it is on that order. And so it is really neither Christian nor non-Christian, nor any other religion you wish to mention, though religion may avail itself of whatever truth there is to it. It is, like the sensibility that makes it poetry and the intensity that makes it ineffable, essentially beyond and outside faith. Faith only enters the picture as a corollary or an assistant, or—and this is no small thing—a fruit, a major fruit of mystical experience. Faith, I maintain, is in no way its matrix or source.
But that isnt the only conclusion you can draw from the experience. The vision-sensation at its core, in being ultimately ineffable, is beyond the dichotomy of human and divine, mundane and sublime, not to say that of poetry (I mean poetry as a metaphor, whether it’s verse or prose, or unwritten, unspoken) and . . . what’s the opposite of poetry? I dont think poetry has an opposite; what isnt potentially poetry? And what is not both human and divine, mundane and sublime—and beyond them, beyond as much as in them? In fact, beyond all opposites, all dualities.
This is the sound of mysticism, which to try to deconstruct soon becomes grating to the ear and annoying to the intellect. Here is where humility has its moment, and to give it its moment is wisdom. Like a sailing ship changing its direction because the wind was too much against it, the poetic voice here tacks a different course and sails into the imagery, the madness even of its imagination, of metaphors and rhythms and all the initially silent words and phrases that fill the mouth as much as they do the brain. (Attesting, by the way, to poetry’s historical beginnings as an oral art—perhaps it isnt such a curious thing that the poet often tastes his words as he writes them.) I mentioned madness, but that too is a metaphor because changing course like this—subjecting his poetry to imagination rather than stubbornly attempting to delineate the ineffable, or, worse, locking himself up within it—probably saves him from madness.
In the end, for all the intensity and ineffability of his experience and for all that he may enjoy using words in original ways, I think the poet wants clarity rather than obfuscation (pace T.S. Eliot, whose critical dictum about complex poetry for a complex age we can perhaps put out to pasture). However vague the poet’s utterance may be, or however many interpretations it may admit of, and however general though intimate is his sensitivity, his emotional intensity that marries a talent for words with experience and imagination and prompts him to write poetry in the first place, he is conscious (or let’s hope he is) that nothing humbles and exalts him, or at least delights him aesthetically, noetically, spiritually—and nothing requires courage of him—more than words and his use of them. Poetry being a dangerous occupation, trade, craft or what have you, not for the weak of heart or mind.
(Please note: This essay, like all the others lumped together here under the general heading of “lyric essays” comes from my journal, and hence is primarily advice or clarification to myself. They are presented merely as food for thought, not well-cooked meals, and are meant to be taken as fragments, not as polished dissertations. I am aware—though not always at first—of the contradictions and half-baked assertions they contain. In the case of this one, the glaring contradiction between saying mysticism isnt poetry and then saying poetry is potentially everything. So does that include the ineffable? Well, not written poetry obviously, but then, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on your definition of poetry. Anyway, I let the contradictions stand, maybe to give transparency to my imperfect thought processes, my not intended to be neatly tied up with a bow conclusions. Perhaps their greatest meaning, if any, is in the momentary movement of thought: a phrase, a sentence, a random sand castle of words on the wide, impersonal beach that one can stuff one’s mind into like a prince or a princess for a few moments before the waves flatten it, showing how fragile are all our thoughts and conclusions.)