As I’ve demonstrated countless times here it is useful to say, form emerges from the process of the poem’s unfolding. The form depends on the poem.
That’s one way to put it. It’s also useful to see the ‘narrative’ of the lyric in terms of its unfolding from scenes linked by a logic of outer to inner, and from lowly particulars to universal. This is a logic of ‘selving,’ using the masks of lyric. What emerges as the form or ultimate significance is the self open to meaning beyond its finitude.
A poem by May Sarton shows the lyric narrative.
From American Poetry, vol II, Library of America, p. 895.
This narrative which accounts for the universality of the lyric in a modernity born in protest against ‘universals’ appears to be not confined to lyric, which makes sense because lyric is a specialization of language’s capacity for making sense between individuals belonging to a cultural group. What we call the lyric narrative shows up in fourth/century CE China, Ancient Greece, etc. It comes as no surprise that that consummate ‘hunter of forms’ St. Augustine gave it memorable expression in his Exposition on Psalm 145: ab exterioribus ad interiora, ab inferioribus ad superiora.
Notice the complication suggested by the parallel between interiora and inferioribus. But that ‘value judgement’ need not detain us. We have the Sarton poem to flesh out the Latin abstractions. As for ad superiora I’d say Sarton’s meditation on her own death lifts the poem far above conventional sentiment into the universe of finitude.
In his Milton (The Poetry of John Milton, HUP 2015), Gordon Teskey remarks on the final line of Milton’s sonnet ‘To Mr Cyriack Skinner’ that an ambiguity may be a happy accident. To take ‘blind’ in a ‘spiritual’ sense would resolve a serious flaw in the logic. Did Milton place his confidence in his ‘fate’ already achieved—- in the past? Did he MEAN that he would be guided by that henceforth? Or possibly that Heaven’s hand, which took his sight away, would supply him with another, perhaps greater task, irrespective or otherwise of his blindness.
Teskey speculates that this doubled meaning, with the second pregnant in the words of the first, would have surprised Milton himself. Pp 253f.
Metaxyturn refers to this action, intended it not, caused by the forces put in motion by the poet. It is ‘agapeic’ on the analogy of a willed effect within the scope of the selving process of the erotic sovereignty of the writer in contrast to an unwilled effect of verbal consequences of the deepest structural movements within the poem and the traditions of the language, considered as communication in the ontological sense.
Certain ‘minimalist’ poets have much to offer an age in which words are suspect. Levertov’s translations of Guillevic for example. Levertov herself wrestled with the problem of rhetoric. If in youth she absorbed some values from Williams, fair enough; her searching passionate nature plunged her into spiritual depths; sometimes the poems are ‘pure.’ The ambiguity of the term ‘pure poetry’ may have found a new context!
‘The Cat as Cat’ uses the basic narrative of lyric contemplation —- outside, inside, down/up (to riff on Augustine)—- to meditate the between world of her cat and herself (flesh/spirit). Themes—-metaphors, mirrors, I-Thou)—-appear briefly, suggestively. The poem concludes with a minimalist anthem lullaby.
The ‘mystery’ of the lyric is twofold. There is the technical side: the ways the art engages with language as reference, as sound, as grammar (narrative). The look on the page or in the resounding air. The second aspect is more psychological. The lyric involves the poet’s use of a mask. What sounds ‘sincere’ is a metaphysical act to access certain energies by bypassing the self. Or say, the job of the technical side is to strip the ego of self-consciousness, leaving it open to a more original identity. This is an act of self-transcending, opening the poet to her nothingness in the fertile void. (I borrow this vocabulary from William Desmond.)
In Alice Oswald’s ‘A Drink from Cranmere Pool’ (Falling Awake, 2016), she narrates the mystery. It partakes of the ancient genre of pilgrimage, but the radical otherness sought and found by the poet is not named by a biblical narrative tradition but named in the ethos of the between. Having said that we can say that ‘Almost/not water exactly’ draws on the mystical apophatic tradition of the divine that defeats language.
We say we live in the between because where we come to be in our poetic space is charged with the equivocal nature of language. The mystery of the craft is how the poem speaks through its mask from a porosity between the unselfed self and the unnamable other. The metaphysics of lyric is frustratingly thorny compared to the experience it embodies. Oswald felicitous art illustrates the mystery at its most pellucid and refreshing.
The recognition of Oswald as a major poet suggests the reading public does not recognize the modernist alienation between religion and poetry. Between religion and poetry is a fertile space.
GUILLEVIC, Selected Poems trans. Levertov (New Directions, 1968)
Form is double: first, the shapes of the words on the page, bearing the traces of the author and the many dimensions of her creative spirit. Second, the form that emerges in the time of the poem, emerges with the impersonality of the astonishing singularity of a butterfly.
Charles Wright Bye-and-Bye:
Selected Late Poems (2011)
In reading a poem we don a mask that reconfigures one’s sense of reality. We participate in our own forsaking. Which is a tall order. Wright reconfigures our immediate sense of our personal end at first in deeply unsatisfactory ways.
But how otherwise? The poem keeps going along in its maladroit way. The first sentence sort of cruises into a ditch of nonsense. Yet along the way he’s reconfigured this penultimate moment, teetering on embarrassed silence. Well, it’s a difficult topic!
Next he returns to the opening metaphor for another verse (it’s like a country song). This time there’s a kind of epiphany. The sentence limps along, coming to rest in a place full comfort and beauty. We’ve come to see our special moment shorn of sentiment, shorn of ego. The mimesis is perfect for there is no ego at this moment.
To read/write a poem is to don a mask that reconfigures reality. Some poems reflect on the reconfiguration process. In Jaccottet’s poem cited below, light from above causes perplexity, not because we know about the sun as source (so-called objective knowledge), but because the brightness is more than we bargain for. It is all-enveloping, reducing us to shadows. In the end, however, pity drowns everything. The movement from objective analysis to perplexity to humility-in-community is the arc of the creative process as we know it (in the between).
This poem is from Mahon’s Jaccottet Selected (Wake Forest).