03 June 2005

utterance vs. poem

This morning I discovered Denise Levertov in a 1968 essay called "Origins of a Poem":

what the poet is called on to clarify is not answers but the existence and nature of questions; and his likelihood of so clarifying them for others is made possible only through dialogue with himself. Inner colloquy as a means of communication with others was something I assumed in the poem . . .

What duality does dialogue with himself, dialogue with his heart, imply? “Every art needs two—one who makes it, and one who needs it,” Ernst Barlach, the German sculptor and playwright, is reported to have said. If this is taken to mean someone out there who needs it—an audience—the working artist is in immediate danger of externalizing his activity, of distorting his vision to accommodate it to what he knows, or supposes he knows, his audience requires, or to what he thinks it ought to hear. Writing to a student in 1964, I put it this way:

. . . at some stage in the writing of a poem you must dismiss from your mind all special knowledge (of what you were intending to say, of private allusions, etc.) and read it with the innocence you bring to a poem by someone unknown to you. If you satisfy yourself as reader (not just as “self-expressive” writer) you have a reasonable expectation of reaching others too.

. . . A self-expressive act is one which makes the doer feel liberated, “clear” in the act itself. A scream, a shout, a leaping into the air, a clapping of hands—or an effusion of words associated for their writer at that moment with an emotion—all these are self-expressive. They satisfy their performer momentarily. But they are not art. And the poet’s “making clear” . . . is art: it goes beyond (though it includes) the self-expressive verbal effusion, as it goes beyond the ephemeral gesture; it is a construct of words that remains clear even after the writer has ceased to be aware of the associations that initially impelled it. This kind of “making clear” engages both the subjective and objective in him. The difference is between the satisfaction of exercising the power of utterance as such, of saying, of the clarity of action; and of the autonomous clarity of the thing said, the enduring clarity of the right words.

The poet—when he is writing—is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it. The communion is triple: between the maker and the needer within the poet; between the maker and the needers outside him—those who need but can’t make their own poems (or who do make their own but need this one too); and between the human and the divine in both poet and reader. By divine I mean something beyond both the making and the needing elements, vast, irreducible, a spirit summoned by the exercise of needing and making. When the poet converses with this god he has summoned into manifestation, he reveals to others the possibility of their own dialogue with the god in themselves. . . .

The need I am talking about is specific . . . the need for a poem; when this fact is not recognized, other needs—such as an undifferentiated need for self-expression, which could just as well find satisfaction in a gesture or an action; or the need to reassure the ego by writing something that will impress others—are apt to be mistaken for specific poem-need. Talent will not save a poem written under these misapprehensions from being weak and ephemeral.

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