I was reshelving a book in my office and noticed a volume on the shelf that I hadn’t picked up in a couple of years– a collection of selections from the work of Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (edited by Collette Gaudin). I remembered being disappointed when I first got the book that it was a collection of snippets rather than something more substantial. I pulled the book off the shelf anyway and flipped it open at random, coming to this:
From the standpoint of its will to shape expression, the literary image is a physical reality which has its own relief. More precisely, it is the psychic relief, the multi-leveled psyche. It furrows or it raises; it finds a depth or suggests an elevation; it rises or falls between heaven and earth. It is poly phonic because it is polysemantic. If meanings become too profuse, it can fall into word play. If it restricts itself to a single meaning, it can fall into didacticism. The true poet avoids both dangers. He plays and he teaches. In him, the word reflects and reflows; in him time begins to wait. The true poem awakens an unconquerable desire to be reread. (28) [Empahsis in original; original source: L'Air et les songes, 286.]
So sometimes the merest chance brings you something you need. (My mother used to half-believe this about the Bible, but felt it was a little too “superstitious” to be morally reliable.) I am less cautious about such things than my mother and I needed to be reminded about this middle path for poetry, which of course does not necessarily mean “mainstream.” I think I was drawn to the passage, too, because of the word will in that first sentence. I’ve been reading William James, whose philosophy is in some ways an exploration of the idea of the power of will to create meaning. Here, Bachelard attributes will to the “poetic image” and only by extension to the poet who “creates” the image, or discovers it. This conforms with my own experience writing poems, in which language wills itself into meaning as a kind of collaborator with the one holding the pencil or sitting at the keyboard.
During my poetic lifetime — the last thirty years or so — it seems as if the reactionaries have had a steady presence that continues the orientation of the New Critics but without the New Critics’ skills; and the theoreticians of language and power have had an opposing presence that claims at least sometimes to descend from Pound and Williams, but also from the Objectivists and Olson. (I’ve never got Olson and in fact published a poem against him in APR several years ago.) I’ve long felt bereft in this landscape. I trace my own descent from Pound and Williams, but I also acknowledge Eliot (despite Dr. Williams’ disapprobation). I also honor my teacher Donald Justice, though I write nothing like him and resemble him only in my failure to be prolific and perhaps in my general pessimism. Also in my poetic makeup are some voices I have tried to disown over the years: from early adolescence Kipling and Edna St. Vincent Milay. I still have my mother’s volumes of these poets on my bookshelves and while they are no longer central, I learned traditional metrical practice from them, for which I am grateful. And from my later adolescence comes my continuing attachment to the so-called Confessional School of Berryman, Plath, Lowell, Sexton, and Snodgrass. A very unfashionable group these days, but also a group, I’d argue, that practiced a middle-path poetics, with a concern for both matter and meter, subject and language.
Bachelard’s definition of poetry, if that’s what it is, also insists upon a reader, but a reader who has the gumption to reread, who is open to the poem’s insistence on being reread. It seems to me that contemporary schools of poetry have either over-emphasized or under-emphasized the reader, either pandering or pushing away, didacticism or word play. I think the division reflects a fundamental dualism we have been unable to get beyond in Western poetics (with some notable exceptions); we feel driven to be one thing or the other, completely; we are made uncomfortable by mixed states.
[Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.]