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The Poem of the Mind


In his modestly titled “On Modern Poetry,” sounding like nothing so much as a philologist warming up for a dry close reading of Tennyson, Wallace Stevens speaks a series of home truths about that elusive combination of avoiding overreaching and saying something of import.


It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.   

It has to face the men of the time and to meet   

The women of the time. It has to think about war   

And it has to find what will suffice...


No theme, including that most momentous one, war, is to take precedence over the first cause of speech in itself.  For it is out of words that we make war, qualify it, justify it, perpetuate it.  The debasement of those words is what allows us to trap mediocre minds, used to living on warmed-over proverbs about sin and virtue, in the twin nexus of assent and dissent.  Assent to our orthodoxy, and dissent from anyone who dissents from that self-regarding self-assurance. Whether the world-ending conflagration be Israel vs. Palestine or Russia vs. Ukraine (or insert your own example, as candidates abound in the media), words are unleashed, with ferocity, administering a beatdown of right-thinking, and if the beatdown isn’t changing minds (it seldom does), the receiver, rather than modulating his own thought into the key of subtlety, simply raises the decibel level.


For many, words are sacrosanct only insofar as they are bluntly instrumental.  They must be instantly efficacious, dense as a rock to be thrown.  In these scenarios, words have no integrity in and of themselves.  They’re manhandled like a suspect in a dirty precinct.  They were never meant to hold a middle ground, an intermediate stage on which second thoughts could be voiced, or, as Stevens would have it, “to find what will suffice.”


Open almost any journalistic outlet and you will find a version of the same, conceptually speaking, irrespective of the position taken.  In that sense, both “sides” (only two are normally allowed, as more would mar the necessary us vs. them, right vs. wrong dualism) essentially agree to violently, vehemently disagree in perpetuity.  Linguistic cognition, the kind Ferdinand de Saussure meant when he wrote that “the very special place that a language occupies among institutions is undeniable, but there is much more to be said,” is stricken from consideration, so that hortatory speech may immediately strike its object, with the hyper-focus of a drone.

In this linguistic nowhere, it’s a tough gig to be poet.  There has been a surfeit of translations in recent times of the poetry of Ukrainian and now, Palestinian poets.  All honor to them (in the abstract), and one’s generalized compassion (the kind mixed with the learned helplessness we usually feel after reading yet another article about “the conflict”) tries to be up to the occasion.  Nonetheless, this well-intentioned rushing into print or podcast of this war verse, itself often written hastily in the heat of suffering or solidarity, tends toward the anodyne once one removes it from its immediate context as a time-bound protest.  Down the line, this poetry faces the crux of all occasional poetry, whether that be a presidential inauguration poem, or a cri de coeur about human devastation on a genocidal scale.  Paul Celan’s searing, cryptic poems (“Deathfugue” being the most famous) endured because they were written in reflection, not reaction.  Most such poems are not so written, thus destined to be gone with the wind.


Stevens’ 1923 “On Modern Poetry” pertains here.  It asserts, with finesse, the proposition that poetry, int its meditative aspect, has the power to posit a deeper metaphysics of language when it tries to do something by saying something.  It hints at consensus as a possible felicitous consequence of expression, one with the emotional power to move thought toward mutual agreement.  It also marks limits to that power, when it assumes the impolitic form of “the will to rise.” 


...It has   

To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,   

And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and

With meditation, speak words that in the ear,   

In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,

Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound   

Of which, an invisible audience listens,

Not to the play, but to itself, expressed

In an emotion as of two people, as of two   

Emotions becoming one. The actor is

A metaphysician in the dark, twanging

An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives   

Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly   

Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,   

Beyond which it has no will to rise. 


The thought that “sounds passing through” could lead to “sudden rightness” is alien to the topic-focused poet, who begins with something to say and grabs language in the same way one would grab a hammer.  It is a hard sell, even in the world of contemporary poetry, to persuade writers that form leads to content, and not the reverse.  This unfortunate aversion to the “delicatest ear of the mind” is evident in a translated poem of Ukrainian poet Boris Humenyuk.


When you dig trench after trench

When you dig this precious this hateful earth by handfuls

Every other handful reaches your soul

You grind this earth between your teeth

You don’t, you never will have another

You climb into the earth like into your mother’s womb

You are warm and snug

You’ve never felt this close to anyone before

You and earth are one.


To say it bluntly, this doubtlessly well-intentioned poem is doggerel.  It is a wan echo of Wilfred Owen’s powerful writing of a century ago.  Its heart is in the right place, yet redundant in the same way that war is redundant, thus lending itself to tropes.  The so-called images are so overly familiar one can barely perceive them: digging earth by handfuls, “soul,” “teeth,” comparing a hole in the ground to “your mother’s womb.”  One must overcome the immediate tedium to rise up one more time and clap at the poet’s sincere recycling of many others’ exact wording.  This poem effects the unconscious cosmic plagiarism of wearied sensibilities dulled by sameness of experience.  At that point one wonders, is there nothing left to say, or rather, is there no new way to say the old thing


Such poems do both poetry and suffering Ukraine a disservice.  Both deserve more thoughtful considerations.  What’s missing is Stevens’ “metaphysician in the dark.”


Higher regard goes to Ru Freeman’s “Life Line to Gaza,” in its cheeky consideration of the essential impossibility to respond appropriately to those affected in greater or lesser measure.


I just arrived home

Gaza [insert heart emoji]

I took my family to the beach

it was lovely

[insert no news from the US]

[insert news from

Electronic Intifada

& Al Jazeera]

I am shocked

Thank you for asking

[insert heart emoji]

I am at home

The satirical, lightly jokey tone captures the cosmic comedy of everydayness lurking within the tremendous devastation at large.  Sometimes you go to the beach, that’s all, to take a break from nihilism.  The counter-discourse between the brackets suggests a create-your-own adventure for the onlooker, who can only contemplate the lacunae lurking in the speaker’s pat phrases, waiting for something better and more profound, worthy of the occasion, to be said.  In the meantime, here’s a heart emoji. 


If nothing else, Freeman’s poem is modest, tending toward aphasia.  Maybe that’s what Wittgenstein meant when he wrote, “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”



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