A Theory of Poetry
Words are not stones and very few of them are carved into marble; they last, when they last, on perishable paper pages and in the fallible minds of men and women. So when you get a chance to write an epitaph, you’d be advised to consider carefully. One of the best is Yeats’—Cast a cold Eye/ on Life, on Death./ Horseman, pass by—who put it in a poem and on his grave stone. The best intentions, though, don’t guarantee you’ll get what you want. Keats asked for a simple nameless stone that read, Here lies one whose name was writ in water, and what he got was: This Grave/contains all that was Mortal/ of a/ Young English Poet/ Who/ on his Death Bed/ in the Bitterness of his Heart/at the Malicious Power of his Enemies/ Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone/ “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
Shakespeare presumably got what he wanted when he wrote (to modernize slightly)—Good friend for Jesus sake forbear/ To dig the dust enclosed here!/ Blest be the man that spares these stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.—though it does seem unworthy. Even the Bard can get trapped up in a bad rhyme scheme. Sure ‘stones’ rhymes with ‘bones’, but why not write: He’s a good man who spares these rocks/ and she’s a good woman who darns my socks?
An epitaph is the time for your best writing. Will, you can do better than this!
When Gary Snyder starts his poem “Riprap”—Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.—he’s on to something. Writing is like laying stone—stacking stone for a wall, building a cairn, defining and strengthening a riverbed—and the rhythms of both poem and prose might be seen to mimic the huff and puff of a man shifting stone—a translating of the body’s movement to the words. I am a little worried by the manliness of the activity, however. Writing can also be likened to weaving or cooking. While the men folk were out building the Acropolis, Arachne was at home weaving an impiety to the gods. Riprap of things/Cobble of the milky way…Each rock a word/ a creek washed stone/ Granite…all change, in thoughts/ as well as in things. Yes, it sounds like a man’s work, but let’s do the manly thing here and admit women—and the subterranean—to the practice.
Besides, cobble is such a good word; it would be a shame to give it up; very lapidary; it feels like stone—at least as a noun it does. As a verb, though, it’s a little more problematic. While you can cobble a road or a pair of shoes with considerable skill, cobble together a plan at the last minute and you’re likely in the process of bungling things. There has always been a potential conflict between the sound of a word and its meaning; I wonder what the meaning of ‘to cobble’ is when the object of the verb is ‘the milky way’.
Lay down these words before the mind. All change in thoughts as well as things. There is an old Zen koan, which Gary Snyder was surely aware of:
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag is moving.”
The other said, “The wind is moving.”
The Sixth Patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”
Koan’s work as poetry, don’t they? The same concision; you could put one on your gravestone quite successfully—though it might be appropriate to say that a good poem works as a koan too, that this stone has two sides. Suppose the monks were arguing—“The granite is moving.” “The earth is moving.”—would the passing Patriarch say, “Not granite, not the earth. The milky way is moving.”?
Go back to your 6th grade geology class for a minute: The rocks do move. The stones do change. There are three types, sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic, and each is defined by the way they change. Consider plate tectonics—the building of the earth’s surface through the movement of vast plates. Techné is Greek for art or craft, and while we have architects and technicians, for the ancient Greeks, a craftsman was a tekton. When James Joyce was looking for the name of his artist as a young man, he borrowed the name of a tekton, a maker of labyrinths and wings. As an aid in thinking about this tectonic movement we have the idea of ‘geologic time’. Depending on where you are on the planet, it is possible to pick up a rock that was changed into its current state 600 million years ago. Hold it in your hand for a moment. 600 million years. The dinosaurs died out a mere 145 million years ago.Nothing man will do—nothing—will last 600 million years.
John Sallis has found a stone bell in the Bangkok Museum that’s over a thousand years old—that has been defined as a bell for over a thousand years. Not everyone knows stones can ring, but spend some time carving a fine piece of marble, and you will get the sound fixed in your mind quite clearly.
As if a stroke of a bell, the sounding of its stone, were to announce and open a spectacle in which all that is said of stone would be said in stone, by stone itself, drawn from the incisive strokes of a stonemason so skilled as to be capable of making stone speak even of itself.
Imagine, Professor Sallis asks of us, imagine a theater of stone.
Rainer Maria Rilke, who had been Rodin’s secretary, and who knew a thing or two about art, posed to himself the particular problem of what to tell an angel about the world. You can’t impress an angel with splendor, he points out, rather (in William Gass’ translation)
Show him some simple thing, then,
that’s been changed in its passage through human ages
till it lives in our hands, in the shine of our eyes, as a part
of ourselves. Tell him things.
Show him that bell, make sure he knows about stone. Make sure he knows about time.
A Theory of Everything
Metamorphic rock would seem the best metaphor for poetry. The poet transforms his material, under the pressure of his imagination, bringing forth a new rendering, a new existence. A poem must not mean, but Be…
And igneous rock, the fire rocks, transformed in the crucible of the poet’s imagination, etc…also seems viable as a model for a poem.
But what about poor sedimentary rock, slowly building itself as detritus filters down, layer upon layer? Surely, it’s the least glamorous of the rocks—slate, not pure Carrara marble. Who wants gypsum as a model for his literary output?
My suspicion is, though, that most poems are written this way—a long slow layering process. In fact, my suspicion is that pretty much everything is done this way, positive things anyway, things that are created, built, fashioned, designed. Those statues of Buddha in Bamyan (carved sandstone cliffs)—how long did it take the monks to make them? The careful pairing down that is stone sculpture. And how long did it take the Taliban to blow them up? One might almost propose a calculus of sediment: the flash of insight, sure, that’s important, but layers gathering and building over time…this must be a touchstone, the gold standard of creativity?
Our friend, Rainer Maria Rilke, also wrote his epitaph. Here is Bill Gass’ account of its genesis:
Open eyed, Rainer Maria Rilke died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926. The leukemia which killed him had been almost reluctantly diagnosed, and had struck like a storm, after a period of gathering clouds. Ulcerous sores appeared in his mouth, pain troubled his stomach and intestines, he slept a lot when his body let him, his spirit weighed down by depression, while physically he became thin and fluttery as a leaf… [He] composed his epitaph, too, evoking the flower he so devotedly tended.
ROSE, O PURE CONTRADICTION, DESIRE
TO BE NO ONE’S SLEEP BENEATH SO MANY LIDS
(Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust
Niemandes Sclaf zu sein unter soviel
The myth concerning the onset of his illness was, even among his myths, the most remarkable. To honor a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his whole arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well…
When thinking about the mind there are two general orientations one can take. The first is that the brain produces consciousness, and when the brain dies, consciousness stops. This view is commonsensical and fits most of our perceptions of the mind—but there is the ugly little question as to how this happens. How does inanimate matter come to think?
The other perspective is that consciousness is a basic constituent of the universe—it’s called panpsychism—and that the brain is something of a receptor for consciousness, that it somehow focuses consciousness in you while it is alive, and then lets it go. Most religious thought exists under this second model, and it has its appeal, no question, especially if one has defined one’s self in terms of this consciousness…
Of course, mind itself might be sedimentary, built of layers and understood in layers. Our understanding may be layered, and mind might be the origin of that calculus of sediment. If so, rocks, sticks and stones—and roses—could be a layer of our conscious mental life, and what seems obviously the case at one layer, might be obviously stupid at another. Everything is true.
Two monks are arguing (out there in the Milky Way somewhere) about this koan of Rilke’s. What about that rose? Is it conscious?
“Its permanence is an illusion,” says the first monk. “That is the contradiction. It cannot have a mind.”
“No, the contradiction is the illusion it has created. That is its consciousness.”
“Then everything is illusion.”
“Or nothing is conscious.”
The two monks look down the long cobbled road.
In the gathering dusk of evening, the Sixth Patriarch is hobbling towards them.
…In their minds, a theory of everything…
…In his mind, a theory of everything…
They are not the same theory.