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.”?