I’m often wondering about that quality in a poem (or other art) that makes it resonant–leaning in to see if I can catch a glimpse of it, lingering to hear its fading ring, inhaling its scent after it has passed through the room. Even though I’m fully aware that the name that can be named is not the eternal Name. I still want to outline it; I want to know what to call it. I want to point at it and say: see???
What is that quality? Today I was thinking of it as atmosphere. “The pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or work of art,” so my dictionary says. Gr: atmos (vapor) + sphaira (ball, globe). Lame. It is limiting to try to name it. Or maybe that’s just it. It’s it.
It has a presence. It makes you want to return to it again and again. It is actually quite rare, I think. It makes me heart slow or race. It thaws me. It burns me. It asks me if I know who I am. It can’t be owned by form or by resistance to form. By convention or lack of convention. Poems, paintings, songs that have it achieve it by the labor and sweat of the craftsperson, and sometimes, rarer, by luck. It reaches its hand right through the dark mirrored water into me. Or it resists me.
In speaking with a student last year, he said he didn’t like typical/conventional lyric/narrative poetry because–though he might like the poem or the feeling it gives him–that feeling doesn’t last with repeated visits. The poems either bore him initially, or what quality they had weakens or is non-existent with return visits. Often, he said, he wouldn’t feel the need to return to a poem after hearing it or seeing it once.
He got my wheels turning: is it, then, the opening of form–a certain active energy on the page, be it through linguistic challenges or formal invention or by some other means–that the poem becomes open to the reader–becomes a place for the reader to be? After all, I’ve often read work that is non-traditional, non-linear (insert your word here: I hate all the goddamn labels) and felt the same thing he’s felt for conventional work: nothing. I’ve flipped through entire books of poems like magazines from time to time because nothing arrests me. And don’t say that’s because I wasn’t doing my work as the reader. I’ll stop and linger long in front of your painting, in front of your poem, your song: if I have reason to stop. I pass through museums in this way, too–strolling through entire rooms looking for that one painting or sculpture or installation that stops me cold. Some are masterful and formally precise. Others are minimal, experimental, fragmented, naive. On a recent DIA visit, I stopped before a centuries old Dutch painting and would’ve wept and wanted to stare at it for hours, were I not with my children. (The weeping part I’d be perfectly comfortable doing, but it’s the time and luxury of standing still for more than a few moments that I lacked!) Another piece, a contemporary video projection of drawings onto a turning cylindrical mirror: same thing. It had me giddy and riven with griefjoy.
It has nothing to do with form. Though there is something about this quality that offers an open door. It resonates after the poem is done. It leaves a flavor on the tongue. A scar. A hum of pleasure. An itch. Oppen’s work, puzzling as I find it–is totally open and keeps me coming back to it. Beckett. Dylan Thomas. Sylvia Plath. Countless others. The list is always changing. That’s another conversation.
Let’s walk through a flower garden together. I’ll be drawn to different colors, shapes and scents than you. You’ll say, see: there it is. And I’ll say, no. Here it is. And sometimes we’ll rub our legs against the same pollen. In a museum, in a book, in a theater–we’ll want to bask in the same poem, painting, song, film. Or I’ll even fight you for the last bite of it.
In speaking with one of my longest and truest friends, a couple weeks ago, we were debating this quality. He is a musician, and a core element in our friendship is music, and our mutual relationship with it. We’ve come to differences over the years from time to time–when he likes a band and I don’t, or vice-versa. It’s really kind of silly in a way, but I feel deeply wounded and sulky sometimes when we’re on opposite sides looking in at one of these bands, one of these songs, when he says: it’s not there. I don’t feel it. While I’m deeply moved by it. I’m on my knees before it, puzzled that he can’t feel it. Again–this has little to do with form–though the question of creative complexity comes up again and again in these conversations. At one time, he preferred, and wanted to make–a music that was not necessarily formally complex, but emotionally resonant. The former was background, the latter foreground. Now, as a more accomplished musician, he wants more of a blend of those things–or would sacrifice a lot of emotional impact to make a song that is formally intelligent, unpredictable, open, artistically new, etc. I totally get what he is saying, and as a musician, I completely understand his needs are different; he needs a different music than me now to feed his fire, his days, his creativity. I suspect, like me, he’s tinkering in his lab to find just the right potion that will balance both of these impulses–the intellectual and the emotional. A little green in this beaker, a little blue in this one. Our current difference of taste over this one band speaks to the power and beauty of the subjective. And we may entirely reverse our opinions, tastes, preferences in years to come.
Of course, we all have, as readers, viewers, listeners, different tastes, needs, hungers, wants. What stopped my student before a poem was different than what stopped me, then. My friend feels compelled to walk away from a music that rips my heart into shreds and pours me through with pleasure, with thought, with light. It is not static, though, this hunger. Now, like my student, I’m looking for poems that have other qualities. And my student probably is, too. And I know my good friend is always sampling, always digging, always searching for the next song, the next band, the next music that moves him. And I know the music I’m into now may not hold its spell (though in this case, I think it will–which gets at timelessness…a river that branches off from this question of aesthetic beauty, and opens into that other big sea: What are the pieces of art that HOLD this quality over time, this it, and why?)
Currently, I find myself getting and restless and bored with blocky stanzas and the hewn and orderly voice of much contemporary lyricism; what I once celebrated–the controlled lyric/narrative, the precise artifice, now bores, even frustrates me. This is in part because in my new work I’ve taken a sledgehammer to all I’ve learned. I feel naive and filled with wonder again. I’m not who I was. I want to question what I once loved. So I’m looking for that it in other places, in other forms, in other structures, in weirder fields. I want to read differently and write differently. Next week, I might be right back here strolling around the old field and summoned to its music by the simplest riffle of an age-old rose.
Though, to return to my earlier point, it has little to do with experimentalism, with form, with convention, with tradition. No one owns the map to the place, to the feeling, the resonant hum. But it is out there. And it is in poems, stories, paintings, songs of every shape and stripe. I’m open to it and want more of it. I don’t want to stay in one part of the garden for too long because I might be missing it somewhere else.
It found me today, or I found it. This quality, this bell ringing longing after the bell is still–in Jane Kenyon’s poem, featured on The Writer’s Almanac. Here is a poem that, on the surface, is not flashy. No projections on mirrors. It is, in its language and its narrative: simple. But I have read it three times and have put off my work to write this blog entry because of it. It, for me, has that quality, that atmosphere, that resonance, that reverb, call it what you want–that makes me want to stand in its light. It makes me want to cry and pray and I want to eat it. And it has utterly derailed me from my daily purposes, which, most unfortunately, I must return to, but not without drinking of it again, and offering it to you, in case you missed it. It may not feed you, or may ring as quick and dull. That’s OK–keep looking for it elsewhere, then. But I’ll be over here today if you’re looking for me.
Staying at Grandma’s
Sometimes they left me for the day
while they went — what does it matter
where — away. I sat and watched her work
the dough, then turn the white shape
yellow in a buttered bowl.
A coleus, wrong to my eye because its leaves
were red, was rooting on the sill
in a glass filled with water and azure
marbles. I loved to see the sun
pass through the blue.
“You know,” she’d say, turning
her straight and handsome back to me,
“that the body is the temple
of the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Ghost, the oh, oh … the uh
oh, I thought, studying the toe of my new shoe,
and glad she wasn’t looking at me.
Soon I’d be back in school. No more mornings
at Grandma’s side while she swept the walk
or shook the dust mop by the neck.
If she loved me why did she say that
two women would be grinding at the mill,
that God would come out of the clouds
when they were least expecting him,
choose one to be with him in heaven
and leave the other there alone?
—by Jane Kenyon
“Staying at Grandma’s” by Jane Kenyon, from Let Evening Come. © Graywolf Press, 1990.