Life is full of talk and theory these days. There is little time, tolerance or importance given to quiet reflection, to silence, introspection that might give rise to uncertainties or hesitations. These characteristics are merely labelled as something reclusive, involving a mental aberration, incompetence, or highlight some anti-social aspect; or they are categorized with obscure, exotic descriptions from a medical handbook that include all of these concerning aspects of things diagnosed as being different: unacceptably solitary and shy. One has to be full of oneself, self-certainty, and self-confidence; one has to be able to promote oneself without any doubt or self-questioning. This is the era of things ‘ME’: large, obvious and definite. Tiny, subtle matters are obscured by the mass of this ‘selfie’ surge.
Our media - television, radio, movies - promote the ideal of ‘talk’ and more ‘talk’ as perfect, fast, authoritative verbiage that flows with a certain presentational knowing. Hesitate to think, or to correct or realign a thought and one is immediately seen as an inept, bumbling fool. Yet our lives are complete with uncertainty, with vague feelings, flighty thoughts, obscure notions, and a beauty that cannot be named: a wonder that, if it could have been, would have been explained long ago.
Poetry touches such fields as these, but even here we are trained to rationalise, analyse and explain matters with an unflinching certainty. Our schools make us this way; our exams check to see that we have understood this approach to the world of mystery. Provide a vague response to any question and one will be marked down, just as the stuttering of a newsreader is mocked, dismissed as a failing. One has to know about a poem, even if the poet had come to this expression through a dream of uncertainty, or even a dram of it: see – Ted Hughes The Thought Fox in http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/singer-and-song.html
Our era wants digital black and white patterns, perceptions and explanations of things colourful. Anything analogue and fuzzy is seen as the past: old-fashioned; antiquated - silly: not ‘cool.’ So it is that to be able to touch the experience of a poem, feel it and communicate this experience is a most unusual circumstance. Normally such attention destroys the subtlety of the very thing being exposed.
But the poem, Nude Descending a Staircase references such a familiar image that we have seen in all its multiplicity of uncertainty, but still clearly, that the poem becomes transparently real for us, simply. One can sense the same differently and feel how the words do their magic and add real depth, value and meaning to the known, even though the whole remains aloof and untouchable. Here it is:
Nude Descending a Staircase
Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.
We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh –
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to let her parts go by.
One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.
The poem is by X.J.Kennedy and is published in The Oxford Book of Short Poems chosen and edited by P.J.Kavanagh and James Michie: Oxford University Press, New York 1985 (paperback, 1987; p. 265).
We will not ‘learn’ from this, just sense its qualities. As John Betjeman said of his poems that had been turned into a song and dance routine by some young enthusiasts, “I don’t know if it adds anything to the work, but I admire the effort.” Here, somewhat similarly but more substantially, one can admire not only the painting but also the poetry as an amalgam of image-feeling and word-form, and delight in the two types of expression.
It is indeed an astonishing experience that lingers, wondrously. Ordinary experience is confirmed in a most subtly real way and made more: it is enriched by this sharing, this twin that adds its dappling to our experience.
Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
20 February 2017
the poem being
what happens when
a welter of substantial
feelings and facts
have passed through the thalmus
the belly of the brain
right up into the cortical region
they return again
worded on the tongue.
From Walking the Coast
Kenneth White Open World The Collected Poems 1960 – 2000 Polygon 2003 Edinburgh p.171
see also: THE AIM OF ART in the sidebar