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Beyond words: Poetry’s journey to transcendence

by Kyle Singh
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Poetry illustration fro Kyle article
Poetry is simple yet profound alchemy of words, weaving impact, beauty, and purity to elevate the human spirit into realms of transcendence.

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In Mary Oliver’s The Fish, she concludes with the declaration that we are nourished by the mystery. It is a call to exploration, to discovery, and at the same time it is an acknowledgement of all we can never know.

This, to me, is the essence of the spiritual journey and central to contemporary lyric poetry. Indeed, the contemporary lyric asks us to go beyond ordinary experience and confront all that is beyond our immediate understanding.

We begin with a poem by Mark Strand, entitled Keeping Things Whole:

In a field

I am the absence of field.

This is

always the case.

Wherever I am

I am what is missing.

When I walk

I part the air and always

the air moves in

to fill the spaces

where my body’s been.

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move to keep things whole.

The Epiphanies in a creative process

This poem came serendipitously to Strand, in fact he noted that he wrote it in twenty seconds during a card game! But what does it mean? There is a sense in which we feel the absence Strand is alluding to, the feeling of being out of the body, yet in it, and still it is an experience we cannot fully articulate. Moreover, where does the poem come from? Clearly the writing of a poem is not an easy endeavor–as all things that are truly worthwhile are–one that takes countless hours of revision and meticulous attention to detail. Yet, there are moments in the creative process that come from a place of uncertainty; perhaps the subconscious but even this does not seem to be precise enough. Often, the writing of the poem is an event where the process is clouded with mystery. I really never know how one can write a poem. In this way, albeit, we cannot do it often, perhaps only a few times in a lifetime we can touch the blissful splendor of truth.

Poetry: The greater Abstract

Poetry resists meaning, or at least explicit meaning and this is its greatest strength. To me, a poem should really mean nothing! What is the one sentence answer to describe what we mean by “love”? It is an impossible question, although we have all felt it! It is a similar feeling of bewilderment when we are faced by those questions that are at the absolute foundations of existence. Questions of purpose and meaning, questions of our origin and our end; all of these are intangible, seemingly miraculous that they are even posited in the first place. We know we can never find the answer and yet we try anyway!

Poetry enables Imagination

Even the building blocks themselves that go into the construction of the poem, that are seemingly capturing mundane instances of sensory experience, are layered with overtones that bring justice to Hegel’s conception of aufheben, which means “to lift”. The central function of a poem is its image, turning word into world, those stimuli that we come into contact with in a purely ad sensorium fashion. The image as we typically conceive it is not a function of the poem in and of itself. In other words, if a poem utilized the phrase “the tall tree”, it is not enough to simply project the image of a “tall tree”, from your experience in your head.  Consider the line from Wallace Stevens A Postcard From a Volcano:

And that in autumn, when the grapes

Made sharp air sharper by their smell

It is not enough to simply picture grapes in the air, although it is a start. One has to start with the fact that the air in autumn is crisp and remind themselves of this feeling, the smell, the experience. Then one needs to place a grape in this setting, its acridness and then ask oneself and imagine what it would mean for the air to become even crisper still; the sensation of elation that comes with being immersed in the season. One can even go further and call into question why a grape was evoked in particular and not an apple for instance.

Poetry: Door to the realms Beyond

Poetry calls for a slow reading, for the reader to add the overtones of an image not only to fully actualize them but to feel each sense and what surrounds that image, what is informing that image; the season, the smell, the feeling of being there in autumn. This is akin to a meditative process: A process that relies on us to become fully immersed in experience. To not only come into contact with it but to fully internalize it. So too are the layers of experience, the phenomenon superimposed on the noumenon beyond it – multitudinous and dense; opportunities to revel in the mystery we began with and are immersed in.

The image also works with metaphor, another central tenet of the poem, connecting seemingly disparate things, further cementing the overtones. The following line from the romantic poet John Keats in To Autumn characterizes this:

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

The mystery we keep coming back to does not stand alone! In fact, it is right in front of us, we move in it. It is tied to the image. After all, we are dealt with the events of life. Poetry calls us to immerse ourselves in those as well, not to treat it as separate from the self, for the self is the sum of our interactions with the physicality of this world. The ant is just as important as the rock, the rock is just as important as the President. It is a truth that comes from the Eastern sensibility of everything turning into everything else, the fact that when the ashes of a dog are spread in the ground, new plants, stronger and filled with greater vitality, arise. 

The fruit, then is not just being ripened, it is being ripened to its core. This is a visceral sensation: the fruit is collapsing in on itself, fulfilling the seemingly endpoint to endpoint map of all things.

This correspondence within inner and outer, to me, is the actualization of any kind of spirituality we want to invoke. It is the recognition of what is physical and what transcends it, what is vast and what is right in front of your eyes. West Wall, by W.S. Merwin brings us to this:

In the unmadelight I can see the world

as the leaves brighten I see the air

the shadows melt and the apricots appear

now that the branches I see the apricots

from a thousand ripening in the air

they are ripening in the sun along the west wall

apricots beyond number are ripening in the daylight

Whatever was there

I never saw those apricots swaying in the light

I might have stood in the orchards forever

without beholding the day in the apricots

or knowing the ripeness of the lucid air

or touching the apricots in your skin

or tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots

The apricots are in our skin. It is the transitory nature of existence that comes into contact with a continuum that we are a part of and try to understand. We are the apricots that ripen the air and they are us. And yet, there is the question of if they, in their infinitude, are ever seen…

The transcendental nature of Poetry

The fact that the poetic system begins in an oral tradition, that even in a contemporary context it ends and begins with listening, further establishes it as a system that can allow us to grapple with that which surrounds us, both eternal and impermanent. Derrida, the influential postmodern philosopher who thought deeply about the nature of meaning in language, when asked to write an essay on the meaning of poetry, wrote that the poem announces itself as “a dictation”, that it asks us to “learn [it] by heart, copy [it] down”, to “guard [it] and keep [it], look out for [it], right before your eyes, soundtrack, wake, trail of light…”. Derrida had the notion that the poem was truly something that went beyond the page. Its origins in sound, syllable and meter, means that it is meant to be internalized. The cadences of musicality resemble a mantra, a chant, a reverberation of the body that is truly felt when one recites the poem. It truly is a palpable feeling of shared experience, the feeling that truth is being revealed even though it never fully is. 

There are many organizing principles we utilize to try and make sense of the world. Philosophy and religion are two such systems. Leading what one considers to be a spiritual life is another one. It is clear that the practice of poetry, in touching the patchwork of the complexities of experience, is in the same spirit as our most feverish inquiries. As is the essence of the spiritual journey, the nature of poetics calls on us not only to contemplate the essence of what is around us but to unabashedly celebrate it and, at the same time, celebrate the fundamental truth that we will always live in and truly be nourished by the mystery.

It is only fitting to end this argument for the poetic spirit to help us transcend with a poem that is a lyric in the purest sense. A lyric that directly, with great efficiency, addresses our questions and the existential truth of the oneness of all things, a lyric which directly addresses the beloved, That is what was bequeathed us, by Gregg Orr:

This is what was bequeathed us:

This earth the beloved left

And, leaving,

Left to us.

No other world

But this one:

Willows and the river

And the factory

With its black smokestacks.

No other shore, only this bank

On which the living gather.

No meaning but what we find here.

No purpose but what we make.

That, and the beloved’s clear instructions:

Turn me into song; sing me awake.

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