We like to say that poetry takes time. But where does it take it? How?
Beyond the real time poetry takes to read and to write, there’s the deep historical time that has gone into the making of the tradition out of which it emerges. And then there’s the time it took us to prepare ourselves for the reading or writing in question. Or the way in which time made us ready as readers and as writers — through study and trial, hesitation or maybe precipitous or precious action, through exposure to musics and voices and registers of various sorts, to sensual and not-quite-sensical experience, to distinctions made between cups of tea and the tiniest waver in a friend’s mood in a room or a letter, or on the phone, to weather and hunger, the timbre of one’s recovery from pain.
All that goes into the surface tension of a poem — becomes it.
So, working now toward what I think may be a longish poem about conduction and sonship, paranoia, tradition, and the dynamic of
inhabitation. One waits, or tries to wait, as with every poem, every piece of writing, until the right moment. Not sufficient knowledge (Frost — “The poet must always begin with insufficient knowledge”), but sufficient pressure. One broods and jots things down as they come. But at what point do they form themselves into figures that might become poems? Often (ideally) it just happens, but as often (realistically) there’s a delicate preliminary dance and courtship, much scribbling, thinking, attraction, repulsion, and noting the irritation of obscure
intuition — when to push, if ever? How hard? Where? The nudge
toward form isn’t the only sort of direction involved; curiosity has its own engine, and that requires fuel and maintenance as well. Now it’s pleasure. Now torture. There are, to be sure, many poems that emerge in-full and of-a-sudden, and then there are those that I’ve lost, in part or altogether because I started shaping them before they were primed. But there are more, and maybe the most charmed of them, that wouldn’t exist without that delicate or not-so-delicate agon. The push doesn’t bring one to the magic — but it might bring one to the place where the wall or floor of false or encrusted feeling gives way. And that drops one into the magic. Then it seems to happen at once.
An afterthought about the aesthetic of conduction: Pleasure, certain psychoanalysts have noted, is experienced with the greatest intensity in the momentary dissolution of the ego, physically through orgasm and socially and emotionally through a lower-intensity (sublime and sublimated) love — which is to say, not in isolation from the ego, but in its giving way to something larger, which might also be smaller.
That’s not a bad place to start when it comes to what one needs to know as a writer, or even as a reader or scholar or serious seeker, though of course one comes to such things only long after the start.
Then again, one is always starting.
- Peter Cole