Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #12

Raising Poetry to a Higher Power  

(Mark Irwin)  

A notion of Kafka’s perhaps hints at one of the highest aspirations of art: “The artist’s task is to lead the isolated individual into the infinite life.” Isolation occurs through the constraints of the material and physical world. This is what Rilke means when he tells us in The Duino Elegies, “Even the nearest moment is far from mankind.” If, however, the artist is capable of spanning those distances between the physical and spiritual, then some of the most memorable art occurs.

Mark IrwinIn poetry, a great deal of the task is accomplished through the collapse of temporal and spatial boundaries, and through a quality of voice washed of ego, one that seems to have traversed these same boundaries. Here is W. S. Merwin’s “Place,” a poem whose tree becomes an axis mundi for us all, a tree that links creation with destruction, beginning with end, but transcends that end through the act of giving.


On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

(Merwin 285)

Although it’s evening on the last day of the world, the tree that is planted, not for the end but for the means, as we know from the Bhagavad Gita, will join the earth (roots) with the heavens (clouds). In his “Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger suggests that in memorable art there is a constant presencing in which the sky becomes earth and the earth becomes sky. To illustrate that point he uses Van Gogh’s painting Peasant’s Shoes, in which the foreground (blue) and background (brown) have been reversed. Thus, the shoes, worn and disheveled, rest in the sky and suggest  both the death and cosmological wholeness of the man.

Here is a passage from Czeslaw Milosz’ “The Wormwood Star,” a part of The Separate Notebooks in which the narrator discovers that the house of his birth has been destroyed by war:

When Thomas brought news that the
       house I was born in no longer exists,

Neither the lane nor the park sloping to
       the river, nothing,                   

I had a dream of return. Multicolored.
       Joyous. I was able to fly.

And the trees were even higher than in
       childhood, because they had been
        growing during all the years since they had been cut down.
(Milosz  373)

Again, time and distance are collapsed and the speaker is able to transcend destruction through a surreal act-- flight and visionary-dream-memory, in which he is able to re-experience the paradise of childhood, whose trees had been “growing during all the years since they had been cut down.” The long, spacious, memoried lines seem biblical in their recompense.

   The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai plays upon a similar theme of isolation (as the result of war) transcended by memory. From “Seven Laments for the War Dead,” the first seven lines of Part 5, as translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, begin:

Dickey was hit.
Like the water tower at Yad Mordecai.
Hit. A hole in the belly. Everything
came flooding out.

But he has remained standing like that
in the landscape of my memory
like the water tower at Yad Mordecai. 

(Amichai 94)

The transit to the infinite is quickened by Amichai’s profound use of analogy: blood is to the individual body as water is to the people. What has been mortally pierced is resurrected in the physical geography of the water tower on the horizon, and in the geography of the imagination.

Just as war serves to isolate the individual, so, too, does the loss of innocence.


Many years ago
I was sent
to spy out the land
beyond the age of thirty.

And I stayed there
and didn’t go back to my senders,
so as to be made
to tell
about this land

and made
to lie.

(Amichai/Schimmel 13)

The telegraphic power of Amichai’s poetry is heightened by it brevity. The wonderful conflation of the spatial (land) with the temporal (age of thirty) crystallizes the truth of this poem, a universal truth written with no adjectives.

Amichai’s poetry generates a sense of astonishment through skeletal narrative superimposed over longer stretches of time. In our reading we have the sense of unearthing fossils deep within the page. His poems distort, collapsing time through memory, and thus generate a vertical temporality similar to historical truths in the Old Testament. The effect is a subdued sense of wonder.

   In the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells us that, “It is owing to wonder that people both now begin and at first begun to philosophize.” Wonder and astonishment are subconscious forms of praise that translated into poetic language allow us to reenter and become whole with the world. Wonder eclipses knowledge and courts mystery, for knowledge is often too conscious an activity. “God bless Captain Vere!” Billy Budd chants to the arbiter who ends his life. Wonder depends on the imagination to revision, such that astonishment finds a newly created humility:

I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent—
To wrap its shining Yards—
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear—
Without the sound of Boards
Or Rip of Nail – Or Carpenter—
But just the miles of Stare—  

(Dickinson 171)

   If Merwin, Milosz, and Amichai generate a sense of wonder through a more vertical notion of temporality (myth and memory), Mary Oliver accomplishes it on the horizontal plane. Death approaches the speaker, and the speaker approaches death, praising it, transforming fear into beauty and generative recompense:

When death comes
like a hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the
       bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder

I want to step through the door full of
       curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of

(Oliver 10)

The gradual movement of beauty (“hungry bear / bright coins”) toward terror “measle-pox / iceberg”) generates a sense of the sublime heightened by the speaker’s courage and naivety. And I mean naivety in the highest sense, one that eschews knowledge, for Oliver’s work is within the fabric of nature, or as Schiller so rightly observed: “The poet either is nature, or will seek it; the former is the naïve, the latter the sentimental.”

When it is over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world
into my arms.  (10)

Here wonder eclipses death and becomes abundance. One recalls the power of Paul’s recusal of death in 1st Corinthians: “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?”

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something
particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having
visited this world.  (11)

Abundance and courage do not contest. The speaker does not grasp at the former world, but opens the new and infinite beyond.

But how does the isolated individual gain access to the infinite life if not through some leap of faith, or through the imagination, one in which the unknown, or “not knowing” seems a critical vector? One recalls Dickinson’s “—and then / I could not see to see”, but her poem begins at least in partial knowing (“I heard a fly buzz—when I died—“) and ends in unknowing, while Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” begins with unknowing and ends with a new unknown for the observer, who has been witnessed everywhere, and now must change.


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his
is still suffused with brilliance from
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now
turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you
       so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and
to that dark center where procreation

Otherwise this stone would seem
beneath the translucent cascade of the
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change
       your life.   

  (Rilke/Mitchell 61)

Here the mystery of unknowing is heightened by paradox. The poem opens: “We cannot know his legendary head / with eyes like ripening fruit.” –An unknowing intensified, for this is the god of light, poetry, and song we cannot know, such that the eyes (lamp) and mouth (smile) must be subsumed in the torso and thighs, while the stone beneath “the translucent cascade of the shoulders” glistens “like a wild beast’s fur” and recalls the senses of touch and smell. Rilke’s poem bursts with the twin founts of yin and yang, where darkness is continually and alternately replaced by light: the missing head /”eyes like ripening fruit”; inside of torso / “like a lamp”; “dark center” / “procreation flared.” The stone likeness of the god’s body is wildly synesthetic, glistening “like a wild beast’s fur,” and the journey through this body summons the ubiquity of what is missing and bursts “like a star,” until the reader must change, for he has been overly witnessed by what is missing.

The poem confronts a void, yet this void, the missing head /face, the sensual fount of this god of light, provides the irreconcilable silence also necessary to this god of poetry and song. In this void the imagination teems in order to supplant the real, one that asks change of every reader.

 Not knowing is a way of feeling toward the source of the infinite,  just as in Stevens’ “The Snowman,” “the listener, who listens in snow, / And, nothing himself” will find “the nothing that is.”

Ironically, Kafka’s profound insight is often renounced in his own work, but perhaps his brutal honesty concerning our inability to navigate or measure the infinite is ultimately what reconciles us with it:

It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.
(The Castle 3)

The thwarted anti-hero of The Castle is a land surveyor.

# # #

[Mark Irwin’s essay originally appeared in The American Poetry Review, Nov/ Dec., 2008]

Works Cited

Amichai, Yehuda. Selected Poems.
Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, trans. NY: Harper & Row, 1986.         

Dickinson, Emily. Complete Poems of
Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Willa &
Edwin Muir, trans. New York: Random House, 1969.

Merwin, W. S. Migration: New &
Selected Poems. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

Milosz, Czeslaw. The Collected Poems
1931-1987. NY: Echo Press, 1988.

Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Rilke, Rainer, Maria. The Selected
Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Stephen Mitchell, trans. NY: Vintage, 1989