Rachel Hadas addresses the ironic efficacy of the poet’s oblique view in her essay, “The Mind’s Meander: Indirection, Ambiguity, and Association in Poetry.” In so doing, she reminds readers of poetry that it is precisely the poet’s largely passive praxis of composing with one eye as much, if not more, on “indirection,” “the periphery,” and “association” as the other eye’s focus on the literal and immediately evident that produces strong poetry. Hadas provides corroborating evidence from her own personal experience as a poet, as well as from such other poets as Robert Frost, James Merrill, and Carl Griffin, what all strong poets past and present have known about their muse, namely, that she provides serendipitous discoveries from hideaways that elude overly conscious attention.
The Mind’s Meander: Indirection, Ambiguity, and Association
I’ve been musing about the benefits of indirection – or call it obliquity, inference, distraction, serendipity, ambiguity, a sidelong approach. All these variations on the theme of non-linearity yield benefits when we’re reading or writing poetry, or when we’re simply trying (as if the task were simple) to think.
Dots offer themselves to be connected: what I’ve read or remembered, what floats to the surface of this meditation on the mind’s meander. Since Chard deNiord, Poet Laureate of Vermont, has invited me to write for this space, and since now that spring has arrived I’m happily anticipating our annual migratory return to our place in Danville, Vermont, I’ll begin with Robert Frost – first something he wrote, and then a couple of things said by other poets about his work.
In “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost evokes the way a poem arrives:
For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.
That same unexpectedness may be what William Logan has in mind when he writes in Frost’s Woods and Dickinson’s Nerves that “Frost occasionally betrays the theme of a poem in the opening line…but he prefers to enter a poem by the side gate.” Logan also mention’s Frost’s “backward introductions,” a phrase which recalls James Merrill’s evocation of the introductory line “Whose woods these are I think I know” “gliding backwards through the room,” drawing the reader after it. Merrill continues “Think how often poems in the first-person-present begin with a veil drawn, a sublimation of the active voice or indicative mood, as if some ritual effacement of the ego were needed before one could go on.”
The enticing indirection that draws us after the speaker into the dark woods is so subtle that, occurring as it does in a poem almost too familiar to attend to, it may escape our notice until readers like Merrill and Logan point out what has been there all along. The philosopher and psychologist Merleau-Ponty wrote that artistic expression “is like a step taken in the fog; no one can say where, if anywhere, it will lead.” (Step by step, the wonder…keeps growing, as Frost put it.) For Grace Paley, the movement of the mind isn’t into the fog or the woods but outward in space and time: “I cannot keep my mind on Jerusalem/It wanders off like an idiot with no attention span/to whatever city lies outside my window that day…”
Whatever city: wandering; serendipity; contingency. My late husband’s neurologist, with whom I’ve stayed in touch, recently connected me with his chum since college days, the poet Kristofor Minta. (How loose a chain of circumstance is that?) Minta’s newest book, The Voices and Other Poems, is a collection of luminous translations of some of Rilke’s less known poems. The book’s opening poem, appropriately entitled “Entrance,” evokes another kind of opening out, this time not through a window, as in Paley’s poem, but a door. “Entrance” begins
Whoever you are, in the evening step out
of your room, where everything’s familiar;
your house lies between you and the distance:
whoever you are.
With your eyes, which are almost too weary
to free from the worn-out doorstep,
raise one black tree very slowly…
When I encountered this poem a month ago, it felt to me like a powerful evocation of the tentative beginning of the end of lockdown, a step away from that overly familiar room toward a cautious freedom. A student to whom I showed “Entrance” agreed that it read like a pandemic or post-pandemic poem, but she focused in particular on the repetition of “whoever you are” as an affirmation that there are many of us, all in the same boat. I hadn’t thought of that interpretation, but she wasn’t wrong. Was something like this what Rilke had in mind – was he thinking of the 1918 pandemic? I could look up the date of this poem, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.
When poetry’s spell is working, that wonder and that supply, that wealth of interpretation, manifest again and again. Each new reader adds something. In Book 21 of the Odyssey, fetching Odysseus’s bow from the storeroom, Penelope sits on the floor, cradles the bow in her lap, and weeps. Our guest lecturer, zooming in to talk about that book, thought, and so did I, that the memories the bow evokes are what make Penelope weep. A student had a different idea; she thought Penelope was weeping because she had already seen through her husband’s disguise and feared that he would lose the contest of the bow. She wasn’t wrong either; the wonder of unexpected supply, of indirection, of ambiguity, is at the heart of the Odyssey.
Back to the pandemic (and that zoom reminds us we’ve never been far from it): we don’t need to announce that we’re reading or writing in the middle of a crisis the likes of which none of us have experienced before, a protracted pandemic which has changed and is continuing to change all our lives. That knowledge will work its way into what we write and into how we read, whether we know it or not. This is not to say that Covid-19 is necessarily our preferred subject matter; it is just all but inescapably there.
When, some thirty years ago, I was running a poetry workshop at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, I thought that if I were the one ill with a deadly new disease, I’d be angry. But I came to realize that, as I wrote a little later, “Anger…is transitory, sporadic, and exhausting. It demands and fuels energy; it also uses energy up. The men facing me [in the workshop] seemed more gentle and tired than anything else.” It was too hard, and too painful, to concentrate on mortal illness; in Paley’s words, they couldn’t keep their minds on Jerusalem. But AIDS, the idea and the reality, was present in the room with us then, just as the idea and the reality of a less deadly but much more contagious illness is present in the room (and yes, in the zoom room too) with us now, whether we’re reading the Odyssey or writing our own poems. One of my poetry students observed last week (yes, on zoom) that he’d become impatient with how often poems refer to thinking and remembering. Don’t all poems derive, he asked, from the operations of memory and thought? Can’t we just assume that, and move, or meander, on? He wasn’t particularly referring to the pandemic, but his point – a good one – applies whether or not we’re thinking about Covid. The poems people in my poetry group have been writing since June are edged and hedged with darkness. The most eloquent of them assume, rather spell out, shared experience, shared knowledge. They skirt the subject, or approach it indirectly. But it’s there.
At the very beginning of our new era, in mid-March 2020, a Welsh poet named Carl Griffin wrote to me out of the blue. He was asking me to contribute, and to suggest other contributors, to a book-length poem he had the idea of editing (curating was his word), a poem about and arising from what he suspected would be a long and life-changing time for people everywhere. What Carl had in mind was not an anthology of poems about the pandemic (there will be plenty of those), but one long poem he intended to carve out of the work that he hoped would be sent to him from the whole English-speaking world. A kind of cento, I supposed. But the finished poem, Arrival at Elsewhere, which was published last year by Against the Grain Press, doesn’t have the discontinuous, performative randomness that distinguishes many centos. Not that the poem is wholly smooth; but its very roughness offers a remarkable stylistic and thematic integrity, as “…poets from across the world speak in one voice in response to 2020’s life-changing pandemic. Not a definitive voice, nor an authoritative one. But a contrasting, contradicting, confused voice…represented by one narrator, who, just like the rest of us , is made up of a hundred different people. A narrative cohesive only in his/her/their contemplation of Elsewhere.” The unattributed language from the back of the book is wholly accurate.
I began with ambiguity and serendipity, with walking into fog. Let me taper off in the middle of the spellbinding poem Griffin has put together; let me end with clouds. Even if the dread word “thinking” appears in this passage it’s immediately relegated to the past. The clouds, like thoughts, or thoughts, like clouds, manifest, change, and then fly away.
Something about clouds
is troubling you today.
It is to do with how much
of your thinking
they used to take up. No more.
Away they fly,
bright rags, then grey sheep,
then the cloud is just a kite…