July 24, 2013
Jul 24, 2013
7 Min read time
I’m packing to visit some places where I once lived. The first and fussiest part of this summer routine involves long mental lists of what I know and what I don’t know. It won’t rain like it did all last July, probably. I’ll walk a different route home from the library. I’ll remember the intersection where I always got lost, but I won’t end up there disoriented so much. The ducklings on the canal will be indistinguishable from the ducklings I saw last year but will not, presumably, be the same ones. I’ll try to go somewhere new, and then I will get lost. I'll see the people I see every summer, or I won’t. At some point I’ll have walked out the soles of my yellow sandals, and I won’t wear them next summer.
Neither the uncertain certainty of revisiting nor the seasonal nature of it is very new. Wordsworth’s meditation on nature and memory, solitude and company in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” comes out of this sort of summertime experience: “On revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798.” But where the lapse of five years between Wordsworth’s first visit to the Wye and his second renders the older poet—remembering the “coarser pleasures” of his “boyish days”—slightly melancholy, I don't want anything to do with nostalgia. I prefer to think like Marcel Proust, recalling his second summer at the seaside town Balbec. Although Proust is usually very good at cultivating nostalgia in the extreme, here his “dazzlingly clear” images of last summer’s pleasure “prove deceitful nonetheless.” He writes:
The images selected by memory are as arbitrary, as narrow, as intangible as those which imagination had formed and reality has destroyed. There is no reason why, existing outside ourselves, a real place should conform to the pictures in our memory rather than to those in our dreams. And besides, a fresh reality will perhaps make us forget, detest even, the desires that led us forth upon our journey.
So I am thinking about revisiting—revisiting towns and cities, but also revisiting poems—as encountering fresh realities rather than the nostalgia sometimes dully bred of familiarity: as difference that is part of repetition (says Deleuze), or as some peculiarly complicated knot of the totally known and the totally unknowable. Or stated more simply, just possibility. Or here, from John Ashbery, in Three Poems:
And so tomorrow coming up is still a feast of expectation, is moving fast into the caves of your soul and this is the only way to have had the refreshment and the reward intact, in the midst of it all happening around you. . . . You have to take this as it opens up. There must be nothing resembling nostalgia for a past which in any case never existed. It is like standing up because you’ve been sitting all day and are tired of it.
• • •
Last winter, I copied W.S. Merwin’s poem “The Hydra” into a small notebook. Since that notebook is now filled, I recopied the poem into a new notebook so I can carry it around and re-read it. The poem begins:
No no the dead have no brothers
The Hydra calls me but I am used to it
It calls me Everybody
But I know my name and do not answer
And you the dead
You know your names as I do not
But at moments you have just finished speaking
The snow stirs in its wrappings
Every season comes from a new place
Like the creature it speaks of, “The Hydra” is a many-headed thing. It begins in response to an unspoken question. Merwin’s only brother died before he was born, so this is plausibly not an unasked, nor even an unlikely, question. Still, the answer strikes me as a strange one. Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” begins in a similarly admonitory fashion—“No, no! Go not to Lethe”—but it’s easier to imagine myself needing to hear Keats’s admonition than having provoked Merwin's response. This response calls me to question rather than offering me an answer. I'm not sure who or even what the voice is answering, nor can I tell much about the quality of that voice or about who’s speaking. Instead, in the absence of the punctuation that might give the opening phrase some sort of conversational inflection (“no, no!”), “no” begins to sound an awful lot like a vocative “o,” just the blank sound of speech. The beginning of this poem always surprises me: it stands up out of the silence of questions, impossible or real, childish or abstract, asked or left unsaid and hanging. It makes me wonder.
“Fresh reality,” as Proust put it: the surprise and mystery of this beginning have something to do with why I’m keeping this poem around. Re-reading this poem is not quite like re-reading a novel, which sometimes feels to me like trying to remember the turns of an ill-marked path taken once before, or like piecing together the way back home after a long night out. It’s also not like remembering, for example, a Shakespeare sonnet I know well, the one in which the same enjambment—“Like to the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth”—always delights, and always surprises because it always delights. “The Hydra,” instead, feels more like an exercise in negative capability, an immersion in Keats’s state of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” Later in the poem, Merwin writes: “A long time ago the lightning was practicing / Something I thought was easy.” The flash of lightning never becomes less powerful with repetition. This poem does not in fact bear out the promise of becoming routine, rote, or easy.
And while Merwin’s poem has partly to do with history, with the dead who are in the past, Merwin’s dead also lead him—and us—palpably ahead in time:
Once you go into those names you go on you never
You go on
Uneven and unpunctuated, these lines make us feel how reading unfolds into the future. The dead, “you,” the hydra never hesitate, but Merwin’s strong enjambments, as well as the placement of “Hesitate” alone on one line, make us hesitate—and then make us go on. The future we go into is the time of reading and re-reading. That even every season—this by definition cyclical, and by culture overdetermined (think of conventions of seasonal poetry, seasonal habits, seasonal narratives)—comes from a new place seems to me especially miraculous. Nothing practiced becomes easy. We carry poems around. We hesitate, we go back to the poems. Sometimes poems have many heads, present different faces. Sometimes the letting go of one reading or one interpretation means the growth of others in its place. It is possible that we will be surprised.
• • •
Paul Valéry defined poetry as a “prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”: a pause during which the sound of the words on the page and their meaning don’t quite add up. Seen this way, revisiting poetry isn’t just a matter of producing familiarity or nostalgia. Revisiting is a way of prolonging our prolonged hesitation over a few readings, or longer. It’s part of the experience of poetry. (An aside: I wonder how to teach this experience. I’ve conceived the impractical idea of a longitudinal poetry class—the same syllabus reused over, say, ten or fifteen years? How to say, this poem has many heads and although it looks like a mess today, in three months it may present a horse or a tree or a human countenance, so be patient?)
I want to make a case for hesitation over poetry, hesitation that necessitates return and resists familiarity. Part of why poetry demands or rewards re-reading has to do with the reader; part of the experience of re-reading poetry—like the experience of revisiting any place, like that summertime sadness or the anxiety of the college reunion—is an encounter that can respond to or at least illuminate changes in the reader’s, or the person’s, self over time. But it's not all about self or selves: this possibility is a political as well as a personal necessity. Loss of sameness proves generative: the same beach looks wilder, the same city feels more open, the old paths a life could have taken go unexpected places, the same institution has a different structure, an old government becomes a new one. Here’s Ashbery again, vanishing into a summer morning:
One is aware of it as an open field of narrative possibilities. Not in the edifying sense of the tales of the past that we are still (however) chained to, but as stories that tell only of themselves, so that one realizes one’s self has dwindled and now at last vanished in the diamond light of pure speculation. Collar up, you are lighter than air.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
July 24, 2013
7 Min read time