With the shift toward industrialization came the growth of consumerism, of materialism and the ever-utilitarian eye that goes with it. Along with the boom of these ideas in the nineteenth century grew a fear in the minds of some; artists and philosophers, poised to understand the changing dynamics of society, looked out and saw a movement away from the “actual world.” Martin Heidegger developed a school of thought which in its simplest terms insisted that men had removed themselves too far from true existence—backed by musings on art, language, and the essence of Being itself. To be in this position was really to have lost the world. Such a position is dire at best, and those who agree with Heidegger’s philosophy are eager to find an escape.
Genuine poetry is one thing which, above all else, does not lose us the world. Ordinary usages of language are careless and given to degenerating the connections between words and things through a focus on their more distant meanings. If not handled properly, poetry can have this effect as well. But true poetry uses the language of reality in refreshing ways, giving renewed meaning to the world itself by taking a step away from it. Poetry allows us to make our own connections rather than forcing them upon us and, in so doing, brings us that much closer to the actual world.
There is some question about the particulars of this “actual world,” which must be clarified; a stable definition is necessary for analysis to continue. The very nature of this project implies its complex result, and we must stop to address it before moving forward. Once we have settled on a definition there can be discussion of what in poetry touches a reality so defined.
Scholars cannot decide whether the “actual world” is most definitively the physical or creative. There is a world of external facts, and some believe in this world of external facts as the “actual world” in its eternally valuable completion (Spencer 174). Perception is then thrown out the door. But this is impossible to allow in a full definition, in an explanation of the “actual world” that accounts for its intricacies. At heart the “actual world” is not only the world of facts and the concrete, not only the way existence is imagined. It is hopeless to attempt a separation of the two. The “actual world” is made up of external objects and facts, and those who people it must learn it in their own imaginative terms as it unfolds, before it has crystallized beyond their understandings. All is lost if life becomes only what it might do down the line. The matter of importance is that the things in this world are understood for the sake of their own being.
According to Heidegger’s philosophy, poetry brings us nearer to this “actual world.” He argues its language functions “to declare, to make clear, light, bright, shining” (Versényi 132), whereas prosaic language would attempt to persuade, would seek to explain. Prose wants to tell something; poetry just wants to be heard. The poetic is considered by some the most important form of art (Rosiek 157), and as art it pushes the dreary, the expected, the day-to-day utilitarian slug out of our minds and off to some seldom-seen corner of consciousness. It “gives no knowledge for or impetus of controlling the things of the world” (Versényi 93)—it holds a non-exploitative relationship to actuality—and so it is valued.
There is a poem by William Carlos Williams which, among other possible examples, serves well to highlight this trait. It is called “The Children” and reads as follows:
Once in a while
we’d find a patch
of yellow violets
but big big blue
the cemetery woods
bunches of them
there was a family
a big family
with lots of
so we’d take
bunches of violets
and place one
on each headstone
The poem is short and simple to read. The six stanzas connect easily, and that difficulty of comprehension so feared in poetry is nowhere to be found in the earthy cadence and common language of the piece. And more, there is nothing it chooses to tell. In the place of some point it could be making, the poem gives its reader things—moments, and objects, and images from the world—purely for their own sake. The reader is permitted to take it from there. Though counterintuitive to an extent, it seems this “amalgamation of outer and inner reality which is poetry at its best” is—well, “more ‘actual’ than the world it reflects” (Spencer 192).
The key is in the imagination. The poem does not insist on making connections or feeding one’s utilitarian point of view. It gathers flowers and children and graves together on the page, but its words do not extend beyond that point. The worlds that are created—that come alive in our minds through the “transactional and creative process” of reading (Kazemek 22)—are fresh, though they are made up of the most commonplace things. And this act of imagining is paramount. The give-and-take transaction between the reader and the words before him works precisely when “comprehension and creation go on together” (Kazemek 24). One is fed the information slowly—first the violets, then the cemetery woods—until there is a whole family beneath the ground. Children’s headstones are a poignant thing, but they are brought to view gradually, and hidden in the plainness of their mention, so the reader is forced to acknowledge the sad fact of those graves’ existence alone. With the act of imagining, the reader develops a closer tie to the world in these words, a world which, being made up of the same stuff as our own, can transpose this firmer connection onto the “actual” (Spencer 177). So we are brought back, readers swallowed by an instrumentalist society, tied again to the “actual world” we forgot.
There is more to it, to be sure, than leaving empty spaces to be filled by the reader’s mind. The imagination is given reign in a sense that extends beyond—or, rather, beneath—the level of content itself. In true poetry—in a way definitively unlike any other form of language—words are alive. They are reordered, refreshed, and reestablished to take on that most undervalued of all designations, the new. It is undeniable that those called “first-rate” poets have a style which “does more than fulfill our expectations, it surpasses them… and uses the ‘actual world’ in a fashion which makes it seem something new” (Spencer 176). For “The Children,” it is color, in part, that does it. We are told they find “a patch / of yellow violets” (2-3), and not two lines along the just congealed image is shattered. For the yellow violets become “big big blue / ones” (5-6). It is a small thing, almost accidental, no more than a moment of signal static if you aren’t looking for it, yet somehow it frees the imagery. “The literal inaccuracy of [these images] is what makes their poetic accuracy” (Spencer 177); the reader is freed from the constricting frame of long-decided meaning, and suddenly the work, the art, is all openness and accessible connections. The flowers are both yellow and blue at once, and there is no attempting to picture them like that. We could think of them as something to be used in a garden or fitted in a bouquet for the tea setting under other circumstances. But these are violets that do not exist, that cannot exist, and so stop any practicality from coming between us and the actual thing.
Of course, this all hinges on “genuine poetry.” There, is, to be sure, quite a lot called poetry which is nothing of the sort. This can range from the banal whose same words are used in the same ways we’ve always heard them before to, alternatively, those overly presumptuous pieces whose language “instead of sinking, [try] too ambitiously to rise” (Spencer 176). There are, too, those poems which negate everything we’ve been attributing to their art, those poems which seem to hide the world rather than find it for us in their material. These ones are garrulous and act like prose; they blow the upper hand they could hold by telling us what they have to say.
An uncannily effective example is “Pals,” a piece by the otherwise unoffending poet, David Yezzi. It has somehow committed every error. The language is mostly common and arranged in all the expected ways. Yezzi does not here present unexpected word pairings or surprising turns of language as Williams does. He creates images out of obvious, literal connections—no phrasing more original than the rather unsurprising, “your mirror’s best reflection” (5). The second line is uncomfortably colloquial, and the eighth includes over-exaggerated vocabulary. There is no inherent offense in any of those words he puts to work; the trouble is in the way they are used, in that none of it opens something new. This results only in a falsified work, proof of the piece’s very insincerity which keeps us at a distance from the reality described. Unlike Williams’ clear and surprising poem, this one is trite and heavy and predictable all along. Poetry of this sort is “dressed in robes hired from the costumer’s” (Spencer 176), as one scholar puts it, and the unexciting game of dress-up has no chance of bringing anyone closer to the world. The poem is decidedly talking at us. It is about pals and all the good they are worth, and the reader is not permitted for a second to consider another view. The author’s supercilious assumption is that he ought to be informing us of just how things are. So we are trapped by the poem.
The issue is, of course, that this is exactly what we are trying to escape in poetry. There is quite enough ‘being talked at’ in a society as full of “radio and movies continuously blaring out a series of emotional platitudes” (Spencer 190) as our own. We do not need the distance of Yezzi’s opinions on friendship or the temptation towards utility in his words. Poems like Williams’ are what we need, real poems, clear, hard poems that leave opinion out of it. We need the words, “a family / named Foltette / a big family / with lots of / children’s graves” (10-14) and the placement of violets. This is all. The “actual world” itself is present; it does not need the writer’s qualification to mean something.
Williams has a refrain of sorts, initially used in his poem, Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” This is the basis of all genuine poetry. It is one of those rare concepts with a quality of eternal intangibility in it, that you often only recognize in its absence. We can be sure there are ideas behind good poetry, and these ideas can be as concrete as any other. But the ideas—if the poem is written well and honestly—are not left to fend for themselves, affronting the reading and disrupting any connection to the world as they do. Instead, the ideas are securely nested in real things. Common language depicting common scenes in uncommon ways supports this thought in “The Children.” It presents us the things of which it is built without a blinding screen of ideas—Williams’ or our own—clouding the readerly line of sight. And so, illuminated is that “actual world” that’s been hidden in shadow. With this sort of work before us, so much can happen.
Even re-finding the world could happen, without any particular wonder.
Rosiek, Jan. Maintaining the Sublime: Heidegger and Adorno. Bern, Germany: Peter Lang AG, European Academic, 2000. Print.
Versenyi, Laszlo. Heidegger, Being and Truth. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965. Print.
Spencer, Theodore. “Antaeus or Poetic Language and the Actual World.” ELH, vol. 10, no. 3, 1943, pp. 173–192.
Kazemek, Francis E. “William Carlos Williams, Literacy, and the Imagination.” The English Journal, vol. 76, no. 7, 1987, pp. 22–28.
Yezzi, David. “Pals.” Birds of the Air. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2013. N. pp. 43.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Children.” Six American Poets: An Anthology. Ed. Joel Conarroe. New York: Random House, 1991. 185-86. Print.
Steiner, George. Martin Heidegger. New York: Viking, 1979. Print.
Peer reviewed by Alison Robey
Written in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with basis mainly on “Babylon Revisited” and The Great Gatsby