In the poem, loss must never be simply a mourning. Let it retain its full sorrow, its full anguish, everything that life and memory owe it. Even if misery has begun to fade into memory, or convert itself into healing, in the impossibility of the mind’s retaining the concrete circumstance, let the poem regain for loss all its misery. Let it re-establish each day the co-presence, the identity, of loss and life, loss and hope, loss and poetry. Juan Ramón Jiménez:
What does it matter
that her future is now
Joy of the present
day, each day, for her.
The anguish of the knowledge that every second is all of life, and in every second eternity is already over. Loss has to be a master theme. The poem has to struggle to see that, for all its unavoidable evil, existence is good, for all its sorrow it’s joyful, for all its contingency it’s necessary. Allow the poem to be this struggle. If the poem is a poem, it will be this struggle.
Unless loss is present in the poem, any good expressed, anything attained there is only a groundless assertion attempting to masquerade as an achieved vision of the good nature of things. So in bringing the needed, unlooked-for gift of refiguration to the overwhelming miserableness of human culture, let the poem open itself to the full presence and impact of death, of the intolerable separation, the intolerable truncation.
Brief, the definition of death,
and exact. Three words:
all’s over with.
And there’s nothing
to put against it: no burning rose,
pretended return to the sun for the mouth
that now will stay in the dark forever...
It can be said that the most complex poem is the simplest, the most transparent (not in the sense of lacking solidity but in the sense of allowing and providing a clear, complete, immediately telescopic apprehension of itself, its nakedness, such that it needs no interpretation and in fact is, in a sense, impossible to interpret...thereby always provoking bountiful possibilities of interpretation, though often silent ones, thoughts that are incipient poems in themselves).
Even the poem of simple happiness does not ignore the loss that is lexically absent in it, or almost so. The purer and more unmixed a poem is, the more the world comes to it. This presence is “implicit”, yes, but real and powerful.
Where a stream trickles
Into the sea, by a small bridge—a flute.
Farther, under the arch of ancient ruins
You see a few tiny walking figures.
One wears a red kerchief. There are trees,
Ramparts, and mountains at an early hour.
This from Czeslaw Milosz. I have a special love for “great” poetry, like Milosz’s, which strives to express explicitly the co-presence “in one body and soul” of the good, the evil, the delight, and the pain of being. As well as the subject’s lateral awareness of others, of their suffering and happiness, in the great, the total simultaneity. The greatness of such work is sometimes condensed in one of its brief moments, its single words. Octavio Paz: “the two halves of each moment, / muddy sorrow, voice of light”. Or to return to Milosz,
The first movement is singing,
A free voice, filling mountains and valleys.
The first movement is joy,
But it is taken away.
Let the poem remember that loss and the recovery from loss (recovery of what? of splendor? the lost beloved? the world as dreamed and desired?) is written into its body. The writing of the poem, the act of writing with all its inherent second-by-second loss, remains in the finished poem; the usual opposition made between process and object is inattentive.
Since the poem has to be read successively, the track and motion of its initial production always reoccurs. This is so even while no one happens to be reading. The poem moves forward on the basis of reminiscence, the ghost presence that is the very substance of its life, in fact is all of its life except for its present step, which is occurring in the word immediately under the eye.
Loss is in the very substance of the poem. It is its life, its achievement, its possible future. Jiménez has a great poem that reflects on this knowledge:
[W]hat access of new blood, this
purifying of my blood in each thing
as I go on and on to something else, smiling
in a pain never to be extinguished—
every second infinite
in immaterial sadness—
with my heart being emptied out.
There’s really no danger that loss will not be present in the poem. The task is to embrace that loss rather than avoid it or keep dimly aware of its presence. The poem sees its words passing away as it passes away from them: words moving through the perfection it has sensed, is trying to find, exploring that perfection, hoping to keep it, working to extend it...toward the future, toward everyone. By the end of the poem...O where now is the beginning? Where is the middle, through which we once walked so happily hand-in-hand? Where is the garden we woke up in, that was given to us to make?
Does the poem never end if we read it in the way that the poem intends? So well that we grasp all parts of it at once and always afterward carry it in our heart?
No. Because we forget. Because we don’t always realize this thing, or that thing...which the poem had, we now see, to give.
The poem is life-in-life, including death-in-life, and death: it’s only possible interpretation is the reading of it, the living of it.
Now, is “loss” the only disaster? Is it the only evil necessity that contradicts the discovery of a good necessity?
When I say loss is a master theme of poetry, I say it to avoid saying that it is the theme. Unqualified, this is wrong.
No, the theme is loss-and-the-address-to-loss-in-hope. Of the theme’s two parts, the second, the “address”, is most prominent. Hope is what makes even the poem of ruin and discouragement, if it truly succeeds in being a poem, sing. When nothing is left of hope...but the poem would not exist. “Songs of despair are the most beautiful of songs,” says Ellul. “Some immortal songs are pure sobs.” Tragic impasse and defeat—loss—are often the chosen images for expressions of the highest human possibility. They make what “could be” real and present in the work/wreck of the human everyday. It is the wreck that possesses the convex image of perfection.
The poem: the good, and the exaltation of the good, the extension of the good found in the simple produce of our days. Including loss. Loss of the beautiful afternoon, of a moment with a friend who has to leave. More catastrophic losses...too precious and terrible to be spoken except in the poem. Let loss be known for the substance of change, let useless loss be turned to use, let change be the production of the good out of the ruin of hope, let hope be known for the ruin of hope: the poem.
What does it matter...: Juan Ramón Jiménez, La Realidad Invisible (written 1917-23, first published 1983); part II, “A la Vejez Amada”, poem 2; tr. AFM
Brief, the definition...: ibid., poem 22; tr. AFM
Where a stream trickles...: Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems 1931-2001; from “Happiness”, tr. Richard Lourie
the two halves...: Octavio Paz, The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987; from “The Tomb of Amir Khusru”, tr. Eliot Weinberger
The first movement...: Milosz op. cit., from “The Poor Poet”, tr. Czeslaw Milosz
[W]hat access of...: Jiménez, op. cit., part III, “La Realidad Invisible”, poem 16; tr. AFM
Songs of despair...: Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff, Chapter VIII: Rationality