Poetry is made of the earth. It has materiality. Indeed, it has been the necessary project of some important twentieth century writers to remind us of this. But it does, as does all language, point to that which is absent. In so doing it potentially gives a model of divine ascendance. It points up. This is, you understand, only one way to read what might take place. I offer Sebald and Nash as test cases in an inadequate study in the phenomenon, perhaps with the same intent that William James offers examples of religious experience. What interests me is the longevity of this metaphor of transcendence, coupled with the coincidence of two readers of Browne describing their physical response in such similar terms. Not all language is Sublime. The task of the writer of sublimity is to find a physical pattern suggestive of such transcendence. It must remind us of the strange and uncanny matter that it reaches for. It must reach. It must leap, and in leaping it becomes poetry rather than just a utile communication. Poetry is the instant of language getting above itself. The instant of the poetic is like Sebald’s instant of the convalescent observer who sees both himself and his world, who knows they are at once the same and separate. It is then possible to imagine that the loftiness of poetry is its ability to point beyond its own materiality. But the pointing is a function of its materiality. So it is not strictly dualistic. It is possible that the idea of the soul, and thus the soul itself, comes into being the moment the body notices its own self in all its limited glory. This is the moment of becoming, the mirror stage, the eating of the apple, figure it in whatever system you please. In the same way poetry comes into the poem at those instances where the poem is stretched to the limits of its body. Poetry inhabits the poem the way the soul inhabits the body (and I deliberately use terms that are old-fashioned and burdened by history, because the phenomenon of poetry is not new, just as the phenomenon of being is not). Poetry is not easy to point at even in a successful poem. It is the vaporous glimpse of the instant of the soul’s departing, through the openings that yawn briefly in the imaginative thrum of the written. Poetry is the closest the body gets to touching the soul. This is because it is also the instant of the invention of that soul. It is the resort of living outside of life, it is the Mansion of the Dead, it is the realm between. All of these descriptions remain allusive rather than conclusive, because:
The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery. (Sebald, 18-19)
Aristotle/Horace/Longinus. Classical Literary Criticism. London: Penguin Books, 1965.
Nash, Paul. Aerial Flowers. Oxford: Counterpoint Publications, 1947.
Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. New York: New Directions, 1999.