Skip to main content

Poetry As Prescription for the World’s Body

ISSUE:  Summer 1993
The great poets give body to soul of the language.
T. S. Eliot

There is no longer any common audience for poetry. And yet there abound a great many practicing poets, publishing in the small magazines, in the literary quarterlies, and in the more sophisticated, glossy magazines. But who reads the poetry? What major poetic voice stands above as the voice of the age? Who is there who would capture a nation’s response and so be a name to remember and to revere? There are no names, and all these practicing poets write now only for other practicing poets. They are modern specialists and speak to no one but themselves. If indeed these same poets read each other. Is it that the once high rhetoric of poetry found itself unwanted and unknown, lost to the language of high tech and to the private language of solipsism? I don’t know.

But I can suggest what this loss of audience means and perhaps show why this high language of an earlier poetry gave to the English language its fullest strength—gave meaning to the world’s body. If the individual is everything then the individual is nothing. One is not one only but is part of the whole. We are all members of the world’s body and, as such, the voice of the poet, while speaking with a single voice, nevertheless speaks for the many. Out of the stillness and the silence of the mind, the poet catches the sounds of humanity and shapes those yearnings, those hopes and fears, those echoes of the soul’s needs and wants into the language of enveloping wholeness.

Where the language turns into itself, becomes a common idiom of private musings, then it fails to generate that wholeness of response that is the language of high poetry. What I find missing in much contemporary poetry is the loss of the lyric voice, an unwillingness to let sound echo sound in a line of measured cadence. Even with the now commonplace open form, an exceptional poet like Richard Wilbur (and I make him an exception) listens to the sounds of words to shape his poetic line. But not so with many current poets where successive lines read like a one-way conversation with themselves, and where the voice is a soporific monotone. John Ashbery in a recent poem has a line that goes “Have you checked the mailbox today?” Let’s take this sinuous line and write a small parody of contemporary poetry:

Was there any mail today? and what if nothing’s there to free us from the torpor by which we move from yesterday to yesterday.

I cannot name the names of those I sometimes saw and drank with in a small Barcelona bistro. No, nothing’s there at all we eat cuttlebone and wild strawberries.

The point of this listless parody is to show how easy it is to write these languid lines for no craft is involved. Nothing more is needed than to talk about one’s self and catalog one’s failed memories. (A recent Mark Strand poem ends “And going under, becoming what no one remembers.”) As most will recognize, I take my title to this essay from John Crowe Ransom’s The World’s Body. It is a book about the art of poetry and those principles that govern true poetry. “The true poetry,” Ransom writes, “has no great interest in improving or idealizing the world. . . ./ It only wants to realize the world, to see it better.” We can know the body of the world through science, but since science knows only with the cognitive mind, that is, “know the world only as a scheme of abstract conveniences,” that which cannot be known (as scientists) “is the world which is made of whole and indefeasible objects, and this is the world which poetry recovers for us.” And, more pointedly, Ransom concludes, “It is a paradox that poetry has to be a technical act, of extreme difficulty, when it wants only to know the untechnical homely fulness of the world.”

And from that paradox I perceive a reason for the loss of a common audience, for where there is indifference to the technical undercoating of the poem, the “homely fulness of the world” becomes no more than a narrow, exclusive experience. The vision is foreshortened turned as it is on a brittle, neurotic self-image. Take something, for example, that once tested the technical craft of the poet, the sonnet, where not only alternating rhymes (and even more skillful with halfrhymes and eye-rhymes) but the forming of quatrains—or sestets and octaves—controlled the form, and yet within the closed form found the fullness and the sound of the human voice. And all without our being aware of the technique.

At another level, how often does the contemporary poet sustain in a long poem the speech patterns of the blank verse line? And with that line capture a nation’s character or the spirit of an age like the poet who would justify God’s ways to man? Or in controlled couplets prescribe the proper study of mankind (“In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer”) and vindicate the ways of God to man? And who would encapsulate his age’s death of spirit with “Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter’s dawn”? These are the poets and the voices who shape and realize the world’s body. After all, is it not the function of the poet and of poetry at the highest moments of human thought to recover through language the hopes and fears, the desires and expectations, the longings and memories—and to sense, following Wordsworth’s prescience, the “something ever more about to be”? For as Wordsworth would say of the poet,

In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and   customs—

in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

What then is the way of the true poet? What raised the poet to this once distinctive place in the hierarchy of a nation’s culture where a willing audience would not only read and hear but would honor the name in a quiet corner of Westminster Abbey? These are the poets who recall for us the necessary connections between heart and mind; the ones who recover for us the wonder of first sight, to see as Adam saw in the moment of his own first seeing. “The poet’s eye,” Duke Theseus observes, “Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven:

And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.

Further, the poet reminds us of what has been, of how the past measures the present. Many years ago, the playwright Arthur Miller in an essay on dramatic form wrote that form is often determined by ideas of family or by ideas of society— private relationships and public relationships.”The language of the family is the language of the private life— prose, “while the”language of society, the language of the public life, is verse. “Confronted with world or social relations apart from the family, the problem becomes, Miller writes, “How may a man make of the outside world a home? How and in what ways must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside himself if he is to find the safety, the surroundings of love, the ease of soul, the sense of identity and honor which. . .all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family?”

Where once there was this sense of wholeness, now fragmentation or dissimulation or disillusion ruptures the once unquestioned sense of security, and “shades of the prisonhouse begin to close” and memory fades “into the light of common day.” Often the poet’s subject draws on this memory of the past, a past no longer recoverable. Aware of the loss of a sure and certain center, the poet would, like Yeats, recover radical innocence. Housman remembers the time as a “land of lost content. . ./ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.” Randall Jarrell calls his final book The Lost World, echoed in lines by Theodore Roethke looking back to his father’s greenhouse world, and seeing the child standing on his bed “Watching the waking of my father’s world/ O world so far away! O my lost world!” What is it in the imagination that tries so hard to recover the past? To reshape the world’s body? Perhaps it’s the human need to make connections, to find a still point where once the uncluttered mind knew a time and a place where once we could see with the mind’s clear eye.

And it is the seeing that counts for most. Kent tells the unseeing king, blind to true affection, “See better, Lear.” But in the end, all passion spent, and Cordelia at his side, the old king whispers the promise of the poet: “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage. . . . And take upon ‘s the mystery of things, / As if we were God’s spies. . . .” Like Lear, Yeats would be fashioned as a nightingale “set upon a golden bough to sing. . . ./ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” For it is the poet of high vision, aware of the common reader who sees but cannot say, who in the seeing and in the knowing bodies forth the forms of things unseen, giving substance and shape to the world’s own body.

And the substance and the shape are the patterns of design—the order and the disorder, the appearance and the reality of what is and of what might be. For his age, Pope would say that everything is by design, “All partial Evil, universal Good,” and in spite of pride and erring reason, “One truth is clear, “Whatever is, is right. “” But later Robert Frost sees another pattern to question the old argument from design: in his darkly, premonitory sonnet, how account for a white spider, a white moth caught on a white heal-all (“Assorted characters of death and blight”)? Indifferent nature spins its own disinterested design, “If design govern in a thing so small.” Pope’s world may well be, as he reasons, the best of all possible worlds, but in his century Frost suggests a malignity that shapes our ends. The world’s body once nourished by an ordered ethos sees itself in a later century, as the poet says, uncertain and afraid “in a world I never made.” Matter and energy shape the patterns of belief and indifferent nature, no longer a natural piety, stands aloof spinning its own unending design. Nevertheless, it is the poet’s seeing, and whatever the vision whether high or low, he speaks for the many, and in the speaking he makes whole again the world’s body.

So it must be, for the true poet is a maker, “the single artificer of the world,” impelled “by a blessed rage for order.” Each age determines the structures and the language of high poetry, the blank verse line of Renaissance drama, the terza rima of Dante, the closed couplet of Pope—each making the form a way into a recognized style that reflects the order and the beliefs of the age. Similarly, finding within those structures a language and a voice true to the time and the place. In an age of belief, Dante’s beatific vision concentrates on the transcendent image of the rose to confirm the Christian idea of revelation, while in the later age of reason, Pope’s “Essay on Man” affirms man’s place in the chain of being, for “What can we reason, but from what we know?”

Of Man what see we, but his station here From which to reason, or to which refer? Thro’ worlds unnumber’d tho’ the God be known, ‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own.

The optimism and the large designs of the 19th-century found affirmation in the idea of progress “and all the world that would be” in the ringing anapests of Tennyson’s euphoric paean to the future:

Not in vain the distance beacons, Forward   forward let us range, Let the great world spin for ever down the   ringing grooves of change.

All that certainty would come to ring false in the next century, as would the forms and the language. Poets turned to irony and the dialectic of paradox and to the looser, more open forms of “free verse.” But somewhere along the way poetry lost its accepted voice, the voice of the bard, lost the high language of poetry, and in the process lost its audience. Over the years the now stilled lyric voice turned to the monologues of Freudian analysands, or as Eliot would see into the isolated cry of the neurotic, self-pitying voice complaining, “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.”

Curiously, Arthur Miller’s illustration that the language of public life is verse, while the language of private life is prose reverses itself, and in contemporary poetry we find the language of the private life—prose. Poetry becomes the poetry of self-examination or self-promotion or private, self-contained confessions. And the lines of open form structures read often like a private journal where the imagery, while sometimes startling, reveals a private world, not a world “made of whole and indefeasible objects. . .the world which poetry recovers for us.” So that whatever the structures or however immediate the beliefs of our own age, they cannot be fully known or shaped without the compelling power of metaphor—the body and mind of poetry.

How else can the world’s body be seen or heard or touched—or known—unless the poet recovers through metaphor the physical dimensions of the world? The language of metaphor is what gives life to abstractions: “. . .it lives in gusto,” as Keats says, “be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” For nothing, as Virginia Woolf has her character say, “is simply one thing only.” Poets, I read once, write for the life they find in language, while novelists write for the life they find in society. Poets speak also, Conrad would add, “to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of the mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain.”

For it is with metaphor that the poet recovers the body of the world. How make whole those “indefeasible objects” the mind feels and the heart knows? One need only to turn to those lines held in the memory to know the reality found in metaphor, to those seeing connections that find likeness in the seemingly unlike—all those that give flesh to the word. Like Marvell, to bring body and mind and soul to one grand synthesis, “Annihilating all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade.” Or like John Donne, distraught and brought down by the death of his wife Anne More and find in metaphor the consoling image to reconcile his own loss with God’s desire:

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt To nature, and to hers, and my good is dead, And her soul early into heaven ravished, Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set.

And other lines that by themselves create a felt thought as direct and simple as Hardy’s image of old, weather-stained grave stones: “Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.” Yeats in his old age looks back at all he had written and thinks about “those master images” and out of what began, and at the end knows that “Now. . . my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” And Arnold looking back at his own age, aware of his world’s body, and thinks about those like him “. . .brought forth and rear’d in hours

Of change, alarm surprise— What shelter to grow ripe is ours? What leisure to grow wise?

Arnold’s pastoral longing is a plea for the mind’s recovery and finding that recovery in the sounds of poetry, the sonorous cadences and the lyric echo of words speaking to words in quiet harmony and counterpoint to the once receptive ear of the world.

There is something very true in the metaphor of the poet as singer, one who calls, like Milton, on those “Sisters of the Sacred Well” to “Begin and somewhat loudly sweep the string.” Or, like Keats, envy the nightingale who sings “of summer in full-throated ease”; and not less hearing the lament of Theodore Roethke’s lover,

I sing the wind around And hear myself return To nothingness, alone. The loneliest thing I know Is my own mind at play.

The metaphor of hearing: the listening ear of the poet who knows that “. . .to articulate sweet sounds together/ Is to work harder than all these. . .,” those whose often tone-deaf ears repeat the atonal non-rhythms of a flattened prose. Why is it that so very few lines of contemporary poetry stay in the memory? Lines that surface during a morning’s walk, or summoned up at moments of sweet, silent thought? For is it not so that with the hearing of the ear one comes to see? And in the seeing and hearing made whole again? “Whole sight,” the novelist writes (and cannot suppress his poet’s voice) “or all else is desolation.” Always the common reader responds to magniloquence, to what carries the self out of itself and beyond itself. Out of the clarifying image and the revealing metaphor do the poets recall for us those truths that lie often unbidden or unshaped.

The act of poetry at its best achieves a communion between the poet and the reader, for no true poet writes for himself only. And that is poetry’s function to give to language a heightened order, to bring fresh insight to the mind’s own knowing, to bring to language its fullest recognition. As Eliot said of Dante’s achievement, “To pass on to posterity one’s own language, more highly developed, more refined, and more precise than it was before one wrote it, that is the highest possible achievement of the poet as poet.” For without the insights and the nourishment of the great poets, there is no health in us. What the true poet sees and hears—what suggests, prods, nudges, glimpses—reminds us all of what it means to be—does not let us wholly forget.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading