Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue James K. Baxter, Uncollected Poems Rod Mengham, Last Exit for the Revolution Stav Poleg, The Citadel of the Mind Jena Schmitt, Resting Places: The Writing-Life F Friederike Mayrocker Wayne Hill, Poems
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 275
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

Heraclitus is wrong. As we get older we walk into the same river twice, a third and fourth time, and we have the same illumination we had before. It’s the first time all over again.

Back in PN Review 42, Jorge Luis Borges wrote,
A.C. Bradley said that one of the effects of poetry is that it gives us the impression not of discovering something new but of remembering something we have forgotten. When we read a good poem we imagine that we too could have written it; that the poem already existed within us. This brings us to the Platonic definition of poetry: that winged, fickle, sacred thing. As a definition it is fallible, since that winged, fickle, sacred thing could also be music (except that poetry is a form of music). Plato, defining poetry, gives us an example of poetry. And this brings us to the idea that poetry is an aesthetic experience: something that would be a revolution in the teaching of poetry.
This revolution keeps almost beginning, then being deferred or deflected by theories, contexts, or subordinated to biography. The enactments a great poem achieves are obscured by descriptive discourse and interpretation. Borges has a wonderful poem (quoted before more than once in these pages) about the first sonnet and sonneteer, ‘Un Poeta del Siglo XIII’ (‘A Poet of the Thirteenth Century’). This poet shuffles through the drafts of his poem. It is about to become the very first, not yet recognised, sonnet. He plays against the emerging form. Perhaps he has sensed, says the poem, radiating from the future, ‘a rumour of far-off nightingales’, things to come, even of impending clichés. The sonnet asks in the sestet:
Had he realised that he was not alone,
that a cryptic, an inscrutable Apollo
had revealed to him an archetypal pattern,

a greedy crystal that would detain,
as night detains day and then lets it go:
Dedalus, labyrinth, the riddle, Laius son.
The future weighs on the present, much as the past can do: looking back, we see the past is aware of and returns our gaze. Prolepsis, analepsis, arrest the quill of the soon-to-be-sonneteer. A momentous little moment, a defining one. That first sonnet is recognised by its poet, not a discovery but a gift from ‘the inscrutable Apollo’. Classical myth, legend, literature, common memory provide content. The poet, suspended between a classical then and a modern now, mediates. The modern reader does the same. ‘Each later sonnet in whatever language participates in his work, and he in its. A poet who develops received forms is always in collaboration with the poems that came before and those that will come after. A sonnet never belongs exclusively to its author. Or even to its language. It is a given, a gift, in Italian, French (all the Frenches alive today), German, Englishes.’

Christopher Middleton turns to Bradley, too. ‘The poet speaks to us of one thing, but in this one thing there seems to lurk the secret of all… which, we feel, would satisfy not only the imagination, but the whole of us.’ It’s a brilliant observation, but categorical. The sense we experience of ‘the secret of all’ visits us infrequently, cannot be faked, and when it comes it is powerful, implausible, illuminating. In his essay ‘Notes on a Viking Prow’ (PN Review 10), to which I return so often, Middleton addressed the theme head on. He writes:
To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the ‘contents’ of a subjectivity. Some poems, at least, and some types of poetic language, constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where ‘self-expression’ has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being. We experience them as we experience nothing else.
Middleton’s argument is hortatory, not polemical, pulling back the corner on a creative possibility which looks new but is in fact the fons et origo of all creative work with language. He had Whitman in mind, among others, and his essay which starts in archaeology ends in the vivid presences that language discloses.   

Coleridge, like Middleton a great English Germanist, preserved some galumphing hexameters dedicated to ‘Dear William and dear Dorothea’. Why would he keep such words? The otherwise unfortunate fragment concludes with a kind of Whitmanesque openness, or openingness.
                                   … my eyes are a burthen,
Now unwillingly closed, now open and aching with darkness.
O! what a life is the eye! what a strange and inscrutable essence!
Him that is utterly blind, nor glimpses the fire that warms him;
Him that never beheld the swelling breast of his mother;
Him that smiled in his gladness as a babe that smiles in its slumber;
Even for him it exists, it moves and stirs in its prison;
Lives with a separate life, and ‘Is it a Spirit?’ he murmurs:
‘Sure it has thoughts of its own, and to see is only a language.’
Not a great or even a good passage of poetry, but one does not ask that kind of excellence from such sustained clarity of language, of seeing. It is different in kind from other verse, with a linguistic consistency and authority all its own, at once because and regardless of its subject matter, echoes and allusions. It is not so far from this to ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. They come from another realm, are in a different register from poems of his which respond to prose analysis, can be taken apart and reassembled, that have design and designs on their addressees and respond to paraphrase. ‘Kubla Khan’ occurs. It is not an act of the poet’s conscious will but of a shared imagination. Coleridge never knew where it came from and could never secure another poem from that source. ‘“Is it a Spirit?” he murmurs.’

Words have first and second intentions, Walter Pater said, and a poem built on second intentions can contain that Spirit. Think of Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’, or take this speech from Measure for Measure where the second intentions are embodied in echo and etymology, as in the emboldened words.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the de-lighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling –

This item is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image