Poetry at its best encourages us to pay attention–not, finally, to the words but to the motions of mind and feeling behind them. Once we pay attention, we see that objective and subjective are simply two aspects of the same reality. Look out your window, then close one eye: you’ve lost perspective, so the view seems to flatten. Now open your closed eye and close the open one: the view remains flat and jumps to one side. This jump is akin to what happens when we shift attention from an object to our ideas or feelings about the object. Only when both eyes are open can we see that the world is deep, not flat. This is what poetry is meant to inspire in us: a kind of attention that gives us perspective–ideally a perspective different from the one that is ours out of habit. Habit is so strong, in fact, that adopting a new perspective can be a revelation.
Almost any kind of poem can deliver a new perspective, but haiku and other short-form poems do it best, I think. This is because they have offer so little opportunity for rhetorical flourish. They are transparent, in a way that longer poems–bowing now to the needs of the musical phrase, now to the proliferating possibilities of image-pattern and metaphor–simply can’t achieve. It’s this transparency that makes them hard to discuss.
The book I want to talk about here is a case in point. Pacific, by Oregon poet Ce Rosenow (a distant relative of mine), consists of open-form short poems that might well be called haiku, or at least haiku-ish in spirit. By that I mean that Ce doesn’t speak abstractly about ideas or emotions, but discovers traces of them in the external world; she pays attention and admits what she finds into words. Like all haiku-ish poems, they inspire meditation but resist conventional analysis.
Here’s an example:
imagining the ocean
behind the fog
If you’re addicted to the speed and profusion of Blake or Whitman or Ashbery, you’ll have to take a deep breath. You’ll have to slow down. This small poem offers big spaces to stroll around in. Is the poet imagining the ocean on a foggy autumn morning? Or is the morning itself imagining the ocean? And is the fog the morning’s, or the ocean’s, or the poet’s? The answer, of course, is that all of these possibilities are true–and something more: the revelatory moment itself is here, making the poem’s truths the reader’s own. Poet and reader, human and world, are one in it.
Here’s another, this one from the “Summer” section of the book (the collection is organized by season):
in this kiss
all our other kisses–
Oddly enough, when I first read this I focused on the solstice, traditionally considered the longest day and shortest night of the year (though in reality it depends on what latitude the observer is in at the time). I thought about the “high summer” of passion, and how nicely the poem captured it. But on my second or third rereading of the poem I discovered the word “other”; I’d been reading right over it, but now I realized that it didn’t just have to mean the other kisses exchanged between kisser and kissee: it could also mean kisses exchanged with other lovers in the past. And suddenly I sensed the magnitude of love, the depth of its history in any two lovers, and from there the haunting vista of lovers everywhere and in every time, always giving “this kiss.” The most of light and the least of darkness anyone has ever enjoyed! Which brought me back to “solstice,” from the Latin sol (sun) + sistere (to stand still), and its association with fertility in folk traditions around the world….
Well, you can see what I meant about meditation and analysis! In the end, though, we come back to the poem at hand. Which, in Ce Rosenow’s case, means few and simple words, and a revelatory moment that weakens the grip of habitual thinking. What a gift!
I really must add kudos as well to poet and book designer Jonathan Greene, who designed and typeset Pacific for Mountain Gate Press. In a time when we see shoddily produced books from publishers large and small, it’s heartening to come across a book with such a clean, classic look and feel, of which the choice of Morris Graves‘s “Shore Birds” for the cover art is just one example.