Michael Heller

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from a talk given at the Summer Writing Program, Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Summer, 2010

The poet George Oppen wrote: “the miracle is not that we exist but that there is something to stand on.” That “something,” call it world, call it the fundamental ground of all being and beings including the minds of such beings, is always what is most precious and always what is most endangered. Endangered not merely by corporations and governments but also by our own individual propensities and desires, by our fears and hopes. How to address such a situation?
              One memorable address was made a few years ago by Ed Sander’s “Investigative Poetics,” which struck chords in me as we think about ourselves and our world’s problems. “Investigative Poetics,” which even as it made its appeal to “every device and artifice of the band,” seemed, when it came to the governmental and corporate plunder of our world, most memorably bent on making it known, making it shame, more so perhaps than it was concerned with “making it new.” And this led me to consider poetry’s not insignificant powers both to deconstruct our thoughts and to bring us into relation and appreciation of new ones. Here are some quick notes:


In that relational space between us and the world, poetry provides us with the possibility of an ecology of the mind, of seeing our thoughts and emotions set forth in palpable form, seeing how we sense and respond to the weathers of the world. Buddhist teachings speak of the solidity of thought, not to infer stubbornness or fixity, but, as described in meditational practices, to experience thoughts’ tangibility and the ability to recognize one as distinct from another, as we would lines of poetry. The force of this thought “something” is reflected in this passage from Whitman’s “Starting From Paumanouk:”

Was somebody asking to see the soul? See, your shape and countenance, persons
beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands

              That dream of an almost secular holiness to the “soul,” concrete and earthbound, to the idea of the sacred re-imagined on a new base as the identification of the poem with the real, is, in a sense, one of the major projective themes of modern and contemporary poetry. Seeing that “soul” and the ramifications of such seeing of it in its material and psychic forms are what one means in proposing the term “radical observation,” as we did for the course we are teaching here. But this same seeing is also complementary to the projective theme of the spiritual quest—I use the word “spiritual” here without apology—a deliverance of human life and consciousness into an accurate and even “divine” relationship with the world.


Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of mystical Judaism and Kaballah found himself astonished by Whitman’s poetry, which he called an example of “a higher naturalistic consciousness.” This consciousness, as evidenced in Whitman’s work, as we know, partakes of an ancient vision. Herbert J. Guenther, whose works on Tantric Buddhist poetry have influenced me, writes that in the work of the 10th century Sanskrit poet Saraha “the spiritual is discovered as a path stretched out before our eyes to a distant goal, and yet grounded in ourselves; it is not a spurious addition.” It was Saraha who insisted that in learning our way along such a path, one must “understand appearance to be the teacher.” And Guenther comments in The Royal Song of Saraha that “the image in its immediacy is a moment of original vision full of suggestions rather than comprehension.”
              As both Saraha and Whitman express it then, the “spiritual” partakes of or is in fact the “secular,” grounded in ourselves and in our worlds. And poetry, the revelation of our minds and our worlds to ourselves—as opposed to ritual or liturgical poems—is a mode of the sacred’s appearance and revealment.
              Geoffrey Hartman, in Criticism in the Wilderness, expresses my point in a slightly different way. He writes that “the sacred has so inscribed itself in language that while it [language and the sacredness of it] must be interpreted, it cannot be removed.” Language, according to Hartman, already bears the burden of the sacred.


Such a sense of language lies at the heart of Wallace Stevens’s poetics. Stevens reminds us that, for a poet, the imagination is first a matter of words, of language. It is an article of faith to the poet's calling, as when Stevens, in his Adagia, that marvelous collection of his aphorisms concerning poetry, religion and spirituality, insists that “in poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all”). He writes that “a new meaning is the equivalent of a new word,” reminding us that poetry has the same inherent dignity and thingness as any natural object in the cosmos. He proclaims this dignity, not as supposition but as fact, throughout the entire body of his work, as in these late lines from “An Ordinary Evening In New Haven:”

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself, not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are . . . .
 said words of the world are the life of the world

              For Stevens, then, the life of words and the life of the world are co-joined in “the cry of its occasion,” if not in unity, at least, as he puts it elsewhere, in “equilibrium.” The poem is not “about” a world but rather an instancing, “a res,” of it, a “welling up” to borrow Heidegger’s phrase for the function of poetry. For Stevens, it is in the nature of this compact, that what appeared to be merely the descriptive function of language (a function closely allied to philosophy's instructive bent) is alchemically transformed. It is poetry’s “reverberation” that exposes the marble of solidified thought as the windblown transient words of newsprint.
              Stevens’s phrase, the “said words of the world are the life of the world” are an instancing of the sacred, in the sense that it is the sacred’s function to enlarge human freedom, to release us from the enmarbled monuments of thought, and give us the palpable feeling of our dwelling on the earth. The lyric breaks the bounds of previous thought to create a new articulation, so that its language is no longer philosophy's or rhetoric’s handmaiden but takes its place in the world, possibly as the object of philosophy itself.
              Stevens throughout his poetry continually reminds us that the lyrical voice of a poet arises or is occasioned by the breakdown, for the poet, of the philosophical web or system or series of understandings in which he lives. That he or she is pushed toward the lyrical when he discovers that he is hemmed in by authority, by discourse or rhetoric, in short, by the “philosophical” or religious as it hardens into concept or rule or “truth.”
              “It is the belief and not the god that counts,” writes Stevens in Adagia, “Poetry,” he says, “is a means of redemption.” For a poet, this matter of belief is crucial. Stevens “abandoned a belief in god,” only to insist that poetry was “that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” As a poet, it is that redemption through words that I seek. I take heart from the fact that after years of self-scrutiny, the poet Basho, the great Japanese haiku master, wrote:

What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.

Those words seem to incorporate the theme of this week of instruction and creativity at Naropa, but even more the theme of poetry and our continuing lives in it.

This material is © Michael Heller
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