Saturday, August 26, 2006

There are poets and then there are Poets

Poor Emerson, pining away in his essay, The Poet, for someone who can write the poem which is America. Walt Whitman eventually fills the void, but he is years in the future at the time of this essay. I am always interested when those who are not poets go to the trouble of declaring what a poet should be. For Emerson there are poets (little "p") and then there are Poets (capital "P"). While he himself wrote poetry, I think he would be the first to admit he was only a little "p" poet. The difference between the two kinds of poets is vast. Emerson will admit that poets have talents and can write a pretty verse or two, but however well they may sing, they are "not the children of music." Those children are the Poets. And the Poets, they are very special people. Emerson, who loves to classify because he thinks it helps him see things better, says there are three kinds of very special people: The Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer. The Sayer is the Poet. And while I think his classification is a bit silly, I do appreciate that he gives equal standing among the three. Especially in this day and age, we tend to appreciate the Doer most and raise him or her above the others. But Emerson points out that "Homer's words are as costly and admirable to Homer as Agamemnon's victories are to Agamemnon." He goes on to equate the two, saying "words and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words." The true Poet is the person who not only has talent, but also taps into the divine energy. The Poet sees better than the rest of us and can then write down what was seen. This is not to say that none of us have the ability to see, Emerson is too democratic for that. The difference is that we have "some obstruction or some excess of phlegm in our constitution" that inhibits us from being artists. Poets have no obstruction, they are like antennas pulling in the signals from "that region where the air is music." The Poet's job as Sayer is to name things as well as represent beauty. First beauty. Since God made everything, everything is beautiful (sing with me!) because God would not make ugly; "Beauty is the creator of the universe" and "the Universe is the externization of the soul." Got that? Good. Because nature, as a whole and in its parts, is a symbol for that soul. And

Since every thing in nature answers to a moral power, if any phenomenon remains brute and dark it is because the corresponding faculty in the observer is not yet active.
In other words, the ugly is in you, not nature (This is not to say that people cannot create ugly things, in fact, I think we are pretty darn good at it. Emerson says that what makes ugly is a "dislocation and detachment from the life of God.") We are all poets in as much as we are all susceptible to "these enchantments of nature." But the Poets are more susceptible and can all name the beauty they see. Which brings us to the other job of the Poet. Emerson describes this aspect in a very Adamic way (is Adamic a word? If it isn't it is now). The Poet is
the Namer or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachments or boundary. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses...But the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other. This expression or naming is not art, but a second nature, grown out of the first, as a leaf out of a tree.
It's all well and good to have our little poetic Adams (and Eves) running around naming things, and I agree that a poet does and should name things, but I think Namer needs to be part of everyone's job description. So much of how I tend to think falls into a Romantic world-view, but my romanticism is, I think, tempered with a healthy dose of cynicism. It's a nice idea, that Poets have a direct line to beauty and that their naming has some kind of power (on a small scale I think it does, however, that power has yet to reach Emersonian scale). These days naming is wrapped up in politics, and probably always has been except now everyone is forced to notice. As for beauty, poets and Poets are people too and just because they can describe the beautiful better than I can doesn't mean they are better people. One more thing before I quit. Emerson calls Imagination "a very high sort of seeing." He describes it as a sort of religious ecstasy, a giving over of the self to "the divine aura," a "ravishment of the intellect" (what a beautiful phrase!) Those poets who try to bring about such a state artificially are only doing themselves harm:
But never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the Creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body.
And writers take note, it's not just opium and wine Emerson tosses in to the sorcery category, he also includes coffee, tea, the fumes of sandalwood, and tobacco. Pure water, he insists, is all you need. Nothing like a little ravishment of Emerson to shake the brain out of its Saturday torpor. Next week's Emerson: Experience