Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The belly of the shark

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Thomas McGrath

Language is always a little out of date and so it always needs reforming: because the world changes: because the real landscape that underlies the landscape of the poem erodes and alters; because our consciousness changes to catch up with the changes in the world; because the world is never adequate to our needs and desires and so we must change it—and by doing so change our needs and desires. The best poets find the new words for this new world of change and need. They may not be understood or felt until we see that the world is changing and “filling in” their words. Then “illusion” is transformed into “reality.”

The search for purity and limit in language is often a hedge against anxiety—anxiety that results from a glimpse of the flux and change that is the world. A poet feeling this often sets up a metaphysical system of absolutes, values derived from picking the bones of various systems, to set against the flux. Or, if less honest, he buries his absolutes. His poems, like the pointer on a compass, always turn to these magnets. True North is always under our feet! He has found the still point of the turning world and there, locked in the chastity belt of “purified” language, he remains.

I prefer the impure. There is, after all, in our time, another tradition—that leading from Hart Crane and others. What we want and need, in my view, now, is not this questionable purity but a language, to paraphrase Louis Simpson, like the belly of a shark, a language that can digest anything.

Language is part of the forces of production, for the poet—it is what he uses to create his poetic “goods.” The language chosen by or given to some poets, like certain kinds of machines, can produce variety: “aphorisms, epigrams, songs, songlike poems and so on” as Roethke had it, the tremendous range of “impure poetry” in Neruda’s term. Alas, our time tends toward specialization. But if you want to make wood for the winter, a chainsaw is better than a stone axe.

Thomas McGrath, in North Dakota Quarterly

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2016 at 7:30 am

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