Is Beauty Divine or Human?

I want to write about a curious thing that happened to me recently, the latest in a series of curious things, and I wonder if these kinds of things happen to anyone else.

But first, if you are someone who does not like to see into a writer’s workshop, who does not wish to see a snapshot of the untidiness or relative disorder in a writer’s mind, then you might want to go away right now.

Most of my poems are written in one shot, with very little revision afterwards. I do not subscribe to the idea of constant rewriting. Sometimes, however, I feel the need to revise. And then, more rarely, comes a poem that is very difficult to write, and I feel the need to keep revisiting it, and rewriting, and sometimes this takes years.

One recent poem kept leaving me unsatisfied, and kept asking for additional words. In the most recent draft I added the words, but then found it necessary to take out some of the former words. In adding the new words I was able to respond to and incorporate information from a PBS program on stars that I had watched the day before. This is all vague and uninteresting, but the curious thing is that I later opened a book I had not thought I was very familiar with and found poems that said almost exactly what I had said in my poem.

I had worked on the poem during the day and later sat down to read something by someone else. But that book was not engaging my interest and my eye rolled up toward the bookcase on the other side of the room and landed on The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Now, I have had that book for nearly twenty years, have barely cracked it open and don’t remember the last time I did. I don’t know why, but I got up and pulled it off the shelf and read the first few poems. And they seemed to come straight out of my workshop. “To the Stone-Cutters” in particular seemed to say exactly what I had incorporated into my poem.

I know, there’s a completely ordinary explanation. Obviously I had read the poems in the past and they remained deeply buried in memory. My own writing had pulled them up and my own subconscious directed my eyes to the Jeffers book later. Sure. But it didn’t feel that way. I had no conscious recollection whatsoever of the Jeffers poems.

This is a disturbing discovery, for several reasons. It raises the question: is anything I write original? Are all of my poems simply a ‘bringing up’ of submerged material, things I once read, forgot that I read, and they lay buried in a tiny pocket of my brain until I need them, and feel this need as a need to write?

The need is genuine. Right now as I write this I am listening to a beautiful performance of improvised music. With delight I’ve been picking out references to composers I know. Improvisation is very important to me, of course.

But I am disturbed by the Jeffers connection. One thing is for sure: I will now remember having read these poems. They are very beautiful poems, worth remembering and worth sharing.

Divinely Superfluous Beauty” and “The Excesses of God” are like versions of poems I’ve written. The latter is also an intriguing link to my day with the ants earlier this summer. Like Jeffers I equated love of beauty with humanness. But since there is no God in my world I cannot help but perceive beauty entirely on the human side. Jeffers’ vision does not allow shame because, in his view, it is through beauty we see God. True, he reads “humaneness at the heart of things”, it is how we “understand”, but it is still beyond us because human “power and desire” are not “perch-mates”. In Jeffers’ view of things we cannot “flow” in a divine manner; the excesses of God are beyond our power. Here is where I part ways with Jeffers (and what makes my poems mine). I perceive the beauty of humanity to be another manifestation of the extravagant, useless beauty of what we like to call “nature”. In my view, something like an aria by Bach is humanity doing a rainbow. Moreover, the only “beauty” in Bach, as in a rainbow, is that which we see in it: beauty is a human category. We cannot know what the other creatures, or the stars themselves, my “say” about it.

The connection to my poem is strongest in “To the Stone-Cutters”, especially the last four lines:

“For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.”

This is a concise and far more beautiful version of what I had written:

Haven’t we been told our sun will die
along with all the others
and once again our universe
will be dark?
And how can one carry such knowledge?
Knowing we are made of stars,
shall we project our image back out
the way we’ve done with our gods
and see a universe that must age,
grow old and die?
We can’t do it
any more than we can hold
our own death.
A product of our sun,
we have to burn and burn,
wasting ourselves
as if there were no end.

It’s in the way I say “we”
when the addressee is in effect a ghost.
The liminal space of poetry
cannot foresee its end,
its call never ceases
going out
like the breath
that gives a voice
to life.

What makes my version mine? I think we have here two versions of a poem, one from the point of view of a world with God, one without. And perhaps it’s Jeffers’ God that allows him more comfort and thus more concision? Or do I tell myself that to comfort myself, at least until the poem is finished?

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5 Responses to Is Beauty Divine or Human?

  1. Yes. In fact I’ve suffered those thoughts continuously over my life of writing. And others have for centuries blamed their verbiage dumps on muses and never claim the words as their own either. So I think it is the nature of this driving condition we poets share, which cause us to periodically sit down and satisfy our artistic itches by allowing our pens to channel some undetectable wordsmith in the sky.

    Everything in our lives determine who we are. And I’d suggest that your appreciation of Jeffers’ work has become a deep part of your innate, unconscious self. If it had been favorite poetry, that which you are most fond of, then it probably wouldn’t seep from your psyche in such a covertly hidden way. Your dearest poetry, that which moves you in a way that only another fan of bedazzled vernacular can understand, is more likely to be consciously on your mind and not lurking in the background fog. For example, I am soul mates with Emily Dickinson. She may not think so. Doesn’t matter. It’s beyond the point. I’m sure she is applying for some sort of afterlife restraining order as I write this. Nevertheless, moving on… Any of her poems, whether I last saw them 50 years ago or yesterday are etched into my conscious mind so indelibly that mistaking her words for my own just would not happen. But the words of some forgotten poem or poet, one less remarkable to myself than Emily, whose remnants ramble through my mind’s hidden pathways, a forked path whose entrance is long forgotten, long overgrown with the the weeds and brambles of time, hidden from memory inconspicuously, such as from a 6th grade summer suggested reading list whose own words and actual parchment currently resides rotting away under the last 50 years of my home town’s refuse in the town dump, could most likely color outside the lines of ownership a bit and bleed into my own subconscious. It happens.

    Like you almost all my poetry is one and done. But there is that occasional drive to write a poem which in theory starts out like the others, innocent and free, short and sweet, a promising spark of an idea, a human emotion that perhaps others may relate. And like long rows of tooth paste squeezed form a tube my own input is limited to merely guiding those rows into some sort of aesthetic sense. I didn’t make the tooth paste. I don’t know where it came from. I just know it is endless. And I know to start squeezing at the beginning of a poem and to stop squeezing at a point where it feels good to stop. And then the toothpaste gradually decays into words that either work or don’t. And there are some poems over the years that have never satisfied my inner self. As though some “thing”, some indescribable aspect of it seems lacking. And like an albatross I set it to sail into the sky and should I see it again I might stroke it’s feathers in some sort of rearrangement, a desperate attempt to remove the unkempt appearance of it. Sometimes I can. More often not. There are a thousand albatross in my sky waiting for completion. It’s not failure. It’s actually a silver lining. Their wingspans shade me from an overbearing sun. But occasionally they shit on me.

    • Hello John. Your analogy of the tooth paste tube reminds me of how Ashbery thought of it as one long continuos stream of words and whenever he wrote a poem he was just “snipping off a length”.

      I think there’s truth in what you say about the things we don’t know as well lurking in the subconscious and more likely to come up and into our writing than the overt or conscious influences. That’s why I’m relieved that I have taken ahold of Jeffers now. But it’s still disconcerting, considering all of the things I come across and then, apparently forgetting them, move on. Vigilance, my friend!

  2. angela m forret says:

    This is always a humbling question. I’ve given up railing against the ideology that it is all unoriginal. I ascribe to the first law of thermodynamics believing we are energy, seen and unseen, and it never leaves this closed system. Ergo how can we not co-create when there is so much vibrating around us? What I appreciate is the synchronicity you are experiencing. For me that is a signal that you’re on the right path. The poem is yours, and it is an amalgamation of all you’re experiences with language..even music. Frankly, I don’t think we ever truly know to what extent our creativity manifests. What I like to focus on is the gift of the poem itself, that it was powerful enough for us to take time to give it life on the page.

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