I am ever so much more a poet now.
A startling awakening, but gentle- you know-
like coming upon a new tree in a field you used to walk
a time and a half ago, when there was only grass
It is not the words, for even now they scrape, out of shape,
through mental ligaments. I write less.
But I walk more, and I speak plainly, for apparently I’ve lost the art of adornment.
I walked half-witted into anguish and it jolted me awake.
Do you know the wandering?
The lovely but vague paths of foot and thought,
the words words words of the playwright;
and latent strength waiting like the sea below a dock.
And then the electric incision. The indiscriminate pain.
Once I brought the edge of a shovel down hard on a brown snake
and its lithe body jolted over and over; every muscle angry; its tongue
grasping at air as if trying to escape on its own,
and as I killed, I wished I could have left it lying lazy and alone.
But I wish no languor on my soul.
Wandering must share its space with exploration,
and exploration with purpose. To bring it to the surface:
I stand forever at a crossroads between dream and strategy.
And to defend the soft animal of my heart when cruelty
I want to curl tight like a fern to the touch.
But instead I learn, every day, to open my arms.
I learn how to walk instead of write; how to make every step a vibrant,
tactile act of creation.
Once I wrote a poet’s words.
Now I wield them.
(ft. inspiration by Mary Oliver, Shakespeare, and Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Every year when South by Southwest is over,
the airport fills with jostling and bags
and a collective sigh of Californians and New Yorkers
being packed into planes like potatoes
every which way, sometimes stacked.
And Austin returns to introspection.
Inspection! Tester of spring, the wind crescendos
and asks the leaves, “Are you sure?”
They hold tight through the tossing, the winnowing billows
that ask every branch, “Do you mean it?”
They pass. Like a second fall, the air is confettied
with brown leaves and weak ones flying,
embarking; but the younger leaves cling desperately
to dynastic continuity.
For you, there is a time to withstand every gust and to be “wick”
as a secret Yorkshire garden, but there is also a time to
be carried away; to be packed into planes.
Someday green leaves will turn old and pray-
for strength not to hold on, but to pass away.
It is a time of both going and staying
here every year in the spring.
The airport fills with leaving,
but the leaves in Austin cling.
this post first appeared on: Torrey Gazette
The day after the kite festival
The great field is empty
Except for five lacrosse players
And half an orange abandoned in the grass.
Yesterday this place was a whirling,
Pulsing cacophony of color and running
And kites swarming under the sun.
Of sisters shouting “higher!” and “now you’ve got it!”
To sweaty-palmed little brothers tugging on strings.
Today at the field’s edges,
All the trees are littered with kite shards-
Colors trapped in skeletal branches,
Ribbons flayed to shreds, ripped by the wind and a grey sky.
Convince me not to see all of life in this field:
One day everything is brightness and celebration,
And the next it’s all tangled in trees.
What trust is there in soaring, if kites are so easily caught?
Or laughter becomes silence and kisses turn to stone
And tenderness is exchanged for indifference?
Seamus Heaney pulled up a railroad tie and asked the same.
What is fixed, if things so solid can be utterly undone?
I have heard there is a future
And a hope that will not be cut off.
Next year the kites will swarm again.
So as I walk under the littered trees,
I sing softly
but am not quite
You have seen it while hiking,
Whether you walk energetically or drag your feet on the gravel path,
You have heard it asking questions.
And whether you carry half your wardrobe in a pack or travel light,
You have come to its bridge or its bank.
You have seen it swirl, caught in its own undertow.
“How can I go on,” it asks, “and leave the mountain spring behind?
I was a pupil and a lover there and every molecule of me
is stamped with the memory of belonging; of holding on and being held.
I loved those cold depths.”
You have sat by the side of this stream.
“Did I fill it too full?” you have heard it wonder. “Did I do something wrong,
to cause the mountain to cast me out?
This cannot be the justice I was promised.
How can I go on?” it asks
as it goes on.
You have followed its cascades as it rushes over rocks and into canyons.
Whether you run to listen or walk slowly, watching the Catskill eagles soar,
You have overheard its questions and caught snatches of the answer.
“I learned to be swift and supple,” it whispers. “And to overflow.
And if overflowing means leaving high coldness for the warmth of the valley and the sea,
I will leave it. But,” it sings, “in every molecule of me I retain
the best and truest parts of that place. Once I belonged to it, but now I have made it my own.
As it pushes me away I will mourn for it, but I will bless it.
I will bless it and I will go.”
Gaston Bachelard was a man of science. He had written more than a dozen books on the philosophy of science and physics when, quite without warning, he suddenly published a book called The Psychoanalysis of Fire. That book was the first sign of his defection from the realm of scientific rationalism to the world of poetry. In December I knew none of this. I was simply scanning the architecture section at HPB when I came across this title: The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. It seemed a little bit magical.
The book is, above all, a defense of poetry. Bachelard delves into many of the various aspects of House and its “oneiric form” as he calls it, and follows his study of houses with a few chapters on inhabited space more generally. But throughout the book, he philosophizes as a poet writing to scientists, justifying the nuance of poetry to his erstwhile colleagues. For him, poetry transcends knowledge. It reaches the depths of the mind before it disturbs the surface. And it does this through its use of the Image: simple, almost prehistoric concepts that somehow evoke feelings in every human soul. When they are spoken, they need no lengthy explanation, because an understanding of them predates our comprehension of logic or science. The house is such an image. In analyzing the organization of a house, Bachelard aims to plot the human mind.
He is quite the dreamer. (And he uses the word “oneiric” frequently, which was a new word for me. It means “of or relating to dreaming.”) I can’t sum the book up into a strict flow of ideas because… can you ever do that with dreams? I’ll just touch on the parts that most interested me.
He begins with discussing House as FORM, which throws back to Plato. Bachelard says the ideal house requires “verticality”- that is, attic and cellar- to allow its inhabitants to fully daydream. (I wondered about this, and my first question was “what about hobbit holes?”) I do not know what the inhabitants are meant to dream about. I don’t think Bachelard would prescribe that, but he thinks it’s very important that they be able to do it. The geometric structure of houses influences the mind, as do their settings in nature (or lack of). Bachelard isn’t entirely sure what to say about cities because he thinks city dwellings (for example, skyscrapers in Paris) lose magic and are less conducive to dreaming when inhabitants live in one-level “rooms”. Also this quote: “Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky.” Bachelard’s idealism is endearing. He believes houses need some element of the natural. “Where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings,” he says, “the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees.” However, he claims that the natural can be imagined with good effect, interestingly. He suggests turning traffic noises into a rumbling storm or the sounds of the ocean using one’s imagination.
In chapter 2, B talks chiefly of the image of the house, how it must be a lived-in image to communicate full feeling, and how its creation (or imagining) reveals much about the architect or dreamer. Envisioning a house makes us all poets? The fascinating thing to me is his concept of contrast: in a massive, undulating universe, the house lends boundaries to the imagination and gives it a Center. With frequent quotations from Baudelaire etc. to support him, Bachelard says, “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” For example, storms bestow more significance upon shelters. This quote also helps to elucidate: “Well-determined centers of reverie are means of communication between men who dream as surely as well-defined concepts are means of communication between men who think.” The form/image of House is (should be?) a well-determined center. That center exerts gravitational force. “The house remodels man,” B says starkly.
He acknowledges the physical geometry of a house honestly, but really shies away from strict physical analysis. Once he said, “We are tempted to analyze this rationally,” which I thought was funny. But he’s just such a poet about it all– constantly harping on transcendence. “To give unreality to an image attached to a strong reality,” he says, “is in the spirit of poetry.” And look at this: “An immense cosmic house is a potential of every dream of houses. Wind radiates from its center and gulls fly from its windows. A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.” He never apologizes for passages like this. In a later chapter he says, “Exaggeration is always at the summit of any living image.”
B is always talking about the Image vs the Metaphor. I think by this he means that a metaphor is too objective to allow for the “feel” of a thing. In ch 5 on shells, he gets deep into shells as an image: what the thought of them evokes, etc. This section gave me serious throwbacks to my study of epistemology. Again, if an image communicates the “feel” of a thing through poetic sensitivity, images enlighten because in seeing we begin to see from and gain new perspective. And perspective leads to appreciation. Essentially, real sight breeds knowledge and real knowledge breeds love. One of my favorite novels is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and this concept of understanding turning into love reminds me of a quote from the protagonist when he’s having a bit of a crisis involving his purpose:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
In chapter 7, which is about the concept of Miniature, Bachelard gets deeper into images and nearly becomes philosopher Michael Polanyi. While reading the chapter I kept thinking of P’s theory of tacit knowing. Bachelard reverences the transcendence of imagination: “The imagination does not want to end in a diagram that summarizes acquired learning.” Imagination is what takes learning to the next level of loving. This connects to all the epistemic philosophy I’ve read in the last 3 years! He says as well, “Daydream is not geometrical. The dreamer commits himself absolutely.” Perhaps it is that commitment that makes Bachelard so value dreams. They require your whole soul, which B longs to give? Which we all do, or ought? I do wonder, though, why Bachelard is so loathe to diagram. Perhaps his imagination was squelched by the particular scientific community of his day. But I think of scientists like Einstein who clearly valued imagination, and it confuses me why Bachelard seems eager to distance himself from all data and definition. He says at one point, “To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.” That seems very extreme.
The chapter on miniature was a high point of the book for me. Especially the section where he says poets can use imagination to change the size of things, making large out of small and vice versa. If vastness is infinite and if smallness is infinite, the two infinities have much in common in their extremes. B quotes Paul Claudel on microscopes vs telescopes: “Just as we see little spiders or certain insect larvae hidden like precious stones in their cotton and satin pouches, in the same way, I was shown an entire nestful of still embarrassed suns in the cold folds of the nebula.” To close the paragraph after that beautiful quote, Bachelard simply asserts, “If a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing.”
In the following chapter, B moves on to write about immensity, essentially claiming that immensity has its root, not in the exterior universe, but in our own souls and our capacity to think vast thoughts. I thought a lot about the power of surroundings and physical environment in this section, especially due to this quote: “The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur to unfold.” As has become more and more evident to me due to urban design/development, WHERE you are affects how you think and ultimately changes WHO you are. “The two kinds of space, intimate space and exterior space, keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth.” Yes, exactly.
Pause for this concept: “voluptuousness that pervades high places.” ……….thank you.
One of the most memorable parts of the chapter on immensity was the story of Philippe Diolé, a psychologist and deep-sea diver. After years of love for the ocean, Diolé chose to travel through the Sahara desert and found there a similar feeling of weightlessness as what he experienced in water. But what strikes me most is why Diolé exchanged water for sand. Bachelard asked the question and said Diolé answered, “as a poet would. He knows that each new contact with the cosmos renews our inner being, and that every new cosmos is open to us when we have freed ourselves from the ties of a former sensitivity… And by changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating.” Expanding your surroundings expands YOU. This seems oddly contradictory to Bachelard’s earlier tirade against experience. Perhaps earlier he meant to rebel against the graphing table and the drawing board rather than life experience. Because he ends this chapter so: “But poems are human realities; it is not enough to resort to “impressions” in order to explain them. They must be lived in their poetic immensity.”
Bachelard concludes his book with studies of outside/inside and the concept of “roundness”. I got a little lost in this part and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not intelligent enough to get what he’s saying or if he’s actually going down confusing rabbit trails for no reason! There were several haunting ideas, however. At one point he poses this question, seemingly unconnected to the overarching point of his book: “And where is the root of silence? Is it a distinction of non-being, or a domination of being?” I think this did flow logically in Bachelard’s mind. Once started on the concept of contrasts begun with the discussion of Miniature vs Immensity and continued with Outside vs Inside, he couldn’t stick to physical examples or even to those spatial subjects. For him, everything is connected poetically. Immensity to Miniature, Outside to Inside, Fullness to Emptiness, Noise to Silence. Everything is connected, and everything finds significance when considered against its counterpart. When you look at it long enough, through the continually surprised eyes of poetic sensitivity, everything begins to look like different facets of the same crystal. Or, to bring us back around to the beginning, different rooms of the same house.