A true poem traces the outlines of the unspeakable, without releasing the tension in a banal attempt to express the truth outright. Eliot’s Prufrock never reveals the overwhelming question the reader is to be led to ask. The voice delineating Keats’ Grecian urn assures us that heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. Rilke’s marble torso of Apollo stares all the more urgently for the fact that the passage of time has stolen its head — leaving only imagined eyes to demand: Du musst dein Leben ändern.
The greatest poems are the ones that erase the poet’s personality totally, leaving only the revealed truth of the object to speak of itself. Philosophically, genuine poetry follows more strictly than any philosopher the phenomenological method pioneered by Husserl and his (admittedly more distinguished) followers: “To the things themselves!” Poetry has in this way much in common with realistic painting, which discloses appearances as they appear — with any value judgments or personal expression coming purely indirectly, by means of impressing on the viewer questions such as:
Why this choice of subject?
Why this vantage point?
Why does this image or that particular word appear so often in the artist’s work?
Granted, even the strictest attempt at realism hits the hard limit of reality. Set out to describe a tree in absolute detail and you’ll soon find you’ll have to destroy the tree to examine it closely enough to do so. Not to mention that you’d spend your entire life in the failed (because infinite) attempt to describe the tree as it is in this moment. Trace the state of all the tree’s vital functions, the position of its branches, the movement of the leaves, and you’ve hardly begun. You’ve yet to describe the bark, the moss growing on one side, the fungus invading its root system, the mineral content of the soil surrounding said root system…
An endless task, simply to describe the tree as it is right now. And who knows, a lightning bolt may destroy it tomorrow.
Art, like any other human endeavor, is only another human attempt to hold back the violence of time. Doomed from the beginning.
And realism dissolves into a more or less arbitrary decision to look at reality from a certain vantage point and declare with the confidence of a frightened five-year-old, “This is Reality!”
So we take shortcuts. Suggest the texture of the bark and hope nobody looks too closely — while at the same time praying ardently that somebody will look too closely.
In the case of poetry, this suggests a renunciation of all claims to strict realism in the name of a higher realism — or to put it more directly, a move from a realistic style to a mythical one. Myth expresses something more enduring than the individual personality. An individual human being’s life is full of the most idiotic stupidities, idiosyncrasies, and “realistic” contingencies… but the myth an individual is consciously or unconsciously living out endures and repeats itself, always wearing the fashion and prejudices of whatever century it happens to be.
In the mode of myth, poetry accesses the deep structure of human reality.
Lately I’ve been working my way through the poems of Anne Sexton — taking things slowly, no more than five or six pages a day. Reading all the poems at least twice. Aloud, silently, working in a (currently half-articulate) way to understand how the poems comment on each other and form a (roughly) coherent whole. (It’s worthwhile to read other poets the way we ourselves would like to be read.) Some of the poems have delighted or intrigued me enough to warrant several rereadings — either on account of their brilliant imagery and playfulness, as in “Venus and the Ark,” their beautiful misery, like with “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” or their suggestion of unnamable horror, which we find in “What’s That.”
But the one that’s intrigued me the most, both because of its overt mythical method and for its suggestive but understated take on the myth in question, is “Where I Live in this Honorable House of the Laurel Tree.”
The poem reflects on the myth of Daphne and Apollo. In the myth, Apollo provokes the wrath of Eros, god of love — who pierces him with a golden arrow that causes him to fall in love with the nymph Daphne, while also striking Daphne with a lead arrow that fills her with repugnance toward the god. Apollo makes advances, is refused, continues making advances, is refused again, and eventually pursues Daphne through the forest. The pursued Daphne, unable to escape, begs her father (the river god Peneus) to protect her — so daddy turns the terrified woman into a laurel tree.
At which time Apollo decides he likes laurel trees and is going to honor them forever. Go figure.
Sexton’s “Laurel Tree” is a monologue spoken by Daphne, centuries after the pursuit and her metamorphosis. Apollo himself is gone by now, perhaps vanished from the earth with the old gods — Sexton’s Daphne tells Apollo “you are gone in time.” Though crowned in the honorable laurel, Daphne appears to regret her fate: “Too late/to wish I had not run from you, Apollo,/blood moves still in my bark bound veins.”
There’s not necessarily any need to read this poem as that of a married woman pining for freedom. Nor is there any need for us to suppose that Daphne’s trying to tell us she secretly enjoyed Apollo’s aggressive (even illicit) pursuit. Probably all this means is that Daphne regrets being trapped in a tree for centuries — much like the suicides found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, condemned to be encased in trees and thrashed with the claws of harpies for eternity.
Anne Sexton died by suicide on October 4, 1974. Maybe it’s the combination of the tree-imagery with the fact that I’m also working my way through Dante at the moment that really made this one stand out in my reading.