Supernovae and Dark Stars: Some Notes on Universality in the Lyric Poem
The way up
and the way down
Recently a student asked me what she prefaced as a "silly" question: "How do I write about myself," she asked, picking through the books in my office, "and make you care?"
I blinked, of course. This is the question essential to the lyric poem: how to make the particular universal, or, better said, how to discover the universal in the particular. Every poem is an attempt to answer this question, and when we are confronted with questions of such magnitude and scope, it is often best to defer to something that has—as Rilke says we must—lived those questions to their depths. By that I mean it is often best to defer to the poem.
My student slouched into the chair by my bookshelf and riffled through a copy of Stanley Kunitz’s late poems. “Why not try reading me something,” I ventured, “just to get the words moving.” This is a strategy I always use with my students when we’re struggling to articulate something: Let’s just get some words in the air and see what happens. Maybe it was precisely her preoccupation with the question of the personal that led her to stop at the first line of the poem she chose, but what she read seemed incredibly germane to her question and serves as a reminder of what the subconscious can do. “My mother never forgave my father / for killing himself,” she began. These first lines of Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait” miraculously make their way to an ending of fierce remembrance; the speaker, reflecting from a great distance in time, recalls his pain when his mother slapped him “hard” for rescuing a portrait of his father from the “deepest cabinet” of oblivion. “In my sixty-fourth year,” he concludes, “I can feel my cheek / still burning.”
This is a justly famous poem and a testament to Kunitz’s ability to almost literally—well, literarily—hit us with his personal world so distinctly that it sets our own cheeks burning. What struck both me and my student in the silence after her reading of the poem was precisely its ability to move from the personal to the universal, seamlessly and without hysteria. I have more than once seen a reader lift her hand to her own cheek after hearing those final lines, and the miracle of this poem—the miracle of lyric poetry—is how we can journey from a first line that excludes us with its personal pronouns—“My mother never forgave my father”—to an ending that radically includes us in its first-person pain—“I can feel”—even as it specifies that I as a particular, sixty-four-year-old person, located in a particular time and space. If the lyric poem can claim as its ambition a discovery of the universal in the particular experience—whether that experience is actually lived or imagined—then surely Kunitz’s poem is a success.
And yet what would be the best way to speak of how that motion—from personal to universal—is accomplished, how the speaker carries his own hands through the crooked country of the poem to arrive at our threshold and wake us? Earlier that morning I had been teaching the poems of the great Austrian expressionist Georg Trakl, dead at twenty-seven amid the nightmare of the Great War. His poem “Rest and Silence” lay on my desk, and it seemed to ask for us to hear it out. I handed it to my student, and she read it in Daniel Simko’s fine English translation. “Shepherds buried the sun in the barren woods,” she began, clearly announcing that Trakl’s poem is of an entirely different species from Kunitz’s. While Kunitz writes a brand of avuncular American poetry that, as Jarrell writes of Frost, uses “queerly effective adaptations of ordinary idioms,” Trakl conjures a brand of archetypal imagery in the language of what the poet Frank Stanford calls a “constant stranger,” someone perpetually searching for his particular home.
If Kunitz begins in his childhood home, Trakl is on his way to find one. Through wild images of “extinct angels” and the moon fished up in a “net of hair,” we come to “the sister,” who “appears in autumn and black decay / as a radiant youth.” Who is this ghostly figure emerging from the Germanic mists of Trakl’s language? If Kunitz’s speaker is attempting, through personal archaeology, to excavate the particular image of a once living father, Trakl is attempting to approach a much more mythic thing. In “The Portrait,” we begin with those possessive pronouns that exclude us, and we move toward a profound sympathy, if not empathy, for the speaker—from the personal to the universal. In Trakl’s poem, however, the opposite movement seems to unfold. Rather than attempting to reveal the universal in the personal, Trakl attempts to secure a place for the personal in the universal and profoundly impersonal landscape of the archetype. As Carl Jung would have it, archetypes are the innate images or forces common to every psyche. Although their existence is independent of our individual personality, they “only acquire solidity, influence, and eventual consciousness in the encounter with empirical facts.” If Kunitz’s poem encounters the empirical world and attempts to find universal meaning in it, Trakl’s begins in universal archetypes and attempts to approach the empirical world that might give them meaning.
Any reader who takes a quick glance through my poems will find certain words repeated with almost obsessive continuity, and from the beginning of my writing career I have been aware of what I might call profound familial forces in my poems—brother, sister, mother, father. These words are not unusual, especially in the landscape of contemporary American poetry after the confessional mode, but what strikes me is that the second word on this list, sister, has no basis in my biography: I have no sister. I should say that I almost wrote, I have no sister to speak of, but therein would lie the distinction. To put myself out on an aesthetic and perhaps philosophical limb and say something that reveals not only my (current) aesthetic preferences but my propensity for armchair psychologizing, I would say I have no sister, but I do have a sister to speak of. What I mean when I write sister is the archetype, a presence that announces itself in us and demands to be given a voice, a presence whose weight and reality are indistinguishable from the weight and reality of physical things, and which therefore demands to be embodied in the poem.
If this is the way I think of sister, I confess it is also the way I think of brother, mother, and father. Are those words informed by and saturated with the particular data about the flesh and blood in my own life that inhabit them? Of course. But are they also words that rise out of what Rilke calls, in Galway Kinnell’s translation, the “deluge of origin,” words that describe forces that precede and survive the people we come to call them by? Yes, I think, always.
This might sound like an apologia for impersonality, a defense of distance from the actual fact of the individual. In his poem “Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967,” Larry Levis reminds us of the danger of such impersonality, writing about the men he worked with in his father’s vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley:
I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
In front of you on this page so that
You won’t mistake him for something else,
An idea, for example, of how oppressed
He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless
Grapes from a row of vines.
He’s right to do so. To turn the individual into an abstraction is a grave violation, whether we do it in the poem or in our lives, and it is precisely such abstraction that leads to small heartaches and vast genocides. But here I would like to make a kind of taxonomy—admittedly reductive as all taxonomies are—of what I will call the modes of universality in the lyric poem. Firstly, there is the mode of “The Portrait,” which we can call personal-to-universal, reminding ourselves that the successful poem in this mode somehow preserves the aspects of the personal even as it achieves universality. Note that the poem does not move from personal to abstract, which Levis rightly reminds us would be a violation of what Kinnell calls “an incarnation…in particular flesh.” Rather, it unfolds the universal aspects in its particulars. It is a method perhaps most expected of the lyric poem, and yet there is another.
In a 1998 interview with Wallace Shawn in the Paris Review, Mark Strand reminds us that “there is another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world….These people have created worlds of their own. Their language is so forceful and identifiable that you read them not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply because you want to saturate yourself with their particular voices.” This may be true of any poem, in any manner, that achieves universality. But if “The Portrait” proceeds by the personal-to-universal mode, there is also the mode of “Rest and Silence,” which employs the universal-to-particular, a mode that begins in the archetype and attempts to fill it, like a vessel, with the particular aspects of the living other. In this way, Trakl’s poem approaches the sister, as much of Trakl’s poetry approaches the self, that cryptic thing that is always “black and near.”
Undoubtedly universal-to-particular is a term that risks implying a kind of fall from the transcendent heights of the lyric to a navel-gazing of the closed ego. What I mean by this mode, however, is not the kind of writing that seeks to reveal universal truth in a particular experience, whether that experience is lived or imagined, but the kind that takes as its landscape the archetypal world of impersonal forces and locates the speaker in that primordial, original space. Whitman speaks of “Nature without check with original energy,” but if his motion is outward from the origin, Trakl’s is inward toward his origins. It is the difference between finding the god in yourself and finding yourself in the god, and both modes have created astonishing poetry. Practitioners of the former include poets as diverse as Whitman, Blake, Rumi, Allen Ginsberg, and Sharon Olds. Practitioners of the latter include Trakl, Louise Glück, Jay Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Frank Stanford, that wild voice of death booming from the mountains of Arkansas to shake the edifice of contemporary poetry from below.
It is not a curiosity that “Song of Myself,” one of the great poems of the personal-to-universal mode, begins with the word “I” and ends with the word “you.” At its most successful, the poetry of this mode reaches a level of universality without compromising the visceral fact of the personal; that is, it touches the spirit without compromising the body, and Whitman knows it:
I believe in you, my Soul—the other I am must not abase itself to you;
And you must not be abased to the other…
At its weakest, the poetry of this mode can commit the violation that Levis warns us of: It can make the particular merely abstract, and in so doing can become aesthetically and morally bankrupt. At its strongest, poetry of the universal-to-particular mode can achieve the solidity of myth. Except for a few poems from her first volume, Firstborn, this is the mode in which Louise Glück has been writing for five decades now, and it is characterized by the speaker’s evocation of an elemental landscape in which the self is the “constant stranger,” Trakl’s “traveler” forever drifting out of the primordial haze toward a contact with himself he can never have. If the personal-to-universal mode often has the Whitmanic energy of an outward expansion, the explosion of a supernova, the universal-to-particular mode, in virtue of its effort to discover the self, often has an infolded energy, a texture like a collapsed star, dense and hermetic and obstinate. Even when it lacks syntactic or imagistic density, it is almost always an inward motion from otherness to self. As Glück writes in “Humidifier”:
…as Freud said,
Why are you always sick, Louise?
This is a damned good joke, and it is a testament to Glück’s radical intelligence: The speaker is not only operating in the universal-to-particular mode, drifting in a mythic landscape in which she desperately wants both to remain a myth and to somehow locate the personal in the universal so that she does not have to be “completely alone,” with “strangers / surging around [her].” She also has the grace to lampoon the image of a wandering stranger, lost in the Trakl-esque forest, wanting only to find, in a tavern with a warm fire with her feet up, herself. No one who has deeply read “Song of Myself,” a poem in the personal-to-universal mode, can accuse it of narcissism; in the lines above, however, Glück seems to know that the universal-to-particular mode can become, at its weakest, the lost boy staring into his own face in the waters, unable to see us waiting for him on the other shore. As she asks at the end of “Humidifier,” what would we be
If there were no more
Sounds in the night, continuous
Hush, hush of warm steam, not
Like human breath though regular, if there were nothing in the world
More hopeful than the self,
Soothing it, wishing it well.
It is a matter of Glück’s taste that she finds comfort in the idea that the thing “more hopeful than the self” is not “human,” even if the tone of this passage is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, one of the great struggles of the poet working in the universal-to-particular mode is to avoid the fate of the “constant stranger,” to walk out of her house and shake hands with her neighbor without turning him into Hades. Whatever we might think of the final lines of the last and title poem of Glück’s Vita Nova, spoken as they are by a voice at once both human and nonhuman, they are undoubtedly representative of the poet’s awareness of this need to commune, to be “common”:
I thought my life was over and my heart was broken.
Then I moved to Cambridge.
It seems to me that the archetype, in the right hands, can be used to illuminate or discover the essence of the particular, but it can also be used to flee from the ungeneralizable fact of the other. Especially if the subject of a poem is a human being, the particular-to-universal mode can fail that subject if it turns it into a mere abstraction, and the universal-to-particular mode can fail that subject if it mythologizes it to a point of denying its individuality. Every aesthetic strategy has its pitfalls, but what is clear from the poems we’ve discussed here is that both these modes of lyric poetry can achieve the impossible marriage of universal and particular, the “incarnation…in particular flesh.” And yet why, one might ask, could these modes not both abide in the same poem, in the same poet? Certainly they have. As Whitman writes as he listens to the songs of birds, of others, of the natural world, “I see in them and myself the same old law.” Yes, “Song of Myself” says, you are more than yourself. But yes, you are you; you are the particular self you sing of.
Let me say it this way: I have come to know the archetype as a figure standing in a dark cowl at the foot of my bed, saying the names of my loved ones with its hands over its mouth. In my own poetry, I should like to convince that figure to lower its hands, or to trick it into doing so. What I want is the other world in this world. What I want is the way up and the way down, the way in and the way out. What I want is the poem that rears up like a mythic creature from the dark place of origins, only to transform into the holy, unrepeatable faces of the living. What I want is the mythic wings still thrumming inside them.
This essay originally appeared in the spring-summer 2016 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2016 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.