So as I've been posting essays we were given in an essay class at Sarah Lawrence College, I've been thinking about the types of essays and their differences, their stylistic variety. Some were very practical, some were making an argument of some kind, others (like this one) were airy and mystical. Students usually had a preference and contributed essays that matched their predilections.
Although I preferred essays that blew my mind in some practical way, I didn’t hate the rambling scats like this one by Charles Wright called “Improvisations, The Poem as Journey.” There were things to learn from both types of essay.
You can find this essay in a book called Poets Writing Across Borders, The Strangest of Theatres. Here is a free PDF version: https://nanopdf.com/download/view-the-pdf-poetry-foundation_pdf
You can also purchase copies of the book here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-strangest-of-theatres-jared-hawkley/1111672733
You’d think a scatting sort of essayist would value the journey over the destination but not Charles Wright. This is an essay claiming (but not really proving) that all meaning is found in the destination. He starts with the phrase, “I am writing to you from the end of the world” by Henri Michaux, a French Surrealist poet. Then he goes on to talk about what the end of the world might mean for Dante, Orpheus, Ulysses, Aeneas. My marginalia to the side says “ornament.” A lot of this essay feels ornamental to me. Bringing in classical poetic references often feels superfluous.
His thesis, “I think it’s what’s at road’s end that is important, that where the road leads is where the meaning is: it’s not the telling of the story that’s important, it’s what the story has to tell” is presented in a rambling journey without much gold at the end. This is essay is all road and no destination. And I don't hate that. But it's ironic.
He quotes a Japanese Zen master about the plantain and equates it to a poem: “A plantain has earth, water, fire, wind, emptiness, also mind, consciousness and wisdom as its roots, stems, branches, and leaves, or as its flowers, fruits, colors and forms. Accordingly, the plantain wears the autumn wind, and is torn in the autumn wind. We know that it is pure and clear and that not a single particle is excluded.” This is today a poem is pure and full of all the elements, like a plantain.
I’m always suspicious when a poet tries to tell us what a poem is, what “all true poems” are. But I’m not too worried in this case because nothing Wright says here is concrete enough to be annoying, didactic poet-splaining.
Wright reaches for something. He says a poem is a “journey of discovery. Something is being found out….an uncovered new thing. Poetric structures sometimes end up in that fortunate ‘field.’” I read “that fortunate field” phrase a bunch of times and I still have no clue what that is.
He then talks about Italian poets Dino Campana and Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s two word poem that, Wright says, is ultimately untranslatable:
I punched this into Google Translate and what-do-you-know: it is untranslatable. But then I asked Monsieur Big Bang (who speaks Italian) to translate the words, which he said mean “I illuminate myself from the immensity.” He griped, “what’s untranslatable about that?!”
By this point, I’m getting annoyed by the cryptic exclusivity. But on another day I might be charmed by its mystery.
Another mystic sentence near the end: “That ‘cutting edge,’ where all true poems climb from and return to, is the edge where the void begins.” Technically speaking, does a naughty limerick avoid this void? Or Dr. Seuss? Is that not poetry too?
Here’s the last sentence of the essay. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it: “The journey is always into the unknown, into the mystery and darkness, where great lobsters fall on our...” In our class all the photocopies cut off right there, like a cliff or a....void. The students who brought the essay into class had to read off the last few words to the rest of us, which we dutifully copied where the void began: …” heads and great unseen wings gaze our faces and vanish.”
Sometimes mystery works (this Charles Wright book is one of my favorites). Sometimes it feels like bullshit on an essay exam. It depends upon where your heads at that day I guess.