Poetry of the highest quality almost never appears. When it does, we want to honor it with the deepest words from our startled minds. At such times, it’s so easy to slip into hyperbole. How to use language to speak about the finest language? To prevent adjectival deluge, the dictionary should be allowed to shrink, leaving three options, three markers: “mysterious,” “visionary,” “beautiful.”
Another way of speaking about the finest poems is to describe what they’re not. Having tried to write poems myself, I know the distance between an attempt at written art and the elusiveness of its realization. I know when I’ve encountered lines by another that are beyond the creative resources of my consciousness, lines exceeding whatever poetic talent I possess. Master poems are not ostensible poems.
Poetry of the highest quality is other than what you find when you look for poems to read these days. We’re so unaccustomed to a poem of aesthetic depth that when we stumble upon one the effect is startlement. We’re also baffled. Not owing to incomprehension — a master poem is always hospitable and coherent — but to the fact that such poems exist.
Back to my shrunken dictionary.
The ability to write a master poem is surely not something that can be taught. It must spring from innate regions and manifest through controlled spontaneity. There are no classes, formulas, or tricks of the trade. The only school one need apply to is the private reading of dead masters. Appreciation and influence blend into talent that has arrived along mysterious root fibers from childhood. What still trembles along those fibers is the condition of wonder.
A master poem is indeed mysterious because it has an aura of enigma, with the substance of lines casting faint uncanny shadows. The quotidian is revealed as having another, esoteric texture. Written impressions generate a sustained metaphysical atmosphere, of something extra embedded in phenomena. How is such artistry possible? The riddle tumbles back through Miłosz, Pavese, on to Keats.
Seeing into things and moments in such a way that an actual poem might happen requires a melancholy spirit. That’s because being itself is an implicit sigh. The fact that the world exists at all is mystical (see Wittgenstein), and profane mystics make the best poets because the world wishes to be known. A master poet also intuits an occasional smile within the world’s dream. A sense of humor is not anathema to the birth of deep poems.
The thing about a visionary poet is that imagination always accompanies experience, both flowing to the page. That’s why his metaphors are exceptional — he sees other things and times apparitioning into the present case. One aspect that completely flummoxes me is how a visionary poem seems to be both fully conceived beforehand and also a fortuitous coalescence of inspired materials during composition. Lines flow with such confidence and perfection that spontaneity seems preposterous. A reader suspects that those lines must have existed in some god’s lost book of verse, before the poet sat down to begin the poem. This act of written vision — this larceny of godly secrets — requires a preternatural composure. Another vivifying element of a master poem is the energy it gathers and releases from a surreal opinion of the world.
A master poem is subtly lyrical. That sounds like an assertion, but it’s true. Orpheus was the first poet, and he sang his words to the strange harmonics of a spectral lyre. Beauty haunts a poem of quality, because quality is by definition (or my definition) registered and judged along an aesthetic spectrum. Poems not imbued with an underglow and afterglow of beauty are just somebody saying stuff. And beauty glows with a melancholy luster, with a patina of time’s own homesickness.
Poetry of the finest quality almost never appears. When it does, the possibility survives that new readers will, by some gravitational pull of aesthetic attraction, be quietly drawn toward its mysteries, visions, and beauties. Otherwise, poetry will wither. Otherwise, only poets will read poetry.
Here are two poems by a living master:
Symposia Above Sea Level
My cousins cautioned me about the red wine.
They said lush vineyards grow
On Etna’s slopes, enriched by lava flows
And strange vapors steaming into the grapes
Produce a wine from the childhood of the world.
Whatever philosophy we were spewing
That I, drinking this, heard chaos talk,
Saw the sea burning in the crater of the sun,
Saw the mountain falling, space mounting;
Felt the wine venting, the winds of forgetting
Flying in the wine-dark sea of my mind-
I staggered on the cliff-side terrace-
Archimedes Theocritus Empedocles I slurred,
Feeling the vertigo of history letting go,
Smelling sulfur, even there among clouds.
for mom and Mother’s Day
When I picture my mother in her thirties in a red dress
Swooning to Mario Lanza’s Granada
On 78rpm, my memories sound
With forgotten revolutions per minute
Turning to roses and laughter and dance steps,
Turning to Europe in the vast sunset of war
And the static of questions childhood could not form,
As history ate through the grooves
With crackles and bomb blasts
And the beauty that cannot last, but does.
The above poems are used with the kind permission of Salvatore Ala.
Copyright © Salvatore Ala
The son of Sicilian immigrants, Ala lives in Canada. He has released three books of poems.
Posted by Tim Buck