Language and Poetry

Norman D. Livergood

      Like all material on this Website, this essay involves the author and the reader in a non-ordinary relationship, in which the author assists the prepared reader to enter a higher dimension of consciousness as explained in this document.

     To instruct initiates 1 in how to achieve a higher state of consciousness, Perennialist 2  teachers disclose magical portals through which humans can learn to ascend to Higher Dimensions:

  • Art

    • Poetry -- which we'll be exploring in this essay

    • Drama and dance

    • Literature

    • Painting, sculpture, drawing, stereograms

  • Mathematics


"The essence of art is insight of a special kind into reality."

Wallace Stevens, American Poet

     Each of the portals to Higher Consciousness we've previously explored leads to that higher dimension of Forms in which our essential Self resides. Each portal involves "insight of a special kind into reality." In this essay, we'll explore the exceptional features of poetic discernment.

     As we discovered in a previous essay, some persons regard "objective reality" as something directly and unequivocally given, something unquestionably self-evident. If reality is conceived in this naive mode, then all elements of experience which lack solid sensory authorization dissolve into mere illusion or conjecture. In this view, compared to the naked truth of the "objective world," anything else is clear falsification.

     But if we examine our experience carefully, we discover that the "objective world" is actually an unknown, mysterious reality which we try to grasp using various modes of apperception that are constrained by our internal structures of consciousness. The "world of reality" is a product of sensation and thought. We perceive by conceiving of what reality is, using our senses as they are influenced by ideas and language, constructing a world made possible by our thought-patterns.

"Myth, art, language and science appear as symbols; not in the sense of mere figures which refer to some given reality by means of suggestion and allegorical renderings, but in the sense of forces each of which produces and posits a world of its own. In these realms the spirit exhibits itself in that inwardly determined dialectic by virtue of which alone there is any reality, any organized and definite Being at all. Thus the special symbolic forms are not imitations, but organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension, and as such is made visible to us. The question as to what reality is apart from these forms, and what are its independent attributes, becomes irrelevant here. For the mind, only that can be visible which has some definite form; but every form of existence has its source in some peculiar way of seeing, some intellectual formulation and intuition of meaning."

Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth

Language As a Mode of Apperception

     The influence of language in our interpretation of reality was formulated by American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the early twentieth century. Whorf summarized what is now known as the Sapir-Whorf theory as follows:

"It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas. . . Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. . . The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds--and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way. . . We cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation."

The Tower of Babel      Thus, language is a subjective agreement by human groups to conceptualize and verbalize their perceptions of reality in a certain way. Differences between languages represent varieties of conceptual interpretation of reality. The "phenomenal world" is a human creation, a product of fundamental mechanisms inherent in the structure of human consciousness. The innate configuration of the human mind creates an image of the external world independent of what the external world is. Expressing essentially this point of view, Noam Chomsky claims that "normal human intelligence is capable of acquiring knowledge through its own internal resources . . . and it is capable of generating new thoughts and of finding appropriate and novel ways of expressing them in a way that entirely transcends any training or experience."

      Chomsky is asserting that language is a part of the internal mental structure common to all humans, that the external world is not the common source of languages. He suggests that the common basis of all languages is universal phonetic and semantic patterns, that "certain objects of human thoughts and mentality are essentially invariable across languages." Among other reasons for humans possessing varying conceptions of reality is the fact that "each language is different from all other languages in the ways in which the sets of verbal symbol classify the various elements of experience." As Ernst Cassirer expresses it, language does our thinking for us.

      However, in 2011 a new study claimed that culture is the primary determiner of language, rather than the brain and its psychic patterning:

"Leading linguistic thinkers have argued that our brains are hard-wired for languages to follow certain sets of rules. But a team of scientists is challenging that premise in a study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"The team used biological tools to construct evolutionary trees for four language families and found that each of the families followed its own idiosyncratic structural rules, a sign that humans' language choices are driven by culture rather than innate preferences.

"The authors say their findings run contrary to the idea of Noam Chomsky's generative grammar, which says the brain has hard and fast ordering rules for language. They also contradict the 'universal rules' of Joseph H. Greenberg, who said languages tended to choose certain patterns over others."   Source

The Magic of Language

     Poetry is one of many ways in which humans employ the magic of language in their attempt to discern the mysterious aspects of Reality. Before we examine poetic use of language, let's take a quick look at one of the variety of mystical powers language has at its disposal. In previous essays, we've explored the arcane anagogical 3   faculty of language.

Another enigmatic capability of language is demonstrated in the various modes of paralipsis. Paralipsis, from the Greek word meaning "leave aside," is a rhetorical figure of speech in which one emphasizes something by pretending not to mention it.

      Typically, a paralipsis is introduced by phrases such as "we need say nothing of" or "not to mention," as in: "The restaurant was dirty and noisy, not to mention the waiters."

Variants of paralipsis include:

  • Cataphasis, or praeteritio: A kind of paralipsis which brings up the negative qualities claiming to be passed over.

    • "Let's not mention my opponent's habit of lying."

    • "Far be it from me to question your stupid civilization or its dumb customs."

  • Apophasis: from Greek apophanai, "to say no," refers in general to "mentioning by not mentioning." In apophasis, the speaker or writer invokes a subject by denying that it should be invoked. Apophasis can be seen as a rhetorical relative of irony. The device is typically used to distance the speaker from unfair claims, while still bringing them up. For instance, a politician might say" "I don't even want to mention the allegations that my opponent is a drunk."

    Another example of apophasis is the clause "if I don't say so myself" which is mistaken for the affirmative "if I do say so myself", meant to show the speaker's modesty.

     The magic of language includes the cryptic ability to mention something while affirming that you are not referring to it.

     In his poem "Sweet Talk," Billy Collins refers to what a woman is not like and describes a non-existent figure in a violet bathrobe which isn't standing at a window.

You are not the Mona Lisa
with that relentless look.
Or Venus borne over the froth
of waves on a pink half shell.
Or an odalisque by Delacroix, veils lapping at your nakedness.
You are more like the sunlight
of Edward Hopper,
especially when it slants
against the eastern side
of a white clapboard house
in the early hours of the morning,
with no figure standing
at a window in a violet bathrobe,
just the sunlight,
the columns of the front porch
and the long shadows
they throw down
upon the dark green lawn, baby.

The Magic of Poetry

     The word "poetry" derives from the ancient Greek word ροιεω which means to create, beget, produce, bring to pass, compose, write, invent, or shape. Traditionally, poetry has been a written art form, though there is also an ancient and modern form of poetry which relies mainly upon oral or pictorial representations.

Calliope       In poetry, language is employed for its aesthetic 4 qualities in addition to, or instead of, its semantic 5 content. Poetry is distinguished from prose, but such forms as prose poetry and poetic prose reside in the interstices between the two.

      Some scholars approach this problem of distinguishing poetry from prose by defining poetry not as a literary genre, but as a higher manifestation of human discernment, the essence from which all creative acts derive.

   Poetry uses unusual words--or uses words in unusual ways--to convey meanings, emotions, or ideas to the reader or listener. It emphasizes the deliberate use of features such as repetition, meter, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration to achieve mystical, musical, epiphanous 6 or incantatory effects. Poems often make deliberate use of imagery, word association, and sound qualities. Because of its reliance on "exceptional" features of language and connotational meaning, genuine poetry is notoriously difficult to render, translate, or understand.

      Because genuine poetry uses innuendo, nuance, and symbolism, it can be difficult to interpret or can leave a poem open to multiple interpretations. A complex poem rarely possesses a single definitive interpretation, the meaning determined by the capabilities of the reader or listener.

Calliope      We must distinguish between genuine and counterfeit poetry. The distinguishing feature of genuine--transformative--art is its power to produce psychic upheaval in a prepared mind and transport that mind to a higher dimension. I am using the term " transformative art" to include the conscious production or arrangement of words, sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that enables a person to understand and experience Truth and Beauty (the essences or Forms).

     Within the term "transformative art," then, I include those specially created instances of literature (prose and poetry), drama (including screenplays), painting, sculpture, music, dance, or illustration (including illustrated books and Web sites) which possesses the distinguishing quality of empowering a reader or viewer to gain a higher state of consciousness.

     The person must have carried out specific preparation to be able to conceive of new possibilities, understand new concepts, and participate in transformative experiences. To an unprepared psyche, transformative art appears lackluster or bizarre.

The Transformative Use of Perennialist Poetry

     In this essay we'll examine the unique features of transformative poetry by exploring how these aspects were discovered and used by the Mystery School at Chartres in the twelfth century and how a contemporary poet defined and created transformative poetry in the twentieth century.

     Our earlier study of transformative sanctuaries revealed that Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres are portals to a higher state of consciousness. The Chartres Mystery School taught the esoteric knowledge of how we can apprehend representations of sacred reality with our senses and our emotions in a special manner. The initiatory training of the Chartres School allowed initiates to experience a Cathedral (or other sacred place) as a reality on the threshold of the spiritual dimension through which we can gain access to an actual experience of higher reality.

"Chartrian thought, it can be said, begins and ends in a kind of poetry: poetic intuition is finally the only means of linking philosophy and theology, pagan auctores 7 and Christian doctrine, sapientia and eloquentia."

Winthrop Wetherbee, Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century

     The Chartrian Mystery School was part of the twelfth-century renaissance and its rediscovery of man and the natural world. In this new mind-set, natural objects were regarded as expressive of a higher essence operative in and through them. The universe was seen in terms of the cosmic eroticism of the hermetic tradition or the emanationism of Dionysius the Areopagite. Humans were again seen as the center of earthly creation, the hub of the intellectualized cosmos of a renascent Platonism. This was a revolutionary point of view, especially compared to the repressive Augustinian conception of humans as fallen, depraved creatures whose only hope was self-abnegating submission to the Church.

     Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 CE) was the first of the great twelfth-century Teaching Masters associated with Chartres. In a manner similar to Boethius, Bernard reintroduced Platonism, revealing the mystical power of this teaching. Bernard and the other Teaching Masters in the Chartrian Mystery School encouraged the study of poetry as a revelation of a Higher dimension. Through a metaphorical reading of the sensible world, humans gain access to a higher realm. Poetry was seen as being in the service of philosophical wisdom.

Bernard of Clairvaux's Vision by Fra Bartolommeo

     A common motif in the Chartres Mystery School was the marriage of Mercury and Philology, Higher Intelligence and Eloquence, used by Martianus Capella to represent the divine harmony and cosmic scope of the Liberal Arts. For the Chartrian Masters this marriage theme symbolized the mind's higher power of attaining truth through universal knowledge. This was part of a larger theme of love, especially the love of Wisdom--the essence of Philosophy. Wisdom was seen as deep understanding of the true nature of Reality, attainable only by one who seeks Wisdom with love. Only the lover of Wisdom--the true philosopher--is truly wise.

"Those who use fables for serious purposes do so because they realize that a frank, open exposition of herself is distasteful to Nature, who, just as she has withheld an understanding of herself from the uncouth senses of men by enveloping herself in variegated garments, has also desired to have her secrets handled by more prudent individuals through fabulous narratives. Accordingly, her sacred rites are veiled in mysterious representations so that she may not have to show herself even to initiates. Only eminent men of superior intelligence gain a revelation of her truth; the others must be drawn to venerate her by the agency of those figurae which protect her secrets from debasement."

Macrobius, (395-423 CE) Neoplatonic philosopher

     Macrobius had declared that a certain respect for sacred things always leads true philosophers to employ poetic fables and myths when they discuss the inner realities of the sensible world or the powers which govern it.

     Since only Plato's Timaeus was generally available at this time, the Chartrians used this poetic myth as a structure, a model of reality which could be "read" allegorically as a portal to philosophical understanding. Bernard and the other Masters saw the Timaeus as a poetic vision, and its terms, particularly the World Soul, as elements of poetic allegory. One of the dominant currents in the Chartrian Mystery School was the use of poetic vision as a guide on the journey toward truth. Boethius, Martianus Capella, and the pseudo-Apuleius were all seen as heirs of Plato and outstanding examples of the mystical power of poetry. Poetry is viewed as a special capability of the philosophizing mind, and poetic intuitions lead us on our journey toward Wisdom.

     Plato's Timaeus was interpreted as analogous, within the limits of poetic intuition and philosophical speculation, to the Christian vision of the inner, sacramental structure of the world. The authority the Chartrian Teaching Masters gave to Plato's cosmology became the foundation on which the study of all ancient literature was established.

     One of the reasons the Chartrian Mystery School embraced poetry so openly may have been as a means of evading the murderous heresy-hunters in the Roman Catholic Church. Around 1180 CE, the poet Godfrey was censured and possibly exiled from St. Victor for writing a Fons philosophiae in the spirit of the Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor. The Didascalicon presented a survey of all areas of knowledge and attempted to show that they were parts of a whole that was necessary for a man if he were to achieve his natural perfection and his heavenly destiny.

"Philosophy is a thorough investigation into the nature of all things, both human and divine."
Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicon

     Chartres, St. Victor, and other cathedral schools in the twelfth century, focused a large part of their attention on the role of poetry in the expression of complex ideas and the complexities of meaning attainable in poetic language. One of their major texts was Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy [The Emboldening of Philosophy], which gave definite expression to the metaphorical implications of the cosmology of the Timaeus and placed special emphasis on the psychological experience of the philosopher. In this major work, Philosophy teaches Boethius that attachment to earthly things is a form of imprisonment. Boethius' poem shows that poetry, inspired by love, suspends the working of necessity in the universe. Philosophy moves from persuasion and rational argument to an inspired use of poetry to bridge the gap between the situation of the dreamer and the divine harmony, denying the reality of the dreamer's loss as Orpheus seeks to deny the fact of the death of Eurydice.

     We can get some idea of the cathedral schools' sense of the mystery within poetry by examining one major concept taught by such cathedral school masters as Guillaume of Conches (1090-1154 CE), Bernard Sylvestris (1085-1178 CE) and John of Salisbury (1115-1180 CE). The concept ingenium was of crucial importance to later medieval literature, because among its many meanings ingenium connotes that faculty of imagination by virtue of which poets receive inspiration for their poems. In his Metalogicon John of Salisbury outlines a most subtle description of ingenium as capable of both sensual and philosophical apprehension; man, basically mortal and rational, can become immortal by pursuing wisdom, or irrational when drawn by vice to emulate the beasts.

     Guillaume of Conches defined ingenium simply as "that mental power which perceives things immediately." Ingenium is nonrational insight into similarities; it is a practical knowing, an intuition that exists apart from the formal reasoning process. One view of this ability to make connections through immediate cognition suggests that ingenium allows us to "see" through the poetic word, to make connections in experience we have not before made and which we need in order to think new thoughts. Ingenium helps humans define and order various interpretations and create a new reality. Ingenium as a power of language serves to name and assign meanings to objects in the world, and through this process of creating names, humans create a separate reality apart from the ordinary world.

     Another of the major works revered by the cathedral schools was Martianus' Marriage of Mercury and Philology.

"It was largely from Martianus that the Chartrian poets learned their subtly evocative use of mythology, and that carefully ambiguous 'metaphysical' style which seems always to say more than can be extracted from it by rational analysis.

"The eloquence presented by Martianus in the figure of Mercury is clearly an almost mystical conception, a link between the divine mind and human comprehension, and so, in conjunction with knowledge, a means whereby the human soul may realize its situation and destiny. It is a visionary medium, and in its ideal form--as characterized by Jove in the hymn . . . it reveals a certain affinity between Martianus' Neoplatonism and the pseudo-Dionysian notion of anagogy, the means whereby human perception transcends itself. And despite Martianus' thick veneer of literary embellishment we may see in the 'immortalizing' influence of Mercury and Philology something like the effect described by Hugh of St. Victor in the opening book of the Didascalicon, the human soul's recovery, through knowledge, of its likeness to the divine Wisdom." 8

"Now are the Arts blest, for together you so sanctify them that they grant access to heaven, open the stellar regions to mortal beings, and let faithful prayers ascend even to the bright ether. Through your observation and articulation, understanding fills the expanses of the mind. Through you well-tempered language attains eternal honor."

The speech of Thalia, Muse of elegy,
in Martianus, Marriage of Mercury and Philology

     Following the theme of the Platonic quest for wisdom in a higher realm, the Marriage of Mercury and Philology dramatizes the theme of intellectual pilgrimage from the sensible world to the higher world of vision and union with the Divine. " The love of truth," Martianus says," is intimately related to, even innate in human reason, and invokes wholeheartedly that truth which exists only by virtue of powers beyond existence." The ultimate Truth does not manifest itself unless divine discernment, through the outpouring of grace, enters and illumines the mind of the philosopher who seeks and loves wisdom.

"Neither the intelligence, the imagination nor the ear are the true or at least the deepest or highest recipients of the poetic delight, even as they are not its true or highest creators; they are only its channels and instruments: the true creator, the true hearer is the soul. The more rapidly and transparently the rest do their work of transmission, the less they make of their separate claim to satisfaction, the more directly the word reaches and sinks deep into the soul, the greater the poetry. Therefore poetry has not really done its work, at least its highest work, until it has raised the pleasure of the instrument and transmuted it into the deeper delight of the soul. A divine Ananda, a delight interpretative, creative, revealing, formative, -one might almost say, an inverse reflection of the joy which the universal Soul felt in its great release of energy when it rang out into the rhythmic forms of the universe the spiritual truth, the large interpretative idea, the life, the power, the emotion of things packed into an original creative vision, - such spiritual joy is that which the soul of the poet feels and which, when he can conquer the human difficulties of his task, he succeeds in pouring also into all those who are prepared to receive it. This delight is not merely a godlike pastime; it is a great formative and illuminative power.

"This power [of dharmasya] makes the rhythmic word of the poet the highest form of speech available to man for the expression whether of his self-vision or of his world-vision. It is noticeable that even the deepest experience, the pure spiritual which enters into things that can never be wholly expressed, still, when it does try to express them and not merely to explain them intellectually, tends instinctively to use, often the rhythmic forms, almost always the manner of speech characteristic of poetry. But poetry attempts to extend this manner of vision and utterance to all experience, even the most objective, and therefore it has a natural urge towards the expression of something in the object beyond its mere appearances, even when these seem outwardly to be all that it is enjoying.

"Ordinary speech uses language mostly for a limited practical utility of communication; it uses it for life and for the expression of ideas and feelings necessary or useful to life. In doing so, we treat words as conventional signs for ideas with nothing but a perfunctory attention to their natural force, much as we use any kind of common machine or simple implement; we treat them as if, though useful for life, they were themselves without life. When we wish to put a more vital power into them, we have to lend it to them out of ourselves, by marked intonations of the voice, by the emotional force or vital energy we throw into the sound so as to infuse into the conventional word-sign something which is not inherent in itself. But if we go back earlier in the history of language and still more if we look into its origins, we shall, I think, find that it was not always so with human speech. Words had not only a real and vivid life of their own, but the speaker was more conscious of it than we can possibly be with our mechanised and sophisticated intellects. This arose from the primitive nature of language which, probably, in its first movement was not intended, -or shall we say, did not intend, -so much to stand for distinct ideas of the intelligence as for feelings, sensations, broad indefinite mental impressions with minute shades of quality in them which we do not now care to pursue. The intellectual sense in its precision must have been a secondary element which grew more dominant as language evolved along with the evolving intelligence.

"Now, poetry goes back in a way and recovers, though in another fashion, as much as it can of this original element. It does this partly by a stress on the image replacing the old sensational concreteness, partly by a greater attention to the suggestive force of the sound, its life, its power, the mental impression it carries. It associates this with the definitive thought value contributed by the intelligence and increases both by each other. In that way it succeeds at the same time in carrying up the power of speech to the direct expression of a higher reach of experience than the intellectual or vital. For it brings out not only the definitive intellectual value of the word, not only its power of emotion and sensation, its vital suggestion, but through and beyond these aids its soul-suggestion, its spirit. So poetry arrives at the indication of infinite meanings beyond the finite intellectual meaning the word carries. It expresses not only the life-soul of man as did the primitive word, not only the ideas of his intelligence for which speech now usually serves, but the experience, the vision, the ideas, as we may say, of the higher and wider soul in him. Making them real to our life-soul as well as present to our intellect, it opens to us by the word the doors of the Spirit." 9

The Metaphysical Poetry of Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost      We can most clearly understand the metaphysical ambiance of poetry by exploring the thought and poems of Wallace Stevens. In this TV era we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned to a devaluation of and deafness to poetry. Master Teachers have indicated that the Perennial Tradition 2 is transmitted through poetry, as well as other forms of literature, art, and ordinary human experience, so we must study the nature of transformative poetry to gain intellectual and spiritual awareness.

      Part of readying ourselves for illuminating poetry is gaining the ability to read thoughtfully and with focused attention. When we begin a search for transformative poetry--for it is undeniable that only some poetry is illuminating--then the two characteristics of transformative art stand out in bold relief. Illuminating poetry produces an upheaval in the prepared reader's psyche and assists the person to gain a heightened state of consciousness.

     Part of being an enlightening artist, and a facet of artistic production, is the capability of appreciative discernment of the revelation of a higher, inspirational source in a particular manifestation. An art object or event is only realized--made real, completed, and brought to fruition--by appreciative, discerning recipients. Those recipients can include the artist himself. A transformative poem such as Wallace Steven's Analysis of a Theme, is only actualized and consummated by its being appreciated, understood, and enjoyed by a discerning reader.

     A reader who merely passes over the words of a transformative poem by Stevens, without genuine comprehension, leaves the poem in an unfinished state in regards to his own experience. If the reader, out of egotism or scholastic puffery, injects spurious, extraneous meanings into the poem, he creates a perversion of his own design totally unrelated to the real poem which Stevens created. The essential poem, containing multiple meanings, cascading associations, and profound metaphysical dimensions, is available to the appreciative, discerning reader who has prepared himself to discover what Stevens deposited in his artistic creation.

     From Wallace Stevens' perspective, "poetry has to do with reality in its most individual aspect." Only poetry deals with the singular element of reality, "science does not cover 'particularity here and now.'" Stevens claims that "there is in reality, whether we think of it as animate or inanimate, human or sub-human, an aspect of individuality at which many forms of rational explanation stop short." Humans, he claims, dismiss "individual and particular facts of experience as of no importance in themselves."

"In the world of words, the imagination is one of the force of nature."

"To regard the imagination as metaphysics is to think of it as part of life, and to think of it as part of life is to realize the extent of artifice."

"The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things."

"We live in the mind. . .[and] if we live in the mind, we live with the imagination."

"The greater the mind the greater the poet."

Wallace Stevens

     "The aim of our lives," Stevens claims, "should be to draw ourselves away as much as possible from the insubstantial fluctuating facts of the world about us and establish some communion with the objects which are apprehended by thought and not sense." Stevens believes that "Plato would describe himself as a realist in the sense that it is by breaking away from the world of facts that we make contact with reality." What we're after is "contact with reality as it impinges on us from the outside, the sense that we can touch and feel a solid reality which does not wholly dissolve itself into the conception of our own minds."

     "The wonder and mystery of art," Stevens believes, "is the revelation of something 'wholly other' by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched." He claims that there is a "unity rooted in the individuality of objects," and that this individuality is "discovered in a different way from the apprehension of rational connections."

The Glass of Water

By Wallace Stevens

That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,
Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles. So,
In the metaphysical, there are these poles.

Here in the centre stands the glass. Light
Is the lion that comes down to drink. There
And in that state, the glass is a pool.
Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws
When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws

And in the water winding weeds move round.
And there and in another state--the refractions,
The metaphysica, the plastic parts of poems
Crash in the mind--But, fat Jocundus, worrying
About what stands here in the centre, not the glass
But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day,
It is a state, this spring among the politicians
Playing cards. In a village of the indigenes,
One would have still to discover. Among the dogs
and dung,
One would continue to contend with one's ideas.

     The genuine artist, Stevens claimed, is never "true to life." "He sees what is real, but not as we are normally aware of it." "The poet sees with a poignancy and penetration that is altogether unique." "Meaning is an awareness and a communication. But it is no ordinary awareness, no ordinary communication." In genuine poetry, Stevens believed, there is an "authentic note; it is the insistence on a reality that forces itself upon our consciousness and refuses to be managed and mastered." The poet mediates for us a reality not of ourselves. The supreme virtue of a poet "is humility, for the humble are they that move about the world with the love of the real in their hearts."

Of Modern Poetry

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

     Stevens believed that for a genuine poet, "the faithful poem is an act of conscience." "What a modern poet desires, above everything else, is to be nothing more than a poet of the present time." The genuine poet attempts "to find, by means of his own thought and feeling, what seems to him to be the poetry of his time as distinguished from the poetry of . . . any other time, and to state it in a manner that effectively discloses it to his readers."

Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird

By Wallace Stevens


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds.
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in the green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


1 Initiation

2 The Perennial Tradition: the secret legacy, the single stream of initiatory teaching flowing through all the great schools of mysticism

3 Anagogical: from the Greek anagein: to lift up; the word denotes any element (entity or experience) through which a person's actions, thoughts and feelings are lifted up from worldly sense experience to realize an experiential participation of the spiritual realm

4 Aesthetic: from the Greek word αισθητικον meaning a perceiver or sensitive (channeler); aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty and art

5 Semantics: from the Greek semantikos, meaning "significant meaning," derived from sema, sign; semantics is the study of meaning

6 The meaning of "epiphany" has expanded beyond its Greek origins--the manifestation of a god--to include special and sudden raptures, episodic mystical experiences. These raptures occur to men and women from virtually every nation and culture. Throughout the ages, humans have undergone harrowing experiences, braved drug intoxication and risked madness to experience intense altered states of consciousness. Until recently, only mystics have described these encounters with another order of reality. If they talk about their experiences at all, mystics use words like ecstasy, illumination, and exaltation--after confessing that words fail them. Protesting all the while that their sensations cannot be explained, mystics, psychedelic explorers, meditators, and contemplatives of all stripes describe experiences of inspiration, peace, serenity, and all-rightness with the universe; of moving into another order or dimension of consciousness; of fusing in oneness with God, the universe, others, everything, eternity; of transcending time, space, and ego; of being infused with knowledge, recognition, awareness, insight, certainty, illumination; of having a sense of endowment, of gaining more from the experience than they can intellectually understand.

7 Auctor: a renowned thinker or scholar -- The Medieval student would choose a book by a renowned scholar, called auctor, as a subject of investigation, for example one of Plato's writings. By reading the book thoroughly and critically, the student learned to appreciate the concepts and actions of the auctor. Then other documents related to the source document would be referenced, such as Church councils, papal letters, anything written on the subject, be it ancient or contemporary. The points of disagreement and contention between these multiple sources would be written down, looking at the auctor's writing from all sides with an open mind. Once the sources and points of disagreement had been laid out, through a series of dialectics the two sides of an argument would sometimes be found to be in agreement and not contradictory.

8 Winthrop Wetherbee, Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century

9 Aurobindo, "The Essence of Poetry"


Additional sources of study: