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Chard deNiord

Chard deNiord

Chard deNiord is the new Vermont Poet Laureate. The author of five books of poetry, most recently Interstate, The Double Truth, and Night Mowing, he is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College. In 2001, he co-founded the New England College MFA Program in Poetry, where he worked as program director until 2007. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz.

Like a Book at Evening, Beautiful but Untrue, Like a Book on Rising, Beautiful and True

In the eighth section of Wallace Stevens' magnificent poem "The Auroras of Autumn," Stevens arrives at a beguiling complementary simile in the style of Hebrew parallelism about the nature of truth: "Like a book at evening, beautiful but untrue,/ Like a book on rising, beautiful and true." So how can something be both untrue and true at the same time? Truth is as mercurial as human emotions and hardly dependent on fact, as Mark Strand points out so evocatively in his poem "Elegy for My Father": "Why did you lie to me?/ I always thought I told the truth./ Why did you lie to me?/ Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth." So how to capture the elusive, supremely fictive, paradoxical, immortal truth in a work of art, specifically a poem? Because of its inherently manifold nature as literal, figurative, and fictive, it covers the full range of human emotions, from humor to horror. Humor invites the "witness" first with risible instruction at the highest cognitive level, often employing a strategy of via negativa. I think, for instance, of the joke in which a young American truth-seeker ventures halfway around the world to learn the truth from a wise man in the foothills of the Himalayas. After arriving at the man's dirt floor hut, he humbly asks the wise man to impart the truth in a single utterance. The wise man awakens from his deep meditation and responds haltingly, "Truth is a deep well." The young American recoils in rude disappointment at this news, at which the wise man comments, "You mean it isn't?" As immediately old as this joke becomes the second it's told, it nonetheless conveys two essential truths about truth-telling that are critical to the poet's understanding of the nature of truth: first, that truth is experiential, and second, that the wise man or woman knows implicitly that truth is too large and complex to be contained in the merely factual. Call it the Murphy's Law of truth, that there is little the truth-teller can do or say to the literal-minded pilgrim about his or her inability to instill the truth in another except come back with rhetorical ripostes. "You think it's more mind-blowing than that? You think it's not shockingly disappointing on first hearing? "You think I can tell you?"—questions that remind me of Yahweh's divinely wiseacre responses to Job's complaints about his mysterious sudden rash of personal tragedies and physical maladies: "Can anyone capture the Behometh by the eyes or trap it and pierce its nose?...Can you bind the chain of the Pleiades?...Can you tilt the waterskins of the heavens?"

So, how then does one move beyond jokes and satire to the more sober undertaking of what Carolyn Forché calls "the poetry of extremity" in her ambitious anthologies on the poetry of witness? The poet, Ruth Stone, makes the strong argument that the poet must always maintain his or her sense of irony and figurative acumen, whether it's comical or not. That without humor and figurative language, the truth of horror and grief remains only half told. "See what you miss by being dead," Stone chides her deceased husband in her heroic poem "Curtains" after telling a heart-wrenching story about how difficult life is for her as a widow with a landlord who forbids pets. In that one outburst to her absent husband, she captures the double-edged truth of why she's chosen to go on living, despite life's almost unbearable hardships, unlike her husband, Walter, with whom she was still in love but angry with for ending his life.

An explosion of indeterminate, post-avant, fiercely iconoclastic poetic expression in our present age has largely supplanted the language of overarching universals and sense-making. The question of truth—which Pontius Pilate put most succinctly over 2,000 years ago in his response to Jesus' claim that he was a "witness to the truth": "Truth. What is truth?"—has devolved in the literary marketplace into what Stephen Coubert calls "truthiness." Although a comedian, Coubert has the instincts of a poet, respecting his audience enough to grasp the validity of his satire without daring to call it "the truth." For truth may be too large a word today to resonate universally. In the polarized Zeitgeist of today's politics and social media in which religious absolutism wages war with secular indeterminacy, truth-telling falls between the cracks of belief and fiction, doctrine and art, cynicism and fundamentalism.

As recently as fifty years ago, a number of American poets who followed the Modernists aspired to embrace the truth of their age and lives unabashedly in "memorable speech." They embraced their "vanity of vanities" with extraordinary chutzpa and originality in an age of enormous political and social upheaval, while also somehow maintaining faith in divining truths that crossed over from their poetry with a Whitman-like current and currency to both their readers' psyches and bones.

As a poet of the generation following these poets, most of whom were born in the 1920's, I was curious to talk to several of them about their "broken" yet tensile language. So, as I sat before Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, Robert Bly, Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert, Lucille Clifton, and Donald Hall on the figurative dirt floors of their respective book-filled huts during the interviews I conducted with them between 2008 and 2011, I learned like a fool that the truths they imparted were unteachable, despite their memorable "music," residing solely within them as unique, original expressions that they had forged in the darkness of their "deep wells." Their wisdom made memorable sense, but it wasn't mine, and yes I was often initially shocked by their answers. Kinnell's claim, for instance, that he dare not call himself a poet, for being a poet "is so wonderful an accomplishment it would be boasting to say it of oneself," and Ruth Stone's admission that "the writing is separate...I don't write out of the memory of experiencing a memory." They had learned something crucial about truth and how to tell it, namely, that no one possesses it absolutely, and that when one tries to tell it too self-consciously or pridefully, it disappears. Or as Jack Gilbert opined, "Real pride gives up. False pride keeps performing." I exited my subjects' studies feeling chastened, enlightened, foolish, disappointed, and challenged in unexpected ways—ways that crushed my preconceived notions about truth-telling beneath the weight of their spare, self-effacing language.

Because the truth is like a lover who needs to hear back from her beloved that her words are being heard as meaningful witness for reasons that redound on the future's imminent promise, one wonders in today's synchronic Zeitgeist who is prepared to hear the truth, to sustain the truth with listening. This is not just a topical question, but one that has resonated throughout human history. The despondency of Elijah on Mt. Horeb or Jonah's suicidality in the desert testify to the perennial prophetic condition of the truth-teller. If the present generation of poets and readers of poetry have become deaf to old world "singing" then the contemporary poet is left to overhearing himself as an audience of one, or at most "a diminished thing" with a more resonant voice than the "other birds," as Robert Frost declaimed in these lines from his poem "The Oven Bird" following the earth-shattering devastation of World War I in 1920:

     The bird would cease and be as other birds
     But that he knows in singing not to sing.
     The question that he frames in all but words
     Is what to make of a diminished thing.

In a new age that's nonetheless similar to the era following World War I for its lack of sense and meaning, in which one might still claim, as Yeats did around the same time Frost wrote "The Oven Bird" that "the falcon can not hear the falconer," one wonders also who hears the "the still quiet voice" of the "diminished thing" and just who is "singing not to sing."

*

In turning to the craft of truth-telling, I'd like to discuss three poems—two narratives and one lyric—in which the poets tell the truth in dramatically different ways that employ both fictive and literal strategies. I recall something Jack Gilbert said in my interview with him as a starting point for thinking about all three of these examples: "The mechanics of poetry have so little to do with design. There is no pressure, it seems to me, to write poems that matter today." The poems I have chosen to write about still matter for reasons that have more to do with design than mechanics—designs that emanate mortal pressure or what Garcia Lorca called duende. The first poem I'd like to take a look at is Randall Jarrell's supreme fiction, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo."

     The Woman at the Washington Zoo


     The saris go by me from the embassies.

     Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.
     They look back at the leopard like the leopard.

     And I....
                   this print of mine, that has kept its color
     Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null
     Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so
     To my bed, so to my grave, with no
     Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
     The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief—
     Only I complain.... this serviceable
     Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses
     But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns,
     Wavy beneath fountains—small, far-off, shining
     In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped
     As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap,
     Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
     Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death—
     Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!

     The world goes by my cage and never sees me.
     And there come not to me, as come to these,
     The wild beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas' grain,
     Pigeons settling on the bears' bread, buzzards
     Tearing the meat the flies have clouded....
                                                                          Vulture,
     When you come for the white rat that the foxes left,
     Take off the red helmet of your head, the black
     Wings that have shadowed me, and step to me as man:
     The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn,
     To whose hand of power the great lioness
     Stalks, purring....
                                  You know what I was,
     You see what I am: change me, change me!

This persona poem is remarkable for the transpersonal self that crosses over from its author to other, a woman at the Washington zoo. Jarrell imagines most accurately what it's like to be a person of the opposite sex trapped in her "null navy" uniform, no less a captive (and serviceable, too, with all the sexual connotations this word intones) than the animals at the zoo. Jarrell must have known Ranier Maria Rilke's poem "The Panther" in which Rilke captures so exquisitely the tragic stasis of a caged panther. He finds a truth here that he couldn't have found without assuming the identity of another, extrapolating the boredom of the zoo animals to the woman imprisoned in "the cage" of her job. By concocting this fiction, Jarrell has told a untrue story that nonetheless tells a memorable truth about the torture of imposed restrictions on the spirit of both animals and humans. Like Whitman, he is large, containing multitudes in a particular other who bestows a vision of an entirely different experience from his own that nonetheless becomes his own in an act of painstaking empathy, or what John Keats would call "negative capability," the emotional feat of existing "in uncertainty, doubt, mystery without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." By wedding his imagination with his compassion in writing about someone utterly different from himself, Jarrell discovers the transformative, ironic truth of himself as a transpersonal self, and in doing so ends up experiencing a second transcendent vision of seeing through and beyond his imagined persona to the mystical nature of the caged vulture as "the wild brother" worthy of his speaker's prayer and hope for "change."

Turning next to the role of the imagination in the lyric, Emily Dickinson's poem #Fr554 provides a trenchant example of the function of the imagination's role as a verbal catalyst for conveying emotional and psychic truth. Dickinson charges an imagined erotic encounter with such intense lyrical language that the poem ultimately turns from an archetypal call and response lyric into an ironic ars poetica that weds her "veiled" face to her fire-breathing muse "in the crease."

      Fr554

     I had not minded - Walls -
     Were Universe - one Rock -
     And far I heard his
     silver Call
     The other side the Block -

     I'd tunnel - till my Groove
     Pushed sudden thro' to his -
     Then my face take her
     Recompense -
     The looking in his Eyes -

     But 'tis a single Hair -
     A filament - a law -
     A Cobweb - wove in Adamant -
     A Battlement - of Straw -
     
     A limit like the Vail
     Unto the Lady's face -
     But every Mesh - a Citadel -
     And Dragons - in the Crease -

In the first half of this poem, Dickinson celebrates her desire to answer the mating call of a potential suitor across the street. To tunnel till "her groove pushes sudden through to his." (Interestingly, this language is every bit as "disgraceful"—the term Dickinson used in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson at The Atlantic Monthly to describe Walt Whitman's sexually explicit verses—as anything Whitman ever wrote.) There was no potential suitor who actually lived "the other side the block" from Dickinson, but he did in her head, and she heard him calling to her. So the fictive quality of this poem, mixed with its speaker's staunch reticence about actually meeting this suitor in the second half of the poem, is stunning. Only poetry this pithy and electric can convey the explosive truth of the heart's alternating current: attraction one second and flight the next. "But tis a single hair,/ a filament, a law,/ a cobweb wove in adamant—/ a battlement of straw." Modesty and apprehension trigger Dickinson's sudden faint, prompting her to recoil behind her "veil." Indeed, Dickinson felt utterly abashed by her own visage, referring to her "external face" as "sight's ineffable disgrace." In a flash, she reverses her strategy of call and response to characterize the truth of her more pressing agon, namely, the labile phenomenon of her emotions in the clutches of romantic attraction. No constant truth here, but rather a psychic volatility capable of shifting from one extreme to the next in an instant. Dickinson conveys romantic love's complex nature in broken yet highly charged lines. With a sudden lyrical surge in the last stanza, Dickinson employs brilliant ambiguity in her description of "the lady's veil" as a veiled description also of the female genitalia, as if her sex itself were speaking as that "mesh" and "citadel"—her feminine redoubt—"with dragons in the crease." She found her most multivalent, devastating voice as a woman in this poem by discovering before her and her reader's eyes something remarkably true she didn't know she knew, namely, that her sex and her veil are one, replete with dragons in the folds, her fire-breathing poetry. No other art form besides poetry can tell the truth as complexly or as powerfully as this. "Tell all the truth," Dickinson wrote in another poem, "but tell it slant." Her volatility, her fictions, her tropes, her veiled revelations, and her nuclear economy comprise the poetic devices of her "slant" telling in this poem that ends up walloping us so artfully.

Lastly, I'd like to discuss the function of literal expression as a complementary means of truth-telling. This poem, a passage from Gilgamesh that's uttered by the chorus following the death of Enkidu, is nearly 5,000 years old.

     All that is left to one who grieves
     Is convalescence. No change of heart or spiritual
     Conversion for the heart has changed
     And the spirit has converted
     To a thing that sees
     How much it costs to lose a friend it loved.
     It has grown past conversion to a world
     Few enter without tasting loss
     In which spends a long time waiting
     For something to move one to proceed.
     It is that inner atmosphere that has
     An unfamiliar gravity or none at all
     Where words are flung out in the air but stay
     Motionless without an answer,
     Hovering about one's lips
     Or arguing back to haunt
     The memory with what one failed to say ,
     Until one learns acceptance of the silence
     Amidst the new debris
     Or turns again to grief
     As the only source of privacy,
     Alone with someone loved.
     It could go on this way for years and years
     And has for centuries,
     For being human holds the special grief
     Of privacy within the universe
     That yearns and waits to be retouched
     By someone who can take away
     The memory of death.

                                (Herbert Mason, translator)

Nothing is made up in this poem—just plain-spoken advice and commentary on that nature of grief, and yet it is undeniably a poem by virtue of its "memorable speech" its maximum efficiency of language, and its "best words in the best order." I'm reminded of a few lines from Philip Levine's poem "The Simple Truth" when reading this ancient poem:

                                                                     Some things
     you know all your life. They are so simple and true
     they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
     they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
     the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
     in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
     naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

Levine captures beautifully "the poetry" of Gilgamesh's anonymous author. Speaking as one voice in a choral setting, the above lines emanate a deep knowledge of grief that seems eternal for the simplicity and truth they express. One feels after reading this passage that she could have in fact written them herself, for truth instills such a generous deception within its listeners and readers. This pericope from the oldest extant text of Sumerian literature captures the literal truth about the very abstract feelings of grief, as well as the indeterminate span of its affliction. There is truth here that resonates with a human freshness that transcends time and history. It is lyrical yet also simply factual and concrete in its description of emotional inertia, capturing in precise words the otherwise nebulous phenomenon of grief. It serves as a vital, defining witness to one of the most profound features of our human nature. As Harold Bloom has written about Shakespeare's language, it reads us, as if a classic collective of human authors coalesced into a single genius to depict our deepest and most complex emotion.

So how to conclude about truth? No feasible way without a context or admission that as a human being one can only approximate it. That Pilate was right in his jest. But perhaps it's safe in the wake of these admissions to say that truth is both constant and fluid, both concrete and abstract, moving like mercury, disappearing like smoke, singing most beautifully and harshly, defying craft for craft's sake while sleeping comfortably at the same time in its double bed. It is a creature for all intents and purposes—both human and animal— in whose pocket sits an ancient, double-sided coin with a fictional image on one side and a factual relief on the other: Orpheus and Catullus, Eve and Joan of Arc, Hamlet and Caesar. This creature who borrows our names if we speak the truth appears in disguise in our dreams, disappears in the Klieg lights, and lives in the rich poverty of knowing her double-sided coin is rarely recognized at first for its actual value. Witness the literal debt poets and prophets have incurred before their coins have rolled back to them with infinite worth. Witness the contumely and neglect they have suffered for their timeless verses before they turned to gold.

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