(For Amy Fletcher)
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun. . . .
—W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone”
All writing should aspire to the condition of poetry.
The condition of poetry: I’m not talking about poetry’s reputation for being difficult or roundabout or cagey, or about poetry’s affinity for metaphor and wordplay, for riddles and puzzles and puns. And, sadly, I’m not talking about poetic rhythm and the music of words.
Poetry and prose have each their own distinctive gifts that writers ignore at the reader’s peril. But in the epigraph above, Auden identifies a fundamental poetic pursuit that all earnest writers share: the desire above all to be accurate, to say the thing that’s true. In all our writing, poetry or prose, we strive to call the sun by its right name.
Auden knew that poetry sometimes seems less than accurate, that poets often call the sun anything but. A quick turn through Dante’s poetry (as if any turn through Dante could be quick) shows the sun called by many names other than simply “the sun.” Either Dante calls it by one of its classical mythological names—Apollo or Phoebus or Helios—or he refers to it periphrastically as “the greatest minister of nature” or “the lamp of the world” or “the chariot of the light,” etc.
And when Dante does call something “the sun,” he’s often talking not about the sun, but about something else—either his beloved Beatrice or God. This is another earnest habit of poets: to name something with metaphors.
Or with puns: in Hamlet, when Claudius asks the young prince why his mood seems so dark, Hamlet retorts with a pun on his filial sentiments: “Not so, my Lord, I am too much in the sun.”
How are such poetic devices accurate ways to name the sun? I think that it all depends on the degree of accuracy we’re looking for. Just as the “right” name of the sun depends on what language you’re speaking, it also depends on the genre of your writing, the idiom, and the purpose.
Poetic idioms change from age to age, from culture to culture, and poetry can take many forms, from an analytical overview of the human condition (Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”) to a medieval dirty joke ostensibly about a rooster (the anonymous “I have a gentle cock”). But the one constant we see in poetry is the poet’s search for a different kind of accuracy, a kind of hyper-accuracy.
The notorious difficulty of poems arises from poetry’s attempt to achieve this hyper-accuracy, to create a name that is less static and more fluid, more vital. In the last poem published during his lifetime, “Epilogue,” American poet Robert Lowell writes:
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
Sounds good, but what, exactly, is a “living name,” and how does it differ from, say, Barney or Sylvia or Sam? And why does Lowell make it sound so imperative?
Maybe a “living” name is one that is itself alive and changing: changing with the changing nature of a thing that changes even as we try to name it: a name that shifts beneath us and around us like the earth and sky. We have a name for that kind of name. We call it poetry.
The language poets use, with all its literary devices and tropes, chases an accuracy that acknowledges that things are never as static as the names we give them. Poets try to name things in ways that reshape and sometimes disturb how we apprehend our lives.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger defines two ways of looking at something, a hammer, for instance: we can look at it and describe it (and name it) by some analytical process. This thing has a head and a claw and a handle and a grip; let’s call it a hammer.
Or we can pick it up and use it. And as we use it skillfully, Heidegger says, an interesting thing happens: the thing itself disappears into the task at hand. We no longer focus on the hammer but on the hammering, on the nails-being-hammered-in. This “disappearing into the process” sounds to me like the accuracy poetry tries to discover.
Elsewhere in the poem “Epilogue,” Lowell implores himself:
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
Lowell doesn’t call the sun the sun; he names it in action: an “illumination stealing like the tide across a map to his girl solid with yearning.” Now that’s accuracy—a name for the sun that we can see and hear and feel commingling with our eyes and the image of the girl. This kind of accuracy names the sun by the role that sunlight plays in creating the beautiful, in creating beauty. That sounds to me awfully close to a definition of God. Maybe Dante’s metaphor hits the nail on the head.
So, about that analytical report you’re writing at work right now: it’s probably not the place to go all existential and poetic on your reader. Readers have other expectations from environmental analyses and the like. But you share with poets the struggle to craft a piece of writing that is true, that elucidates the subject as accurately as possible, with no word or phrase that doesn’t help get you where you want to go.
Poetry in good working condition uses all its linguistic resources as intelligently as possible to express the many things we turn to poetry for: to evoke a sensation or tell a story or say a prayer; to recount a common experience that’s hard to apprehend or to recall a moment too ephemeral to be lost—all those things immune to our more prosaic consultations.
And when our prose is in good working condition, it too uses all the appropriate linguistic resources to communicate in clear, concise language the things we turn to expository prose for—an understanding of logical relations, causality, consequence. To say a thing clearly, succinctly, and accurately: for most of our writing, that’s poetry enough.