I haven’t put anything up in months, & I felt this essay I wrote a while ago discussing a lovely piece of prose called St. Cyril’s Dragon: The Threat of Poetry by Dave Smith was a fitting post to resume with..
The Importance of Thorns
Threat, as defined by Smith, is “various as a heartbeat, [and] is the weight, complexity, difficulty, problem, resistance every poem draws energy from as it seeks resolution.” A good poem takes us out of our comfort zone, it disturbs us, and through threat is “manifests what is important to know. Threat engineers the struggle of self to come into being.” It is confounding to me how much of poetry, poetry without threat, has come into this idealized, soft form of art. We would never want to read a book or watch a film in which everything is serene and peaceful all the time.
Sure, one can come to brilliant understandings and reflections in loveliness, but I think it is truer to say that we are shaken in a beautiful way by discord, by threat. A poem needs a threat, a driving force, just like any other form of art does and just as our own lives necessitate threat. I believe that if one were to live out the entirety of his or her life without such threat, without the moment “when painful choice arrives,” that person has sorely missed out on the beauty of the bad and has been utterly shortchanged in his or her life experiences.
An easy, threat-less life, like a simple, threat-less poem, is one in which nothing is overcome, shaken, disturbed, and developed. It is lacking. Smith says, “no threat, no poem,” and perhaps I’m just a bit twisted, but I think threat is essentially always a good thing. To me, threat is synonymous with motivation – isn’t it the threat of failure that drives us to work hard, the “formative pressure” that inevitably shapes our lives?
As I mentioned in my response last week, there is nothing wrong with a lovely poem; poetry has a tendency to strive toward such loveliness and encapsulations of the beauty of the world, but I find that there is more to be gleamed from ugliness. And when the two coincide, when poems like those of Neruda, Trakl, and at times even Dubie, Wright, and Smith, jar us with their exquisite descriptions of such ugliness in the world, that’s when I believe that true loveliness is achieved.
The power of a poem, of course, comes from something more than merely strong descriptive words on either end of the spectrum – while something in me would be more inclined to read a horrifically disgusting poem rife with words like “entrails,” or “fetus,” or “maggots,” without threat, a poem comprised of such cringe-worthy yet purposeless words is every bit as shallow as a poem depicting a viridian meadow bursting with wildflowers on a brilliantly sunny day. It is the consolidation of these two realms which makes a poem, as Smith says, one “that scares those who pay attention. It delivers truth we find hard to live with.” Poems in which the threat is has a force proportional to its release deliver us to a credible statement made or implied, and takes us on a journey through which we are able to comprehend, to quote Smith quoting Frost, something “we know but didn’t know we knew.”
For Smith, if the poem’s purpose is to “make meaning of action and to lodge it in memorable words,” akin to “images hung on a wall,” such images are “those which tell us what is most durable, which we admire and call Beauty because they summon from in us the will to do and to be good, and in Beauty, we see the sorrowful diminishing of what had seemed to us permanent.” This is the most perfect definition of beauty I have ever heard. Beauty is not simply what is pretty, what we find to be lovely, as seems to be the case in so many poems without threat, but rather a force that moves us, and has the power to make us realize the ephemeral nature of all that constitutes our lives.
In keeping with this definition of beauty, the ‘darker’ or surrealist poems of Neruda, Trakl, or Wright surely are far more beautiful than any gorgeous yet idealized depiction of something traditionally perceived to be lovely. To quote Smith, “To Miss O’Connor, life’s sweetness was dependent on what threatened it and upon the size of the threat. Without threat, the road of life is only a pastoral walk in the daisies. That is why poetry that fails to reveal and risk the life of the real self is no good to us.”
As Smith says, “Weak poems, pruned of thorns, barbs, and threats, console and soothe us; we all want the beatific promise. If it were not so, ever-positive Walt Whitman would have little appeal for us beyond verbal postcards from the travelogue of his imagination.” This may be true for many, and would explain the wealth of so-called “weak poems” in existence today, but I believe this statement to be true only in reference to the same sort of people who remain willfully ignorant in all aspects of life. Perhaps the sort who do not watch the news, because its all rape and war and death not at all directly relevant to them, or the kind who brush off the importance of things like having political knowledge of one’s own country, or the food they eat, because to keep blindly accepting and devouring whatever comes their way is far simpler.
These are the sort of people to whom Smith refers when he says, “Knowledge, to us, is always partial, inadequate, dangerous.” I prefer to believe that there must certainly also be many whose intrinsic curiosity hurls us away from stagnation, people who want to be pricked by a poem, to be unsettled and jolted awake. Good poetry uses the imagination to “dive down into the dark heart of experience and return with knowledge necessary to selfhood,” as opposed to “Fancy,” which Smith quotes Coleridge in saying is merely “an act an act of the mind that seeks escape from reality, creates false images, panders to us.” The power of well-executed imagination in poetry leads us to confront and comprehend threat.
Such threat bursts from every line of Smith’s “In the House of the Judge.” The threat of death, of our own mortality permeates the poem like ash, suffocating us. The poem is so densely packed with detail that it reads almost like a fully executed short story, and is obsessed with this image of ash, of the dead floating all around us. In this poem, we are brought into the very conflicted, fear-gripped mind of the narrator, who seems to be trying to convince himself that there is nothing wrong with the house and situation he is in – “night after night I stand now trying / to believe it is only dust, no more than vent-spew.” The narrator goes on to describe how he sees and feels this “flesh-gray sift” everywhere, on framed photographs, on bookshelves, in the house, and it becomes clear that these are the remains of those the judge has sentenced to death. The threat here is practically tangible, the particle remains of the deceased truly engineer the struggle of the poem’s narrator, and is the driving force of the poem’s conflict.
The narrator is indeed “shaped by the mica-fine motes that once were body in earth.” He is so plagued by the death, the audible weight, suffocating this house that his actions become rash and nonsensical. Here Smith manages to use imagination “dive down into the dark heart of experience” by detailing the manner in which the shapeless, formless dust, the only remnant of those no longer with form, becomes that which now comprises the entirety of the obsessed narrator who is still with form. This captures the truth that in our lives, such little nothings, such things that do not exist in physical form, tend to wreak havoc on our real, physical world.