Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Poem is wave.

At poem's base is the depth of our unknowing. At its crest our knowing. In the movement between—poem's urgent momentum.

Because poem's very form acknowledges both what can be said or known and never said or known, poetry may be as close as we come through language to the sacred.
—Betsy Warland, "Nose to Nose" in Only This Blue

I can get behind this formulation, and in fact I've said similar things. What stops me short is the word "sacred." What does sacred mean in this context?


Blogger hugh said...


5:08 PM  
Anonymous stop14 said...

someone give hugh a prize. preferably something profane.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Ha ha. Seriously though, to be fair, the essay this is drawn from comes at the end of a long poem dealing with life and death, so I think in that context the word might take on more resonance. On the other hand, it makes me concerned about the tendency to attribute a kind of sanctity to art, which I think is quite limiting. I'm not sure this quote is participating in this tendency, but I worry it is.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Hamon said...

It could simple mean this: "Worthy of respect or dedication; 'saw motherhood as woman's sacred calling'" (Websters). It does imply a veneration, but to what degree?

8:37 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Her use of the definite article makes me think otherwise.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Oops. Didn't mean to make that sound so snippy.

8:14 PM  
Blogger BookThug said...

I wonder at the distinct separation made in Warland's formulation between poetry, langauge, and sacred. Only language, (and particularly western langauge) can make such distinctions. She's not saying that poetry is lauange and that language or poetry is sacred. But aren't they? All one thing, I mean.

Why are you worried about artistic santity? Doesn't a strict secular diet limit as much as too much sacred relish on your hot god? The difference is head-based thinking and heart-based thinking. And isn't 'poetry' in Warland's context still secular anyway? She says we can get close, but never to, the sacred. Art is saved from sanctity by it's own human-ness. And sacred is out there, perhaps glimpsed at through poetry but not in the poems themselves.

I do find it odd that she's set up 'poem's form' as something that 'acknowledges both what can be said or known and never said or known'. How can the poem's form say something that will never be said? Doesn't it say what it says? Istn's what she says like saying 'nothing comes of nothing?' Or is it something comes of something? or nothing becomes something. Or something. Or nothing at all. That seems to be the flabbiness of the thing, but I guess I should reread what leads up to this platitude...

9:40 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I get what you mean, but what I'm concerned about is the purity, the preciousness, and the inviolability implied by sanctity, at least insofar as it's applied to art. I'm not arguing for the exclusion of the sacred. I think that sanctity, by definition if I'm not mistaken (which I might well be), excludes the profane, and that's what troubles me. It seems to me as if the vision of art as sacred shares elements with the high vs. low binary but shifts the stakes to a moral plane. (I want to point out here that I don't mean to imply that Warland subscribes to all of this. It's just that the attribution of sanctity to art raises a flag in me for the reasons I outline here.)

I worry about appearing dismissive of religious belief, and I hope I'm not being. It seems to me though that this mapping of religious codes onto art might disfigure the latter. I think any kind of roping off of art is bound to weaken it.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think that sanctity, by definition if I'm not mistaken (which I might well be), excludes the profane"

I'm actually going to answer this from a religious/theological perspective, because I think that might be helpful; and from that perspective, the answer is no, not necessarily.

I think that "sacred" _as used metaphorically_ -- used in non-religious contexts or by people without religious faith as such -- does always stand in opposition to and exclude the profane. And there are some religious traditions in which it's the same. But there are other religious traditions in which the sacred/profane distinction is misleading or meaningless. A piece of pizza (to choose a random and deliberately trivial example) can participate in sacredness without losing its place in the profane order. In fact I'm uncomfortable with the word "sacred" precisely because of the way it's used to rope things off, and that runs counter to my particular religious practice.

Then there's the whole issue of the unsayable/unspeakable, which obviously brings up for me my connection with apophatic (= "away from speech") theology, but I'm not convinced that poetry has any more access to the unsayable than anything else, in fact probably less, given that it's all about saying. Now, there's some interest and power, if you happen to be a word-oriented person, in trying to grapple with words and the unsayable. But if your concern is actual access to the "sacred", for want of a better word -- if you actually want to hang out in the Cloud of Unknowing -- there are better ways to do it.

Oh well, this probably makes no sense, I am just rambling on in my weird idiolect again.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

um, that was me directly above. you probably spotted that.

-- maggie

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno, not to squash anyone's sincerity here, but Warland's line seems like a load of old bollix to me. I really don't see why some poets seem to need to bring "god" into it. seems like an evasion of responsibility to me. I know what she's trying to say, I think, although several of you have already said it better, but it would be more interesting to me if there were an original idea or image in it. SOunds like something out of an Alan Watts seminar.


3:44 AM  
Anonymous Connolly said...

.... and I don't mean you, Maggie, when I mention the god thing, and I'm not even really talking about god in the poetry (R.S. Thomas writes great poems I think, most of them about god in some way or another, and then there's Hopkins and Milton and all the rest). I just mean why bring it into the idea of art, of poetry, like we couldn't be responsible in and of ourselves for what we write, however surprising it often is.

I say don't blame the ether when you can't write a good poem, and don't pretend it's something divine when you do. It's no more divine than a fish or a flower.


3:59 AM  

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