"[P]oetry… through its combination of images and tones, may… galvanize a renewed sense of the world. By means of assorted conventions or techniques, older habits are challenged and thinking may be reborn. One may thus regard poetry as a superordinate expression of the aesthetic imaginary. It is not only grounded in the natural world, with its sights and sounds; but through their transformation into verbal figures, readers may see and hear things differently.
This being so, how may we understand the work of poetry as a creative form?
Poetry interrupts the daily flow of language, with its various utilitarian objectives and habitual significations, and gives each word an uncommon effect or import. The common world of sight and sound is suspended in poetry, and something artful is fashioned from the phenomena in figures and sonorities. Hence the poet does not so much imitate the world as remake it with words. To be sure, the ordinary life-world that one inhabits on a daily basis is recognized in the words and images of poetry; for otherwise the content of the poem would seem alien and not make much sense. But the poet only makes this common world just recognizable enough, and does not try to describe it in a merely factual way; and that is because the deeper intent of the poet is to interrupt the regular patterns of speech and evoke (through the seemingly known) something of the greater vastness of sound, sight, and sense. Consider the following lines from Wallace Stevens’s poem, ‘Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination,’ which depict a sudden manifestation of light on an evening drive home. The poet registers this occurrence as a vision of
An argentine abstraction approaching form
And suddenly denying itself away.
There was an insolid billowing of the solid.
Night’s moonlight lake was neither water nor air.
The poet’s words burst forth in image and sound, transfixing our inner eye and ear. Neither at the onset of this poem nor at any line or word are we set among the chatter of the everyday world; nor does the poet allude to any earlier conversation or speech. The space before the poem is not a pause in some prior discourse, but an eruption from silence itself. It is a new beginning—one that speaks forth and takes shape in our deepest self.
Thus the poet speaks, and something new comes into presence; and this happens again and again, with each recitation of the poem. But this novum does not happen all at once. Much living and feeling condition the work of poetry, which arises out of silence and hovers songfully over the void. And we readers must similarly try to make this particular creation our own, through the resources of our own living and feeling. We too must pause in silence before its vocables, and must work patiently to let the poem make sense. The opening words of the poem are neither orienting nor disorienting in their initial effect. At the onset, the reader does not yet know where the words are headed, and ponders haltingly at many points. The initial experience of reading poetry is thus one of being called into attentiveness. We are first infused by the silent aura of the poem as an unvoiced figuration before us; and then sound happens as we enunciate the chain of words with our breath (in fact or imagination), and meaning begins to unfold. With deliberate regard, we try to follow the poet’s voice as a world is made manifest through an emergent concatenation of sounds and images.
The experience of poetry is thus accompanied by a special sense of time, different from the one we know in our everyday lives. This is because the poet does not normally use regular syntax, such as would approximate the movements or sequences between things we know in the ‘real world.’ In poetic diction (called poetic license) the parts of speech may occur in irregular patterns, and words are suffused with tones that leave them somehow suspended in sense. Moreover, the felt absence of sound, first sensed retrospectively with the onset of the poem’s enunciation, recurs in the gaps that surround each and every word. One hears familiar sounds and terms, and tries to create their meaning through the particular combination of words. This means that the poet (and the reader, in turn) is constantly recreating the renewal of the word. Thus a poem is more than a world unto itself; in fact, in the poem, each word becomes an event in its own right. We are therefore quite far from our common world of speech and communication. The true poet is always at the precipice of verbal possibility, and both from the beginning of any poem, and repeatedly with each of its words, speaks from this borderland. It is this great gift that we are given through poetry—beyond every specific meaning that may be derived; for with poetry we are given a poetic sensibility, so distinct from our routine daily attitudes, but also so fundamental to our self-cultivation as humane beings.
All this is the call of the poem as a deliberate event of words. Through it a zone is opened in the vastness and a verbal creation rivets us to reality. If our everyday language simply uses words as tools, and depends on their capacity to make sense of things in the world, the language of poetry reveals it as a sphere of verbal happenings, where events occur in and through language. What is more: with poetry we are also brought into the realm of the becoming of words—into the vastness of tonal possibilities from which language emerges again and again. Thus poetry takes us into a dimension where we can somehow experience the ‘eventness’ of verbalization; or it even makes us feel, as so powerfully in the poems of Celan, their words’ pre-syntactic and pre-logical core. Indeed, in his works, the caesural is revealed as the disconnected void of existence.
And when we are also affected by the images of poetry and their content, cognitive musings are replaced by teachings of value. Think of Rilke’s object-poem about a great, caged tiger, seemingly oblivious to all human stares, absorbing them into its thick pelt and giving the viewer a disarming sense of silent sullenness. When unexpectedly:
as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
The poet has suddenly grabbed our hearts, after lulling us into the languor of casual perceptions. All at once the most elemental depths are revealed through an image of primal power and the terrifying reflection of one’s unhinged finitude. As readers, we too are caught in the eye of the image. And we are also seen and shattered and addressed at our deepest core—like Rilke, once again, who, when looking at a sculpture of Apollo, feels the stone ‘glisten like a wild beast’s fur,’ and fix him within ‘the borders of itself,’ addressing his soul with an imperative, which he recites to us in his poem: ‘You must change your life.’”
— Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology