Poetry by concession

. . . at the base of [the approach of training poets to consider their poems from a reader’s standpoint] is the notion that the writer’s problems are literary.  In truth, the writer’s problems are usually psychological, like everyone else’s.

— From the introduction to The Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo

. . . to write differently you have to change your life.

— Robert Bly

A good poet may or may not write poetry, but a consistent poet would never write poetry.  So writes Nobel Prize-winning poet Juan Ramón Jiménez in his 1941 essay “Poetry and Literature”:

In reality the poet, when mute or when writing, is an abstract dancer, and if he writes, it is out of an everyday weakness, for to be truly consistent he ought not to write.  He who ought to write is the literary man.

Unlike poetry, literature is an imitative art tied chiefly to the sense of sight and linked in Jiménez’s mind to painting and sculpture.  As an imitative art, literature is full of contrivances and may attain a kind of perfection; indeed, it becomes more perfect the more artificial and contrived it is.  Poetry, though, is a creative art grounded in simplicity and tied to a poet’s intuition and not to the outward senses. (Because creation is God’s play, a poet is either a god or a god’s medium, Jiménez says; you may decide which.)  Poetry can never be perfect because in its perfection it would go beyond itself, beyond words and into the invisible world that poetry points to.  Presumably, the reader would go there, too, and maybe not return.

A poet traffics in the invisible world of intuition and spirit, which Jiménez defines as “immanent ineffability.” Jiménez has a religious sense of this invisible world, and he falls in with the Book of Hebrews’s formulation that “things which are seen were not made of things which do appear”:

Thus god can be a poet or a poet can be god.  And this is not saying that the universe of the poet is less than that of the god, if we assume that God created the visible and reserves the invisible for himself or as a reward for us and that the poet dispenses with the visible and tarries in the invisible giving what he finds to whomever [sic] may desire it.

[Jimenez book cover]I don’t know if Jiménez would find much difference between a mystic and a poet. Poets improve, Jiménez believes, not through writing poetry, necessarily, but through “restlessness and enthusiasm,” qualities that sometimes lead people to a life of mysticism.  Mystics often make fine poets, of course, and many people consider Hafiz, John of the Cross, or Blake, for example, as being both a mystic and a poet.

But where does poetry fit into a poet’s poet-ness?  Jiménez believes that one is a poet not because one writes poetry, but because one is “an abstract dancer,” someone whose “eyes are not turned outward but within oneself.”  It is not clear from Jiménez’s essay whether a poet writes as part of participating in one’s “dynamic ecstasy” or as a deliberate means of offering the fruit of that ecstasy to others.  But a poet’s poetry is not necessary to his poet-ness; that much is clear.

A poem, then, is a concession to the flesh, an expression of the invisible world both as wonderful and as presumptively egotistical as a saint’s ecstatic levitation.  For his part, a poet who writes poetry risks becoming a kind of Balaam, a gifted mystic whose spirituality can tempt him to play “the literary men’s games, achieving more miracles than they!”

Keeping the calling ahead of the poetry helps the poetry, paradoxically.  Because a poem is secondary to a poet’s calling and experience, a poet learns how to let poems go, which seems to mean that she learns how to keep her hands off of her poem and to let it become a clean expression of the ineffable.  Jiménez likens a literary man’s failed literature to juggled plates that drop on others’ heads.  But a failed poem’s plates “are lost in the infinite because [a poet] is a good friend of space.”  The literary men can fancy that they can “catch poetry, possessing it body and soul, that they have found the heart, the core, and that they have ‘written’ it, ‘realized’ it.”  The poet knows better:

And fortunately poetry is never realized by everyone, it always escapes and the true poet, who is usually an honorable person because he has the habit of living with truth, knows how to let it escape since the state of poetic grace, the dynamic ecstasy, drunken rapture, the unutterable, palpitating miracle from which the essential accent arises, is indeed a form of flight, a passionate form of liberty.

I think Jiménez is saying at least that a poem has a life of its own, that it can take a poet places she never could have expected at the poem’s conception.  (This is not an uncommon idea, of course.)  Our poems are like our children: we are the delivery systems through which they come, but we can hardly lay claim to them.  In fact, poems can prove embarrassing as children, particularly if we insist on seeing them as extensions of ourselves.

A “state of poetic grace,” then, is the poet’s experience of her poet-hood that may neither involve writing a poem nor result in one.  I believe Jiménez would say that a state of grace, in general, is the discovery and experience of the invisible world in the visible one. Some people tend to find this unexpected grace in conversation, some in sex, some in prayer, and some in poetry.  The medium is not important; in fact, it is not even necessary to a mature bon vivant, lover, mystic, or poet.  I didn’t believe that when I was younger, but I think I believe it now.


Some persuasive essays, particularly ones written by certain poets, must be read in their natural habitats bespoken by their grace and heart, I think.  A handsome essay that flops around on logic’s afterdeck must soon be tossed back into the sea.  If we would then also dive after the essay, we’d see its graceful, internal logic the way one might feel, say, a poet’s experience and his reflection on that experience negotiating with each other in a poem’s structure.  In a persuasive essay, of course, such internal logic may indicate parody or (in Jiménez’s case) resemble madness: flights of insight and respect for the unconscious replace airtight argument, and yet the poet-as-essayist has marshaled arguments instead of poem-like impressions.  Nevertheless, he has created a world in his essay as he does when he writes a poem.

Jiménez’s notion that a poet with the highest respect for the invisible world she visits would never write a poem evolves from the essay’s internal logic.  Certainly Jiménez followed his own advice imperfectly, at best, considering how much poetry he wrote.  But his poems are often spare and generally benefit from a certain reluctance to do more than to point, almost mutely, at something ineffable or at least invisible. Jiménez’s paradox finds a certain home in me – maybe in my own sea of internal logic.  Even though I can never catch Jiménez’s paradox without watching it perish, I can develop a kind of catch-and-release discipline as a reader.

[Jiménez’s essay caught my eye because of the extent to which it decouples poets and poetry and because of the religious or mystical approach Jiménez takes in decoupling them.  As my longtime (and sometimes longsuffering) readers know, I’m interested in – even obsessed by – the relationship between poetry and silence as well as the relationship between poetry and poet.  I found Jiménez’s essay “Poetry and Literature” in The Selected Writings of Juan Ramón Jiménez, translated by H. R. Hays.]

Posted April 21, 2010.