The Pitches Between the Keys
Originally appeared in Parnassus, Vol. 20 No. 1 & 2, 1995
On the wall of my study in a plain black frame is the alphabet; arranged in rows, once in upper case and once in lower, it reminds me of the beauty and simplicity, the range and the limits, of the tools with which I work. Each letter has a separate voice when I listen, the upper and lower cases entirely different; each look reminds me of the fragility of letters, which I have come to know only in adulthood, the heartbreaking vastness of what they cannot do--and of their tremendous power, which I have not forgotten since earliest childhood, listening to adults make their mysterious communications, then at last seeing and hearing at once the black letters crossing the white page.
One feature of the landscape of language I learned early on was the division of written things into categories: fiction and non-fiction, essays and stories, novels and histories, poetry and prose. Essays and histories were non-fiction and were true and stories and novels were fiction and were not; essays were dry, stories interesting, poems short and stories long and novels longer still. Poetry moved with rhythm and texture and beauty and sang as close to the sacred as anyone in school dared come; prose was commonplace, useful, and extracted on command. (Unless each of five hundred 'I will obey directions' might be considered a line, in which case poetry was extracted too.) What I tended to read bent the rules: historical novels like Oliver Wiswell, The Childhood of Famous Americans series (did Harriet Tubman really say that when she was ten, or no?), poems like "The Highwayman," suspensefully plotted and longer than some children's stories. None of it seemed to me 'untrue'; the Jewish girl scrabbling for the oranges her brother scattered in The Bronze Bow, in his rage at her for befriending a Roman soldier, became a part of me just as Harriet Tubman did and Oliver Wiswell and Bess the landlord's black-eyed daughter. Growing up, I did not want to be a poet or a novelist or an essayist or historian; I wanted to be a writer, watching and listening to those twenty-six letters and building whatever they told me to. Like the exaggerated distinctions and enforced separations between boys and girls, pink people and brown, humans and nature, bodies and souls, the genre categories seemed to be the division of something that had once been happier whole.
Dividing poets from prose writers--at readings, in bookstores, in college writing programs--still seems to me to belong to the school of knowledge that dissects frogs to know them and pins collections of butterflies to walls. The division seems much more useful in the classroom and the marketplace than on the subway seat or riverbank where someone reads a book, or at the desk or kitchen table where someone writes one. So much of what I know of poetry and of prose--poetry as document, as testimony, as account, as many-voiced, as a hundred pages long; prose as rhythmic and textured and incantatory, as sacred--does not correspond to the definitions set for them. The dictionary says that a 'story' may be 'either true or fictitious,' 'an account of what has or might have happened,' so maybe it is 'stories' we all are reading and writing; and 'history' is 'the branch of knowledge that deals systematically with the past,' 'something important enough to be recorded,' so 'history' might describe every book in the library as well. 'Prosaic' is not a compliment, and yet it describes the flavor of some of the poetry I keep closest: of the long unrhymed lines of Walt Whitman, if the word is to lose its insult and mean clear passionate statement, or music out of known meters:
These are the thoughts of all men in all
ages and lands, they are not original
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddles they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
'Prosaic' might describe the pleasure of translated poems, like lovemaking overheard from behind a closed door, where the listener hears the sound evoked by each caress but does not feel it on her skin. 'Prosaic' points to the power and beauty of what happens, of fact, of life itself, always beyond the reach of our words for it; in Brecht's "Questions from a Worker Who Reads," the words in English kept from their original German rhythms strip away obfuscation and reveal the angry dignity of the truth beneath:
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked a feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
These lines work with powers that could as easily be an essay's: the lilt of the determined questions, the evenness of what is said, plainly, as if in a textbook, the restrained defiance simmering at a steady heat. The rhythmic dialogue between statement and questioning challenge would be at home under the roof of any genre distinction.
Where would we require the maker of the Book of Job to live? Is God addressed in poetry, or prose?
Is there not an appointed time to man upon
earth? are not his days also like the
days of an hireling?
As a servant earnestly desireth the shadow, and as an hireling looketh for the reward of his work:
So I am made to possess months of vanity, and wearisome nights are appointed to me.
These are less lines than mournful, rolling sentences; again the aggrieved questions pour out, but here in a deeper register, as if in the voice of thunder or waves. The words are given in long chains, each a link, a clue to the riddle of faith the writer despairs of solving. The sounds are not those the poet chose; so we lean on the borrowed rhythms, toward the agonized sense of what is said. The breaking point of each line, poetry's crucial marking of measures, is not crucial here.
Nor is it in Zbigniew Herbert's "Elegy of Fortinbras":
It is not for us to greet each other or bid
farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince
The ancient tool of repetition is another that does not live comfortably within genre confinements. Herbert takes the traditional garments of sentences away--punctuation, initial capitals--and still the words of his poem move like those of a letter, but more quickly, with more urgent intimacy, with the sentences' methods of composure gone. If 'poetic' has been a praiseword, it has also carried the danger of false elevation, of a protected, isolated preserve; Herbert's poem, kept from its Polish, subverts this, hurtling through its grief, placing that "bid farewell" beside the plain, helpless "what can they do what can they do."
In this poem by Yannis Ritsos, it is not a rolling unrhymed rhythm that evoke the strength of the best prose, but stillness:
In the end, afraid of the poems and the
he went out at midnight to the suburb--a simple, quiet
walk along closed fruit stores, among
good things with their true, vague dimensions.
Having caught a cold from the moon, he wiped his nose
now and then with a paper napkin. He lingered
there before the pungent odor of fresh brick,
before the invisible horse tied to a cypress tree,
before the granary's padlock. Ah, like this--he said--
among things that demand nothing of you--
and a small balcony shifting in the air
with a solitary chair. On the chair
the dead woman's guitar has been left upside down;
on the guitar's back moisture sparkles secretly--
it is sparks such as these that prevent the world from dying.
"Simple," "quiet," we hear in the translation, "true," "vague," "small," not the words the poet chose, flatter than those, ducking their heads; the poem's power is in its carefully told story, and in its voice of reverence, of calm. If it were written as a paragraph, the joy of it would diminish by only a fraction. If it were to steal over and sit beside a Borges story, a very interesting argument might ensue, but each would feel at home.
What is called prose spills from its assigned shelf as well; if poetry lives in images, in rhythmic, textured language, in words' focused power, it lives here:
Hunger looks like the man that hunger is killing. The man looks like the tree the man is killing. The trees have arms, the people, branches. Wizened bodies, gnarled: trees made of bones, the people of knots and roots that writhe under the sun. The trees and the people, ageless. All born thousands of years ago--who knows how many?--and still they are standing, inexplicably standing, beneath a heaven that forsakes them.
(from Eduardo Galeano's introduction to An Uncertain Grace, a collection of the photographs of Sebastiao Salgado)
People are hungry just as I am hungry. People are ready to flower and they cannot. In the evenings we go there with a sack of old fruit we can get at the stand across the way quite cheap, bunches of grapes and old pears. At noon there is a hush in the air and at evening there are stirrings of wind coming from the sky, blowing in the fallen leaves, or perhaps there is a light rain, falling quickly on the walk. Early in the mornings the sun comes up hot in the sky and shines all day through the mist. It is strange, I notice all these things, the sun, the rain falling, the blowing of the wind.
(from Meridel LeSueur, "Annunciation")
The first excerpt is from an essay, the second from a story, each describing a different kind of hunger: one in this country, near the century's beginning, and one in the Sahel, near the century's end. Galeano does his work in bursts of etched images, punctuated so that, as in a poem, where we want to push on, we must stop. LeSueur works also with images, but gives them in currents of words, the pitch and the pace rising and falling, pausing in the narrative for "a hush in the air," "the sun, the rain falling, the blowing of the wind," for the narrator's nearness and mystery to be revealed.
Poetry's mystery can be found in many unlikely places: in manuals of car repair and seamanship and tree identification, in a painter's shopping list of colors, in these Swahili language exercises, condensed, resonant:
Our chief does not like Europeans. Europeans do not like our medicine man. Idle workmen do not like an overseer. The river does not pass those baobab trees. You do not like me. I do not hate you. The canoes are not sinking. You are not taking care.
That mystery can appear in the form of a political speech, as in this one from Young Chief of the Cayuses at a council in Washington state, 1855:
I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground would come alive and what is on it? Though I hear what the ground says. The ground says, It is the Great Spirit who placed me here...The Great Spirit, in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm...
(from Touch the Earth, T.C. McLuhan)
Both these passages were made for efficacy's sake, not for beauty's, and stand on the foundation of reason more than on that of what might be called inspiration; but the words will not stay so easily in their assigned places. There is incantatory magic in both. In the first, the poetry resounds in the carefully shaped silences beneath the words, the power of what is not directly said; in the second, it grows in the break with what is called reason, in the intimate address, in the refusal to separate political fact from sacred reverence for everything that lives.
What is called poetry can enter what is called prose when the beam of attention is so focused some ecstatic dance begins within it, when the sounds of the words ring against each other; it comes sometimes when a sentence is broken into many rhythmic divisions, and sometimes when all divisions are taken away:
and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alamada gardens yes and all the queer little streaks and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes
(from James Joyce, Ulysses)
Is it poetry in the risk of that "awful deepdown," in "the Andalusian girls," in "O," in "yes," in "and"? That hybrid lawless voice I love stumbles over itself in its eagerness here, and I would let it speak from whatever corner of the library it might choose.
The questions in their infinite possibility always resist the limited answers, just as "this wild swan of a world" (Robinson Jeffers) resists any words we can find to tell about it, just as the words themselves resist being marshaled under banners and told to march in step. That categorizing impulse is not a writer's; we look for what Virginia Woolf calls "a little language such as lovers use":
What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know. I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and find their mother sewing and pick up some scrap of bright wool, a feather, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry. When the storm crosses the marsh and sweeps over me where I lie in the ditch unregarded I need no words. Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chime from nerve to nerve in our breasts making wild music, false phrases. I have done with phrases.
(from The Waves)
Of course we cannot be done with phrases, with wild music, with the restraining ecstasy of words; but maybe we can be done with false categories that do not do justice to wild music's complexity. For four years I wrestled with the angel of what is called poetry to make The New World, and am now halfway through the long sweating night with The Seventh Generation, a book of what is called prose; for me it is the same grappling labor, the same joy and exhaustion, the same struggle toward daybreak and blessing. Maybe the true genre distinctions are between long forms and short, between the marathoners who make long poems and novels and the sprinters who make short poems and short stories and novellas. Maybe MFA degrees should be granted not in 'poetry' or 'fiction' but in 'long' or 'short.' Maybe what we call poetry and fiction might be categorized as 'song,' and what we call essays and histories 'speech.' Maybe the categories we know are like the black and white notes of the European piano, with the bent blued music of hundreds of other ways of seeing the world alive in the pitches between the keys.