Plato (428-348 B.C.)
by Raphael Sanzio
What Makes
a Poem Lasting?

Conversation with
Kay Ryan

Poetry Workshop
(English 192V)
Stanford University
Winter Quarter 2010

Peter Y. Chou

William Blake (1757-1827)
Portrait by Thomas Phillips

Preface: Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010) told her Stanford Poetry Workshop on January 26, 2010 that our homework assignment for next week is "Conversation with Kay: responding to something that came up in the class. Begin the essay with a quote." We discussed A.E. Housman's The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933), pp. 32-51 where he said that poetry is more physical than intellectual and that poetry is hard to define. There were many interesting topics discussed. What fascinated me most were "Is there an organ for poetry?" and "What makes a poem lasting?"— the topics chosen for this essay.

An Organ for Poetry?

“Do I possess the organ by which poetry is perceived?” A.E. Housman asks in his 1933 Cambridge Lecture "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (p. 33) and concludes that most people don't have the organ for poetry. Housman says (p. 40) "For me the most poetical of all poets is Blake... and I call him more poetical than Shakespeare." Since Housman has such high regard for William Blake, I browsed through my The Portable Blake (1968) and found this interesting passage (p. 518)—

“The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision as real and existing men, whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs; the Apostles the same; the clearer the organ the more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce... The painter of this work asserts that all his imaginations appear to him infinitely more perfect and more minutely organized than any thing seen by his mortal eye. Spirits are organized men.”
A Descriptive Catalogue, Number IV (1809)

From the above statement, we see that Blake regards Prophets, Apostles, and the visionary painter (himself) as having imaginative and immortal organs that are more perfect than mortal eyes. This harkens back to Plato's Republic, VII.527e: "there is in every soul an organ or instrument of knowledge that is purified and kindled afresh by philosophic studies when it has been destroyed and blinded by our ordinary pursuits, a faculty whose preservation outweighs ten thousand eyes, for by it alone is reality beheld." That Blake admires Plato may be seen in his "Eternity is in love with the production of time" (The Book of Urizen) which he borrowed from Plato's Timaeus, 37d: "Time is the moving image of Eternity." If poetry describes reality better than other forms of literature, Plato's organ in the soul that outweighs 10,000 eyes seems to be the perfect instrument for perceiving poetry. Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to this organ of perception as from God:

“Hard as it is to describe God, it is harder to describe the Individual. A certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being; and I see that it is not one & I another, but this is the life of my life. That is one fact, then; that in certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He.”
Emerson's Journal, May 26, 1837

Housman, Blake, Plato, and Emerson all mention this "organ of perception" that is superior to mortal eyes. This Divine Eye within us is also alluded by Christ (Luke XI.34): "The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light." This "singleness of eye" is none other than single mindedness, the attention which poets need to focus upon in their craft and readers when studying great poetry. Ezra Pound says "Poetry is heightened intensity, simplicity, and precision born of concentrated attention." William Carlos Williams says "Poetry is a lifetime of careful listening." William Stafford says "Poetry is invitation to attention, an alertness about life right at the time of living it, a dizzying struggle with the Now-ness of experience." Mary Oliver ends "Upstream" from Blue Iris (2004) with this insight: "Attention is the beginning of devotion." In Merging with Siva (2002), Subramuniyaswami outlines five steps to enlightenment: "Attention, concentration, meditation, contemplation, and Self-Realization." Being attentive to our daily task is the first step to enlightenment.

What Makes a Poem Lasting?

A second topic discussed in class was "What Makes a Poem Lasting?" Housman mentions the Christian poet John Keble [1792-1866] admired for his beautiful poetry (p. 34), but we don't read him anymore. Kay told us that Helen Hunt Jackson [1830-1885] was a popular writer in her day, but her works didn't last. Her contemporary Emily Dickinson and a classmate was virtually ignored during her lifetime, but now we consider Emily's poetry immortal. Kay said "If you write in the comfort zone of your time, then you'll be doomed in the future." Jeff then said "I'm chasing the secret so people will read my poems!" Kay told us her answer to an Entertainment Weekly interviewer: "I would like to have my poems burned into the code of the universe." Then we discussed what makes a poem lasting. Poems about gender inequality or those dependent on historical settings may be outdated with time. Although Allen Ginsberg's poems are popular in the 20th century, several students felt his poems will be dated by the drug culture. Kay doesn't believe that Howl will last because it is too loose. Kay says Robert Frost is deeply ingrained in our culture, and stands a better chance to be lasting.

I wondered about enduring literature back in 1964 at Cornell. During the 1964 Presidential Election between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, Time Magazine cited Barry Lyndon, a 1844 novel by William Thackeray (1811-1863). I was curious that Thackeray's book forecasted the names of U.S. Presidential candidates 120 years ago. I went to the Cornell Olin Library stacks and found copies of Barry Lyndon and was surprised at the rows of Thackeray's novels. I wondered to myself— "Obviously, here's a writer extremely popular in the 19th century, but we don't read him anymore." However, his contemporary Charles Dickens (1812-1879) is still popular today. What are the ingredients in literature that make a work a classic that will be read for hundreds and even thousands of years? Is there something in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe that makes their works everlasting? It can't be professors making college students read these classics, but that these authors evoked something that is eternal, transcending culture, space, and time.

Around 1967, I found an answer in Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1901). No wonder the works of Balzac, Blake, Buddha, Dante, Lao Tzu, Plato, Whitman, and Wordsworth are classic— these authors experienced enlightenment. Instead of espousing their egocentric views of likes and dislikes, they tapped into the human soul that's eternal. I learned from the Chinese sage Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529) who wrote:

“The mind is like a mirror. The sage's mind is like a clear mirror, whereas that of the ordinary person is like a dull mirror. The theory of the investigation of things in recent times says that it works like a mirror reflecting things and the effort is to be directed toward the passive role of reflecting. They don't realize that the mirror is still dull. How can it reflect? The investigation of things in our Teacher's theory is like polishing the mirror to make it clear. The effort is to be directed toward the active role of polishing. When the mirror is clear, it does not cease to reflect.”
Instructions for Practical Living or Ch'uan-hsi lu (1518), I.62

I realized that if one's mind is like a dull mirror that's dusty and foggy, any work produced will not be accurate and not long lasting. I began meditation to clear my mind so I could do better research in analyzing protein structures. In Kawazu Awase (1686), the haiku master Basho (1644-1694) wrote: "Go to the pine or bamboo if you want to learn about the pine or bamboo. Leave your ego behind, otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry comes naturally when you have become one with the object. When you plunge deep into the object, you'll see a hidden glimmering there." Rilke did this on Rodin's advice, went to the Paris Zoo and wrote his in-seeing "Panther" poem (see "First Poem in Paris") that has become a classic.

Dante completed La Vita Nuova (1294) when he was 29 years old. Yet he felt that his love sonnets still did not do justice to honor the beauty and blessedness of his dear Beatrice. So he vowed to write a poem to honor his beloved that has never been written of any woman. Dante fulfilled this promise 27 years later just before his death, when he finished La Commedia (1321)— the greatest love poem about the soul's ascent from Inferno to Purgatory to Paradise. What's insightful about this journey is that the poet Virgil took Dante only up to the heights of Mount Purgatory. From that point onward, only Beatrice could guide Dante to Paradise. Here Dante would learn about universal gravitation as he flies through the heavenly spheres, sharing with us his celestial vision, and concluding Paradiso with “by Love that moves the sun, the moon, and the other stars.” When I had Dante classes with Professor John Freccero, I told him that Dante's gravitation ideas preceded Newton's Principia by 366 years, Freccero told me to look up Mark A. Peterson's "Dante and the 3-Sphere" which I found in American Journal of Physics, Vol. 47, 1031-1035 (1979). After reading this paper in the Stanford Physics Library, I was awed that Dante's account of ever increasing momentum of the outer stars can only be explained by Einstein's relativity equations for the 3-Sphere. So Dante's Paradiso is not only poetically beautiful and breathtaking, but is also scientifically precise 650 years after he wrote it. Because Dante had experienced cosmic consciousness, he perceived the infinite and eternal, so his poem is a classic and everlasting.

Where do you feel poetry? Where is the organ?

Near the end of our class, Kay asked "Where do you feel poetry? Where is the organ?" Since we have five organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin) for the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), is there a sixth organ for the sixth sense (ESP or extra-sensory perception) to experience poetry? In the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas", the line "5 golden rings" is given special prominence when sung. It is the only line in the song devoid of birds or humans. As such it forms a link from earth (people on the ground) to heaven (birds of the air). The 5 rings also remind us of the 5 fingers on our hand and the 5 senses— our window to the world. However, if we forget Christ's parable of the "5 wise & the 5 foolish virgins" (Matthew 25:1-13), we may be too engrossed in the material world with our 5 outer senses, that when the Bridegroom cometh, we're unprepared without oil, our candle wicks unlit. Meditation prepares us for the angelic calling, when we tune into our 5 inner senses— "Eye of the eye, Ear of the ear, Voice of the voice, Mind of the mind, Life of the life" (Kena Upanishad). The Hindu philosophy teaches us that there are 5 body sheaths: Food, Air, Mental, Intellectual, Bliss, or classified as the Gross Body (Food, Air), Subtle Body (Emotional, Intellectual), and Causal Body (Bliss or Vasanas). When our attention is focused on the Subtle & Causal Bodies, then our mind and heart are ready like the 5 wise virgins— ready to be enlightened, to experience Cosmic Consciousness. Once awakened, the sage returns to the market place and shares his visionary gifts with the world (Tenth Oxherd Painting), as in the case of William Carlos Williams' poem "The Great Figure".

I feel the organ for poetry is a pure mind comparable to a spotless mirror alluded by the sage Wang Yang Ming or a clear lake that reflects true images from the world. One of the most powerful definitions of poetry and my favorite may be found in Emily Dickinson's 1870 remark to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” When one's head is chopped off, where are the sense organs? Is Emily having an out-of-body experience (OBE) when she's reading and writing poetry? This would be similar to what Basho said "Leave your ego behind... Your poetry comes naturally when you have become one with the object." Then, we find that sudden glimmering embracing us, that even Dante has to drop his pen (Paradiso 33.121-123).

— Peter Y. Chou, February 2, 2010