At the Pierpont Morgan Library on May 5, 1997, the Academy presented its 1996 awards to Joshua Clover, Guy Davenport, Adrienne Rich, David Rivard, Charles Wright, and Jay Wright. Former Academy of American Poets President Jonathan Galassi made welcoming remarks and Cynthia Ozick delivered the keynote address. The following is a transcript of Ozick's speech.
To ask the question "What is poetry about?" is different from asking what poems are about. "Poems," in the plural, will mean an aggregate of individual poems—and despite the bundling together, we think of singularity. Each poem is the unique vessel of its own intent, focus, tone, theme, language, discovery, astonishment: it resists category, except perhaps the category of form. A poem may consent to being called a haiku, or a sonnet, or a villanelle; it may be content to being called "free," and once upon a time—a time that now begins to take on a kind of autumnal browning—it was delighted to stand under the eaves of the term "modern." And still it is possible, or nearly possible, to say what any single poem is "about"—although a poem may be less about what it is about, and more about its intimations, its penumbra, its scent, its own hiddenness or elusiveness. A poem is "edgelit," to borrow a word from Adrienne Rich.
So if we can say, even if only more or less, what a single poem is about, can we say what "poetry" is about? Is "poetry" a collective? Is it a plural? Is it a universe? Is it an emanation, and if so, an emanation of what? From what does it derive? Is it endemic in our biological being, like the human hand with its opposable thumb? Does it belong to song, or is it the child, or perhaps the parent, of philosophy?
Turn for a moment from poetry to pots. The archaeologist's pots: vessels to store grain in, or meat, or wine; vessels to cook with, over an open fire. Pots have been the intimate companions of humankind since we evolved; pots define us. They are present in every human culture. Utility ordained that the prehistoric clay pot would indeed be a pot: a concave object. Utility also prescribed a base suitable for standing or storage or shipping, and often enough, a spout, a lid, a handle or a pair of handles. But utility did not envision the fanciful shapes of animals or birds; nor did it demand decorative design, coarser in one culture, more brilliantly complex in another. The drive to mark the most ordinary articles with the impress of art is humanly universal and appears to be humanly innate.
And art not only attaches to the utilitarian, but even—and especially—to the imagery of the divine: from Osiris and Ishtar to Athena and Zeus, from Vishnu and Shiva to Buddha and Jesus, there has been figuration. Art may have gravitated to mere utensils, to express a human drive; but it inhabited religion—or put it that religion inhabited art. The thousands of talismans unearthed in the excavations of extinct settlements; the monumental sculptures of ancient Egypt; the towering statue of Athena in the Parthenon; the torrent of Christian carvings and paintings and the talismanic cross and crucifix; the manifold Hindu representations of deities; the serene Buddha-busts, both mammoth and domestic—all these testify to religion's habitation in art.
Through the ministrations of art, concepts became concrete, idea turned into thing, mystery metamorphosed into matter. Some may regard this nearly universal flood of representation as a tribute to the human imagination, and so it is. But Judaism, Islam, and iconoclastic elements of the Protestant Reformation, all under the influence of the second commandment, refused representations of the divine. The second commandment is usually thought to be the instrument of the suppression of art—yet what ultimately flowered from this denial of divine representation was, paradoxically, the freer flowering of art itself.
The second commandment, in its opposition to graven images, sought to liberate religion from art, and the Creator from anthropomorphism. In the second century before the Common Era, when the Greek Syrians conquered Jerusalem and found no statue of a god in the First Temple, they supposed the Jews to be an atheist people. But in freeing the metaphysical from the limits of literalism, the Second Commandment also freed art to impulse, permitting it to wander limitlessly, to become purely itself, manumitted from clerical servitude. It is the Second Commandment that is the author of Picasso.
For poetry—for Word—there can be no Second Commandment. Creation and the Creator cannot be separated from Word. We will look in vain for a scriptural admonition that omits or prohibits or silences poetry. "Va-y'hi or," says the God of Genesis: "Let there be light: and light, and then life, are spoken into existence." "In the beginning was the word," says the Gospel in Greek, summing up the Hebrew of Genesis. Something there is in poetry that clings to what we lamely and tamely call the metaphysical—the questions that are beyond our capacity to formulate, the portraits that are beyond our capacity to trace. Poetry is not often prophecy, and surely poets are not often prophets, but it is inescapable that all true prophets are poets.
Poetry itself, because it is written, because it is spoken, because it creates a world in the mind, tends to the scriptural—"the heterocosm," Harold Bloom calls it in an essay on Yeats, "or the poem as an alternative world to that of nature." But poetry also aspirates the given and actual cosmos, and rounds the mundane earth—mundane yet not profane. Here is Charles Wright, fashioning a scripture of plum blossoms:
Belief in transcendence,
belief in something beyond belief,
Is what the blossoms solidify
In their fall through the two worlds—
The imaging of the invisible, the slow dream of metaphor,
Sanction our going up and our going down, our days
And the lives we enfold inside them,
our yes and yes.
There is no second commandment to inhibit the imagery of the invisible in words. The visual arts cannot make scripture—they only falsify it. God's promise was that God's face would never be shown; who can copy what isn't revealed? But poetry is an echo of revelation itself: in Adrienne Rich's lines,
poetry means refusing
the choice to kill or die,
and this succinct refusal is not unlike Abraham's hot refusal of God's judgment of the Cities of the Plain. Milton wrote a scriptural parallel with the sacral scripture of the ages; Blake did the same.
Yet no one would claim that every poet is metaphysical, or that every poem is written in the breeze made by the turning away of God's galaxies. Nor does every poem aspire to be a heterocosm, or to hold a mirror up to nature, existence, or eternity. "I measure time by how a body sways," says Theodore Roethke, declining eternity. And Anne Sexton looks at an earthworm cut in half and asks, ontologically, teleologically: "Have you no beginning and end?" To be saturated with eternality means to feel the ache of the ephemeral; to take precise note of the immediate means to sink into contemplation of the eternal.
A poem can be about anything at all: a mouse, a bat, a plum, a jar, a wind, a sigh, a thigh. But poetry is about what is eternal, and therefore about the fracture in time that is a single moment. Or say it the other way around: poetry is about impingements on the senses, including the sense of innerness, and is therefore about what the senses, including the sense of innerness, cannot grasp in the outer oceans of being. Whatever any single poem may be about, poetry is about the trail, the trace, the veil of gossamer motes, that fall from the outskirts of Genesis. Poetry is the Word that can send its dipper into the formless void—tohu va-vohu, as Genesis has it—and draw up light.
"I, too, dislike it," said the poet who wore a tricornered hat: she who took note of how every corner of her surround was stocked. This is a sentiment, however ironic, that a poet has a right to, since poetry is generally more skeptical than romantic. But poetry has its party of opposition, its passionate dispraisers, who go even further into negation: call them our contemporary cultural anthropologists. "Irrelevant," they say—a term that has been abused for three decades, having been put to use chiefly for purposes of contempt. Yet irrelevant to what? To the three screens that, like the three fates, absorb and shape our span: movie, TV, computer? Unlike those, poetry is not a universal toy of our society. And so no one can successfully deny that a poem, even when it concerns the everyday, is disjunctive with the everyday, collides or veers away from it. Poetry belongs to the strange—and in saying that, there are two meanings that I would instantly reject. The first is "strange" wearing its aura of "the uncanny," a formula that comes to us from fashionable academic theorists via Freud. And the second is "strange" in the sense of "spiritual," a term that, in my view, resists poetry at its root. The uncanny is beyond human expression—the work of succubi, of ghosts. The idea of the spiritual is equally ghostly, with an added faith in the penetrating power of external magicking. Neither derives from the labor of human imagination; both leave the work of discovery and revelation (and the work of instinct) to mysterious forces outside human capacity. The so-called uncanny and spiritual thrive in the dilution of language; both skirt intelligibility.
But when we say that poetry is strange, we mean not that it is less than intelligible, but exactly the opposite: poetry is intelligibility heightened, strengthened, distilled, and also made manifold. Metaphor is intelligibility's great imperative, its engine of radical amazement.
What is strange about poetry is what is most manifest: not so much the unpredictable surge of its music as the words of which it is made. Everyone uses words; from minute to minute, from a million larynxes, a deluge of words falls on the air. Every word has its own history, and is a magnet for cultural accretion. A poet has the same access to the language-pool as a tailor, an archaeologist, or a felon. How strange that, scooping up words from the selfsame pool as everyone else, a poet will reconfigure, startle, and restart those words! How strange that what we call the norms of life—sociology, anthropology, the common sense of common observations of nature: call it whatever you like—how strange that all these habits and pursuits to which poetry is said to be irrelevant are precisely what poetry has the magisterial will and the intimate attentiveness to decode!
Let us come back to pots. I read, the other day, an essay on translation of the Analects of Confucius. One of these is recorded as follows: "A gentleman is not a pot." Other renderings are: "A gentlemen is not a utensil," "A gentleman is not an implement." This is taken to be a declaration on behalf of a generalized cultivation of insight as opposed to the specialist's performance of a narrow concrete task. To those who insist that poetry is irrelevant to our common preoccupations, one can only reply: "Poetry is not a pot."
And poetry, because it is timeless, takes time. Let W. H. Auden have the last word on things both infinite and infinitesimal that poetry is about:
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.