Poetry makes nothing happen.
~ W.H. Auden
That seems to say poetry is impractical, not utilitarian. For sure, poetry with a political agenda is artistic waywardness. I think Auden's statement also says something else, and deeper.
From Joseph Brodsky's poem "New Life" comes this:
Ultimately, one's unbound
curiosity about these empty zones,
about their objectless vistas,
is what art seems to be all about.
Poetry that brings neutral abyss to presence -- the great unanswerable question behind and allowing phenomena -- has an indelible aura of the artistic about it.
Reading a poem that's not an implicit question toward the metaphysical ("curiosity about these empty zones") is like reading a bucket of rusty nails being shaken -- it grates on sensitive nerves. Even love poems can injure the reader's mind, when those love poems are unaware of "objectless vistas" as the backdrop for Eros.
In the depths of language, where artistic poets ponder and write, it's almost as if language is quizzing itself -- the status of its nouns, the time of its verbs, the drama of its syntax -- in order that an opening onto universal context might occur, zoneness per se.
Some people who write poems declare stuff. But rhetoric evaporates poetic ectoplasm, leaving stanzas ghostless and brittle. Art doesn't like it when that happens. Art likes it when zones appear supple with time and ghosts, emptied out of neurosis and opinion. A painting by Yves Tanguy might clarify what I'm talking about. Tanguy isn't declaring or confessing in paint; he's making nothing happen:
|I Await You (1934)|
Back to poetry.
In Brodsky's diptych "Venetian Stanzas," we find the poet moving through the difficult questions of a waterlogged and watermarked city.
When I try to read these two poems with a focused attention, I get lost in Brodsky's figures of speech. I can't quite get or visualize what he's saying in particular. But when I read them in a half-focused state, letting the stanzas wash over me, I get a sense of them in general.
Behind and within Venice's material presence lurks a hollowness -- a volume of time haunting stone, fabric, people, everyday objects, and water. These stanzas pry open a melancholy space through which the poet ambles physically and spiritually. Into zones of decadent substance grieving the inscrutable weight of the word "is." A masquerade of exhausted history. Our poet is a medium translating the city's perplexed old moods into shapes of human irony. Structure as gesture of always facade, perception as zone of never knowing.
At night -- walls, windows, and the intrigue of rooms. In morning -- shadows just so beneath harbor sunlight and bird wing, the recoil of sentient flesh from the moisture of too much immanence. Venice and the poet both wearily cling to paradoxes of land and water, time and space, substance and being. Those paradoxes form into the empty zone of presence and a possibility of written art.
Eventually, the poet questions his own physical and metaphysical situation as such, honing in on its status of extraneity:
I am writing these lines sitting outdoors, in winter,
on a white iron chair, in my shirtsleeves, a little drunk;
the lips move slowly enough to hinder
the vowels of the mother tongue,
and the coffee grows cold. And the blinding lagoon is lapping
at the shore as the dim human pupil's bright penalty
for its wish to arrest a landscape quite happy
here without me.
In Wallace Stevens's poem "The Idea of Order at Key West," we find the poet under a shore singer's spell of evocation, bringing to thought the "veritable ocean." The sea is a vast phenomenon of symbolic energies:
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
But something else has washed into and fused with consciousness -- that song toward a vaster empty zone beyond. A vocalise of mysterious beauty. And from this comes awareness that the profoundest role of poet is to sound the uncanny question:
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
* * *
City and Sea as analogs to open abyss, empty zones filled with enigma and latent with death.