October 13, 2003

Far-Fetched Poetry

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Yesterday, I started reading Charles William’s second novel (well, second published, but first written), Shadows of Ecstasy. In connection with it, I’ve also been reading Thomas Howard’s wonderful The Novels of Charles Williams. Here’s something Howard says about Williams and about poetry:

What Williams is interested in is heaven or hell; or, to put the same thing another way, he is interested in human behavior. This looks like a conundrum. How can we say that heaven and hell are the same thing as human behavior? If Williams really thinks they are the same thing, his imagination must be very far-fetched indeed.

It is. It is “far-fetched” in the sense that any great poetic or prophetic imagination is, in that it is fetched from afar. The noblest poetic imaginations have persisted in seeing the commonplace routines of human experience against an immense backdrop. Eliot spoke of “the fear in a handful of dust,” referring to the enormous and alarming significance lying just under the surface of even the most ordinary things. Scientists see one aspect of this when they tell us about the subatomic activity raging and swirling about in the merest handkerchief. Prophets see another aspect of it when they tell us that modest items like casual oaths and cutting remarks and icy silences will damn us to hell. Poets see yet another aspect of it when they see the whole Fall of man in a fieldmouse’s scampering away from a farmer’s plough, or a world of hypocrisy in the fur trim on a monk’s cuffs.

The ordinary stuff of our experience seems both to cloak and to reveal more than itself. Everything nudges our elbow. Heaven and hell seem to lurk under every bush. The sarcastic lift of an eyebrow carries the seed of murder, since it bespeaks my wish to diminish someone else’s existence. To open a door for a man carrying luggage recalls the Cross, since it is a small case in point of putting the other person first. We live in the middle of all of this, but it is so routine that it is hard to stay alive to it. The prophets and poets have to pluck our sleeves or knock us on the head now and again, not to tell us anything new but simply to hail us with what has been there all along (pp. 17-18).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:45 pm | Discuss (0)

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