Saturday, January 24, 2009

Poems of Transformation

In the class I'm teaching this semester we're talking about Whitman, and I asked each of my students to choose a section of Song of Myself that interested them, and then to make something -- a poem, remarks, commentary, whatever -- and to take five minutes to present what they'd made to the group. It's been amazing, their adventurous plunging-in to the text. One man spoke about works of art as engines of transformation; he was most interested, he said, in art that could provoke in its audience a sense of their own connection to the world, something larger than the ego or limited self. How does art wake us up to a broader sense of who we are? I asked the students if they had ever had such an experience, and they began to talk about examples: of standing for an hour in front of Michelangelo's David in Florence, of having their awareness taken over by a painting, or being lifted out of themselves in the theater. It was a moving conversation.

And it led me to think about this extraordinary poem by Marie Howe, from THE KINGDOM OF ORDINARY TIME. It's part of a series of poems based on the life of Mary, but you can just as easily read it as a text of any sort of experience of the transcendent.


Even if I don't see it again -- nor ever feel it
I know it is -- and that if once it hailed me
it ever does --

And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
within myself,

as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn't -- I was blinded like that -- and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I'd die
from being loved like that.


rbarenblat said...

Glorious Howe poem; thank you for including it here.

I would love to see some of your students' responses to Song of Myself, and to get a sense for the kinds of new works which arose out of their interactions with that text. I'm deeply interested in this kind of metaconversation -- ekphrasis, poems arising out of artwork (and vice versa), poems arising out of other poems. The way in which being in conversation with one another and one another's works can shape the work that we ourselves do.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the Marie Howe poem. I will carry it around in my wallet for the rest of my life.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for that poem! My favorite painting in all the world is Fr'a Angelico's "Annunication" in Florence, Italy. This poem should go alongside it.

Howard C. Rubin said...

The Annunciation has inspired a lot of poets. My favorite is by Denise Levertov. Here's a short selection from it:

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.

I think Marie may have been channeling Rilke who also has an
Annunciation poem. A small selection:

It did not scare her that he entered,
but that he was so utterly present, the angel,
bearing a young man's face, and turned to her;
that his gaze and hers, looking up to him, collided
as if everything outside had become empty,
and everything that millions saw, did, wore
became condensed in them:

Well those are the readings for our Sunday service!

Anonymous said...

I love that image of the mirror, flashing the light, to where it isn't... it's very exciting in fact, the sense of redirection, and the sense of how strong that light is!

It sounds like a great exercise, too.

Will said...

That you for sharing that poem. I have been studying/teaching "The Birth of Tragedy" by Nietzsche recently, and I couldn't help by think about how the last stanza captures the essense of the power of art through an Apollonian and Dionysian blend.

Apollo - the God of self-awareness and the shimmering Sun. Dionysus - the God of losing one's self and intoxication.

These are the moments that are invigorating beyond comprehension unless we've also experienced it ourselves.