To begin with, this poem by Jack Gilbert:
HARM AND BOON IN THE MEETINGS
We think the fire eats the wood.
We are wrong. The wood reaches out
to the flame. The fire licks at
what the wood harbors, and the wood
gives itself away to that intimacy,
the manner in which we and the world
meet each new day. Harm and boon
in the meetings. As heart meets what
is not heart, the way the spirit
encounters the flesh and the mouth meets
the foreignness in another mouth. We stand
looking at the ruin of our garden
in the early dark of November, hearing crows
go over while the first snow shines coldly
everywhere. Grief makes the heart
apparent as much as sudden happiness can.
This was a hugely inspirational poem for me when I first read it back in 1995, as revelatory as Rilke’s “you must change your life” in “Archaic Bust of Apollo” (which Karin so wonderfully engaged with in her In The Remains of This Month challenge). The unexpected in Gilbert's poem is in the word “apparent” -- the surprise of shining the wrong light and finding the same thing. Harm and boon in the meetings: the revelation changes not only the poetry but the poetic.
I read Thomas Pynchon before Ranier Maria Rilke; Gravity’s Rainbow before New Poems. Pynchon’s grand novel of the dead got me through a long hiatus in the underworld; Robert Bly's hamhanded translation of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" appeared before my eyes when I was first sobering up.
A few years later when I read Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (in Stephen Mitchell’s much more supple translation) I found both Pynchon’s deepest inspiration for Gravity’s Rainbow and what Gilbert would discover in “Harm and Boon In the Meetings”:
… But if the endlessly dead awakened a symbol in us,
perhaps they would point to the catkins hanging from the bare
branches of the hazel-trees, or
would evoke the raindrops that fall onto the dark earth in springtime--
And we, who have always thought
of happiness rising, would feel
the emotion that almost overwhelms us
when a happy thing falls.
There is a strange merriment in Russian ICBMs falling toward the roof of the Orpheus Theater in LA at the end of Pynchon’s 1974 novel; and there’s a surprising contour to the heart which can only be found by finding love suddenly and then losing it slowly—lessons Jack Gilbert learned when his second wife died of cancer.
The only way we can discover those things is by turning prior things over.
For poets, this means a willingness to let surprise compromise our work. You never know what you’ll find looking at things the other way. A useful tool in vatic box is the trope. The critic Richard Poirier loved Emerson for his ability to challenge established notions with the radical view through his tropes:
The turning or troping of words is in itself an act of power over meanings already in place; it distorts "verbal solutions," which are thus shown not to be solutions at all. In that sense one could argue ... that a turn or a trope is in itself a "verbal solution." It promises after all to save us from being caught or fixed in a meaning or in that state of conformity which Emerson famously loathed. (Emersonian Reflections, 1987)
A examples from Emerson show how tropes discover new meanings:
A religious poet once told me that he admired his poems, not because he wrote them, but because he did not. (“Character”)
Wisdom consists in keeping the soul liquid. There must be the Abyss, Nyx, and Chaos, out of which all things come, and they must never be far off. Cut off the connection between any of your works and this dread origin, and the work is shallow and unsatisfying. (Journal, 1942)
Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing. (“The American Scholar”)
Maybe a story told in reverse has a different meaning than the gospel version.
Maybe a favored poet has too great of an influence, and ripping off the mask means writing on rails far away from the grooved track in your ear.
Maybe the heart’s true depth can only be found in grief—or maybe there's a room after grief where the dust of everything else allows breath to become air in heart everywhere. Who knows?
Whatever the case, find a new way to write about something—in conceit or stylistics or mood or person or persona. Flip the mask around and upside and down and try talking of the gods the other way.
Surprise us, but more importantly surprise yourself. You never know when you will desperately need to change your life next, and having the poetic chops to do so may get the work off on the right foot.
Or maybe there’s a poem about the wrong-headedness of all poetry …
Chop chop! Git outta here! There’s work to do, and more work reading through all the new worlds we’ll find here! Last one in the pond's a rubber duck!