Welcome to dVerse Poetics poets and friends! I’m Charles Miller (Chazinator to my friends). I’ll be your host this evening for the second time at dVerse Poetics. I hope the words are already blowing the tops of people’s heads off in there and I’ll explain how this works in a few minutes. Last time we started out in Athens, but tonight’s prompt originates in the terraced city of Florence, Italy, a long time ago …
But first, I’m sure you’ve been at poetry readings and experienced moments when the poet reads a poem, but before or after the reading they describe what circumstances gave rise to the poem.
This has often seemed somewhat ironic to me. Why doesn’t the poem rely on itself? Why do I need a framework that puts the poem in its place? Why isn’t the poem self-sufficient so as to need no explanation? Does this mean the poem is somehow deficient?
Those familiar with TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, might see this poem as the perfect example of such poetry. We actually find a set of notes that provide further reading and clues concerning the numerous literary, historical, and anthropological allusions in the poem. (Of course, we can throw away this ladder, as Johannes Climacus might say, after we reach a certain awareness of the spiritual depths of the poem.)
But Eliot never really divulged the personal and spiritual crisis that gave birth to the poem. We have his biographers to thank for that.
More modern poets make up for this disjunction between life and poetry by filling their poems with more and more personal, historical, social, or other details. Many poems try to fill in the gaps left by the disjunction between the moment of poetry and real life by providing enough detail to let you know what gave rise to the poem. No doubt, we aren’t talking about causal events like a chemical producing a reaction but cause defined in terms of meaning, not always directly discernible by observers or instruments.
So, there can be several reasons we might wish to give the details “behind” the writing of a poem:
- The details give the place of the poem in our lives
- They provide some needed information that allows us to appreciate and understand the poem
- They provide historical details that are now wholly or half forgotten
There are, no doubt other reasons and ways that descriptions like this work in orientating readers to the reality or meaning of a poem.
In world literature, one example of an attempt by a poet to fit their work into a fuller, existential landscape is Dante’s short masterpiece, La Vita Nuova (The New Life). When I was first starting to write centuries ago, this little book meant a lot to me and I always wanted to do something like it. Unfortunately, my life hasn’t hung together enough for me to see its arc. But about that in a minute.
Dante’s book includes sonnets and canzone, ostensibly to the woman who inspired the poetry, the now immortalized Beatrice, known more widely from his epic, The Divine Comedy. Each poem in Vita is introduced with the biographical circumstances that gave rise to the following poem. Early in the work, Dante even dissects some of the sonnets written, showing how each stanza or part fits with his previous description.
His narrative of the sparks that ignite his poetic genius are fascinating, giving intimate insight into the poet’s psyche. From angels in real life, to intensely detailed descriptions of dreams, to marvelous narrative of social mores and customs; all combine to provide a rich tapestry depicting how and why Dante writes his poems.
In the following example, Dante describes a vision and then the thoughts that plagued him afterwards. His description is precise and vivid, giving us wonderful insight into his thought processes. Even more rewarding, the vying thoughts give birth to a sonnet, which he then records.
(image: John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
After this vision I have recorded, and having written those words which Love had dictated to me, I began to be harassed with many and diverse thoughts, by each of which I was sorely tempted; and especially there were four among them that left me no rest. The first was this: “Certainly the lordship of Love is good; seeing that it diverts the mind from all mean things.” The second was this: “Certainly the Lordship of Love is evil; seeing that the more homage his servants pay to him, the more grievous and painful are the torments wherewith he torments them.” The third was this: “The name of Love is so sweet in the hearing that it would not seem possible for its effects to be other than sweet; seeing that the name should be like the thing names: as it is written: Nomina sunt consequentia rerum.” And the fourth was this: “The lady whom Love has chosen to govern you is not as other ladies, whose hearts are easily moved.”
And by each one of these thoughts I was so sorely assailed that I was like one who doubts which path to take, and wishing to go, goes out. And if I decided to seek out some point at the which all these paths might be found to meet, I discerned but one way, and that irked me. It was this: to call upon Pity, and to command myself to her. And it was then that, feeling a desire to write something about this in rhyme, I wrote this sonnet:
All my thoughts always speak to me of Love,
Yet have between themselves such difference
That while one bids me bow with mind and sense,
A second says, “Go to: look you above;”
The third one, hoping, yields me joy enough;
And with the last come tears, I scarce know whence:
All of them craving pity in sore suspense,
Trembling with fears that the heart knows of.
And thus, being all unsure which path to take,
Wishing to speak I know not what to say,
And lose myself in amorous wanderings:
Until (my peace with all of them to make),
To my own enemy I surely must pray,
My lady Pity, for the help she brings.
– Trns. Dante Gabriel Rossetti
This amazing view into the poet’s mind is fascinating in and of itself. It shows us the powerful psychological insight of this poet, at the same time that it shows us how he fashioned his poem from the living materials of vision, life, and thought.
There’s one more thing we should consider. Dante wrote the Vita not as a literary exercise just to astonish a small circle of friends with his brilliance. Granted, the work operates at several levels, but its overarching purpose is to show how Dante’s love for Beatrice fit a larger pattern: coming to understand his relationship to a transcendent reality. This is important, I think, because it reveals a man consumed with finding meaning in his life, poetry, and thought. The Vita is a work that ties in those aspects of the human soul seeking an understanding of its place in the universe.
You’ll notice that I haven’t used the term commentary for what Dante does in this work. This is because I don’t think he’s doing literary criticism or dissecting his work like a literary critic does. Instead, he’s trying to show us how all the pieces fit together: his meeting Beatrice, his love for her, his poetry wrestling with the emotions, dreams, and visions of that love, and ultimately his journey to that higher reality, led by the image of his beloved Beatrice.
In this week’s prompt, let’s take a poem or part of a poem and put it into the larger context of our lives, like Dante did. To accomplish this, you might describe the psychological state you were in when you wrote your poem, the social events underlying it, or the thoughts that were alive in your mind and heart when the words formed themselves into a poem. Taking the example above, reconstruct for us as much of those things to provide a vivid account of how your poem came to be, fits into the overall fabric of your life, the dreams or visions that brought it to be, etc.
Cool? Then let’s get it on. Here’s how it works:
- Post a poem based on tonight’s theme to your blog.
- Link in the poem you’d like to share by clicking on the Mr.Linky button just below.
- This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information, and where you also choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog url and entered your name, simply click Submit.
- Don’t forget to let your readers know where you’re linking up and encourage them to participate by including a link to dVerse in your blog post.
- Visit as many other poems as you like, commenting as you see fit. Chances are if you comment on others they will comment on you. Funny how that works.
- Remember, we’re here for each other. Engage your fellow poets, talk, chat, comment, let them know their work is being read, and enjoy the input you also will receive. Feel free to tweet and share on the social media of your choice.
Finally, enjoy–this is poetry alive.