Poetry, they say, is a matter of words. And this is true, just as much as pictures are a matter of paint, and frescoes a matter of water and colour-wash. But it is such a long way from being the whole truth, that it is slightly silly if uttered sententiously.
Poetry is a matter of words. Poetry is a stringing together of words into a ripple and jingle and a run of colours. Poetry is an interplay of images. Poetry is the iridescent suggestion of an idea. Poetry is all these things, and still it is something else. Given all these ingredients, you have something very like to poetry, something for which we might borrow the old romantic name of poesy. And poesy, like bric-a-brac, will forever be in fashion. But poetry is still another thing.
The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers’ a new world within the known world. Man, and the animals, and the flower, all live within a strange and forever surging chaos. The chaos which we have got used to, we call a cosmos. The unspeakable inner chaos of which we are composed we call consciousness, and mind, and even civilization. But it is, ultimately, chaos, lit up by visions. Just as the rainbow may or may not light up the storm. And, like the rainbow, the vision perisheth.
But man cannot live in chaos. The animals can. To the animal, all is chaos, only there are a few recurring motions and aspects within the surge. And the animal is content. But man is not. Man must wrap himself in a vision, make a house of apparent form and stability, fixity. In his terror of chaos, he begins by putting up an umbrella between himself and the everlasting chaos. Then he paints the underside of his umbrella like a firmament. Then he parades around, lives, and dies under his umbrella. Bequeathed to his descendants, the umbrella becomes a dome, a vault, and men at last begin to feel that something is wrong.
Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun. But after a while, getting used to the vision, and not liking the genuine draught from chaos, commonplace man daubs a simulacrum of the window that opens onto chaos, and patches the umbrella with the painted patch of the simulacrum. That is, he has got used to the vision, it is part of his house-decoration. So that the umbrella at last looks like a glowing open firmament, of many aspects. But alas, it is all simulacrum, in innumerable patches. Homer and Keats, annotated and with glossary.
This is the history of poetry in our era. Someone sees Titans in the wild air of chaos, and the Titan becomes a wall between succeeding generations and the chaos they should have inherited. The wild sky moved and sang. Even that becomes a great umbrella between mankind and the sky of fresh air; then it becomes a painted vault, a fresco on a vault roof, under which men bleach and go dissatisfied. Till another poet makes a slit onto the open and windy chaos.
But at last our roof deceives us no more. It is painted plaster, and all the skill of all the human ages won’t take us in. Dante or Leonardo, Beethoven or Whitman: lo! it is painted on the plaster of our vault. Like St. Francis preaching to the birds of Assissi. Wonderfully like air and birdy space and chaos of many things – partly because the fresco is faded. But, even so, we are glad to get out of that church, and into the natural chaos.
This is the momentous crisis for mankind, when we have to get back to chaos. So long as the umbrella serves, and poets make slits in it, and the mass of people can be gradually educated up to the vision in the slit: which means they patch it over with a patch that looks just like the vision in the slit; so long as this process can continue, and mankind can be educated up, and thus built in, so long will a civilization continue more or less happily, completing its own painted prison. It is called completing the consciousness.
The joy men had when Wordsworth, for example, made a slit and saw a primrose! Till then men had only seen a primrose dimly, in the shadow of the umbrella. They saw it through Wordsworth in the full gleam of chaos. Since then, gradually, we have come to see primavera nothing but primrose. Which means we have patched over the slit.
And the greater joy when Shakespeare made a big rent and saw emotional wistful man outside in the chaos, beyond the conventional idea and painted umbrella of moral images and iron-bound paladins, which had been put up in the Middle Ages. But now, alas, the roof of our vault is simply painted dense with Hamlets and Macbeths, the side walls too, and the order is fixed and complete. Man can’t be any different from his image. Chaos is all shut out.
The umbrella has got so big, the patches and plaster are so tight and hard, it can be slit no more. If it were slit the rent would no more be a vision, it would only be an outrage. We should dab it over at once, to match the rest.
So the umbrella is absolute. And so the yearning for chaos becomes a nostalgia. And this will go on till some terrific wind blows the umbrella to ribbons, and much of mankind to oblivion. The rest will shiver in the midst of chaos. For chaos is always there, and always will be, no matter how we put up umbrellas of vision.
What about the poets, then, at this juncture?
They reveal the inward desire of mankind. What do they reveal? – They show the desire for chaos, and the fear of chaos. The desire for chaos is the breath of their poetry. The fear of chaos is in their parade of forms and technique. Poetry is made of words! they say. So they blow bubbles of sound and image which soon burst with the breath of longing for chaos, which fills them. But the poetasters can make pretty shiny bubbles for the Christmas tree, which never burst, because there is no breath of poetry in them, but they remain till we drop of them.
What, then, of Chariot of the Sun? It is a warlike and bronzy title, for a sheet of flimsies, almost too flimsy for real bubbles. But incongruity is man’s recognition of chaos.
If one had to judge these little poems for their magic of words, as one judges Paul Valery, for example, they would look shabby. There is no obvious incantation of sweet noise; only too often, the music of one line deliberately kills the next, breathlessly staccato. There is no particular jewellery of epithet. And no handsome handling of images. Where deliberate imagery is used, it is perhaps a little clumsy. There is no coloured thread of an idea; and no subtle ebbing of a theme into consciousness, no recognisable vision, new gleam of chaos let into a world of order. There is only a repetition of sun, sun, sun, not really as a glowing symbol, more as a bewilderment and a narcotic. The images in Sun Rhapsody shatter one another, line by line. For the sun,
it is a forest without trees
it is a lion in a cage of breeze
it is the roundness of her knees
and all the seas
and our soliloquies
The rhyme is responsible for a great deal. – The lesser symbols are as confusing: sunmaids who are naiads of the water world, hiding in a cave. Only the forest becomes suddenly logical.
I am a tree whose roots are tangled in the sun
All men and women are trees whose roots are tangled in the sun
Therefore humanity is the forest of the sun
What is there then, in this poetry , where there seems to be nothing? For, if there is nothing, it is merely nonsense.
And almost, it is nonsense. Sometimes, as in the ‘verse’ beginning: “sthhe fous on ssu eod,” since I at least can make no head or tail of it, and the mere sound is impossible, and the mere look of it is not inspiring, to me it is just nonsense. But in a world overloaded with shallow ‘sense,’ I can bear a page of nonsense, just for a pause.
For the rest, what is there? Take, at random, the poem called Neant:
Red sunbeams from an autumn sun
Shall be the strongest wall
To shield the sunmaids of my soul
From worlds inimical.
Yet sunflakes falling in the sea
Beyond the outer shore
Reduplicate their epitaph
To kill the conqueror.
It is a tissue of incongruity, in sound and sense. It means nothing, and it says nothing. And yet it has something to say. It even carries a dim suggestion of that which refuses to be said.
And therein lies the charm. It is a glimpse of chaos not reduced to order. But the chaos alive , not the chaos of matter. A glimpse of the living, untamed chaos. For the grand chaos is all alive. And everlasting. From it we draw our breath of life. If we shut ourselves off from it, we stifle. The animals live with it, so they live in grace. But when man became conscious, and aware of himself , his own littleness and puniness in the whirl of the vast chaos of God, he took fright, and began inventing God in his own image.
Now comes the moment when the terrified but inordinately conceited human consciousness must at last submit, and own itself part of the vast and potent living chaos. We must keep true to ourselves. But we must breathe in life from the living and unending chaos. We shall put up more umbrellas. They are a necessity of our consciousness. But never again shall we be able to put up the Absolute Umbrella, either religious or moral or rational or scientific or practical. The vast parasol of our conception of the universe, the cosmos, the firmament of suns and stars and space, this we can roll up like any other green sunshade and bring it forth again when we want it. But we mustn’t imagine it always spreads above us. It is no more absolutely there than a green sunshade is absolutely there. It is casually there, only; because it is as much a contrivance and invention of our mind as a green sunshade is. – Likewise the grand conception of God; this already shuts up like a Japanese parasol, rather clumsily, and is put by for Sundays, or bad weather, or a ‘serious’ mood.
Now we see the charm of Chariot of the Sun. It shuts up all the little and big umbrellas of poesy and importance, has no outstanding melody or rhythm or image or epithet or image or even sense. And we feel a certain relief. The sun is very much in evidence, certainly, but it is a bubble reality that always explodes before you can really look at it. And it upsets all the rest of things with its disappearing.
Hence the touch of true poetry in this sun. It bursts all the bubbles and umbrellas of reality, and gives us a breath of the live chaos. We struggle out into the fathomless chaos of things passing and coming, and many suns and different darknesses. There is a bursting of bubbles of reality, and the pang of extinction that is also liberation into the roving, uncaring chaos which is all we shall ever know of God.
To me, there is a breath of poetry, like an uneasy waft of fresh air at dawn, before it is light. There is an acceptance of the limitations of consciousness, and a leaning up against the sun-imbued world of chaos. It is poetry at the moment of inception in the soul, before the germs of the known and the unknown have fused to begin a new body of concepts. And therefore it is useless to quote fragments. They are too nebulous and not there . Yet in the whole there is a breath of real poetry, the essential quality of poetry. It makes a new act of attention, and wakes us to a nascent world of inner and outer suns. And it has the poetic faith in the chaotic splendour of suns.
It is poetry of suns which are the core of chaos, suns which are fountains of shadow and pools of light and centres of thought and lions of passion. Since chaos has a core which is itself quintessentially chaotic and fierce with incongruities. That such a sun should have a chariot makes it only more chaotic.
And in the chaotic re-echoing of the soul, wisps of sound curl round with curious soothing – likewise invisible winds
Drink fire, and all my heart is sun-consoled.
And a poem such as Water Lilies has a lovely suffusion in which the visual image passes at once into sense of touch and back again, so that there is an iridescent confusion of sense impression, sound and touch and sight all running into one another, blending into a vagueness which is a new world, a vagueness and a suffusion which liberates the soul, and lets a new flame of desire flicker delicately up from the numbed body.
The suffused fragments are the best, those that are only comprehensible with the senses, with vision passing into touch and to sound, then again touch, and the bursting of the bubble of an image. There is always sun, but there is also water, most palpably water. Even some of the suns are wetly so, wet pools that wet us with their touch. Then loose suns like lions, soft gold lions and white lions half-visible. Then again the elusive gleam of the sun of livingness, soft as gold and strange as the lion’s eyes, the livingness that never ceases and never will cease. In this there is faith, soft intangible suffused faith that is the breath of all poetry, part of the breathing of the myriad sun in chaos. Such sun breathes its way into words, and the words become poetry, by suffusion. On the part of the poet it is an act of faith, pure attention and purified receptiveness. And without such faith there is no poetry. There is even no life. The poetry of sunless chaos is already a bore, the poetry of a regulated cosmos is nothing but a wire birdcage. Because in all living poetry the living chaos stirs, sun-suffused and sun-impulsive, and most subtly chaotic. All true poetry is most subtly and sensitively chaotic, outlawed. But it is the impulse of the sun in chaos, not conceit.
The Sun in unconcealed rage
Glares down across the magic of the world
The sun within us, that sways un incalculably.
Swift to the Sun
Deep imaged in my soul
But during the long day black lands
And it is faith in the incalculable sun, inner and outer, which keeps us alive.
Left by the tide
I bring you a conch-shell
That listening to the Sun you may
And there is always the battle of the sun, against the corrosive acid vapour of vanity and poisonous conceit, which is the breath of the world.
Are not so dark
As our embittered thoughts
Which carve strange silences within
That the next ‘cinquain’ may not be poetry at all is perhaps just as well, to keep us in mind of the world of conceit outside. It is the expired breath, with its necessary carbonic acid. It is the cold shadow across the sun, and saves us from the strain of the monos, from homogeneity, and exaltation and forcedness. What does it matter if half the time a poet fails in his effort at expression! The failures make it real. The act of attention is not so easy. It is much easier to write poesy. Failure is part of the living chaos. And the groping reveals the act of attention, which suddenly passes again into pure expression.
But I shall not be frightened by a sound
Of Something moving cautiously around.
Whims, and fumblings, and effort, and nonsense, and echoes from other poets, these all go to make up the living chaos of a little book of real poetry, as well as pure little poems like Sun-Ghost, To Those Who Return, Torse de Jeune Femme au Soleil, Poem for the Feet of Polia. Through it all runs the intrinsic naivete without which no poetry can exist, not even the most sophisticated. This naivete is the opening of the soul to the sun of chaos, and the soul may be open like a lily or a dandelion or a deadly nightshade or a rather paltry chickweed flower, and it will be poetry of its own sort. But open it must. This opening, and this alone, is the essential act of attention, the essential poetic and religious act. We may fumble in the act, and a hail-stone may hit us. But it is in the course of things. In this act, and this alone, we truly live : in that innermost naïve opening of the soul, like a sweet flower, sweet or poisonous, it does not matter, to the sun of tender livingness.
Now, after a long bout of conceit and self-assurance and flippancy, the young are waking up to the fact that they are starved of life and of essential sun, and at last they are being driven, out of sheer starvedness, to make the act of submission, the act of attention, to open into inner naivete, deliberately and dauntlessly, admit the chaos and the sun of chaos. This is the new naivete, chosen, recovered, re-gained. Round it range the white and golden soft lions of courage and the sun of dauntlessness, and the whorled ivory horn of the unicorn is erect and ruthless as a weapon of defence. The naïve, open spirit of man will no longer be a victim, to be put on a cross, nor a beggar, to be scorned and given a pittance. This time it will be erect and a bright lord, with a heart open to the wild sun of chaos, but with the yellow lions of the sun’s danger on guard in the eyes.
The new naivete, erect, chosen, open-eyed, aware and dauntless, will be the new spirit of poetry and the new spirit of life. Tender, but fiercely defended, it may be clumsy at first, and make gestures of self-conscious crudity. But it is a real thing, welling up from inside the soul. And to the young, it is the essential reality, the liberation into life. The liberation into the fresh air of chaos, the being part of the sun. A long course of merely negative ‘freedom’ reduces the soul and body to numbness. They can feel no more and respond no more. Only the mind remains awake, and suffers keenly from the sense of nullity; to be young, and to feel you have every ‘opportunity’, every ‘freedom’ to live, and yet not be able to live, because the responses have gone numb in the body and soul, this is the nemesis that is overtaking the young. It drives to madness.
But there is the other way, back to the sun, to faith in the chaos of suns. Back to the pool of renewal, where we dip ourselves in life again, and let the old case-hardened self-conceit wash off us, and let the body unfurl in all its sensitiveness and naivete again, like a magnolia, to the suns. And this is not so easy. You can’t do it by just saying you will do it. It is a slow, blind process, a painful discarding of shells and defences that are only obstructions, and a taking on of a new sensitiveness, awareness, and a new faith in the sun.
And because this new awareness and new faith are present all through in Chariot of the Sun this is a book of poetry, and the defects and the nonsense are the hither and thither of the breeze which blows us sunwards.
Scandicci, May 1, 1928.