This is the twenty-sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I practice two arts—the poem and the essay—and I’m not good at keeping them apart. There are times, I admit, when poetry feels to me the primary vehicle of thinking, an epistemological experiment in consciousness itself, demonstrating line by line the way in which those wondrous wounds of the senses inform the mind, and the mind must work to find a word that fits—not recognition, but cognition. In this sense, the poem is the thinking that can happen only outside the mind, and the poet is one, so paradoxically, eavesdropping on her own innermost self (though the innermost is no longer exactly inner). It’s monstrous work. I mean it’s work akin to Mary Shelley’s monster fleeing through the woods and, bending over a puddle there, seeing the moon in reflection, hearing the wind in the branches, and seeing for the first time his own face. The poem’s thinking is fateful in just such fundamental ways: It does not recognize, it realizes.
And the essay, that mode of taking measure, that rational or reasonable weighing of a life, has become for me beauty’s own labyrinth. I suppose a maze is monstrous work, too—knowing those myths of the Minotaur. But sometimes I think the essay is a maze with no center at all; it is instead a bewildered initiation into what John Keats calls, in “Ode to Psyche,” the “untrodden region of my mind,” that place one finds only by getting lost.
Such wonderings have led me to think much on what I consider the most fundamental aspect of craft in each art: the line of the poem, the sentence of the essay. (One might argue the word is the fundamental aspect of both, and that might be true, but a word is a world of syllable and breath, of potency and chance, and carries, as Leibniz describes the monad, its complexity all within. I’m not sure I know how to think about words—a strange thing, I know, for a writer to admit.)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I can’t remember where, wrote down a thought I’ve never been able to shake loose: “Every line of a poem must be a poem.” I find this to be awful advice, by which I mean, advice that is full of awe—awful because it is so true. I apologize to my students when I repeat it them. I fear it could so burden every moment in a poem that the poet feels paralyzed, unable to forge any path into the wild blank of the page. But maybe that is just how it should feel, just that helpless, but a helplessness mined through with some urge to make in nothingness a world entire, a poem.
Emerson’s insight has unfolded in a number of ways in my thinking about poetry. If every line of a poem is a poem itself it must mean that every single line in a poem truly written contains within it all it can say, has exhausted somehow the resource of its perception until, by the last word, there is some silence that cannot be spoken past. It means each line of the poem possesses a knowledge and vision that is, in its way, wholly revelatory—a means by which to see the world anew, a way to grow a new set of eyes. Each line is a plank upon which the mind builds its whole edifice of reason—and for the length of the line, it holds.
But then, as Emily Dickinson offers it,
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
That last stanza of her great poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” reads to me as the lived experience of reading a poem—that plunge through every line that is itself a world entire. And of the “Finished knowing—then—,” I’ve never known if it means she has ended in knowledge, or if knowing itself is at an end.
I suppose the answer may be both, for it reveals the most astonishing aspect of the line when every line is itself a poem: that each line of a poem makes a claim for some sense of the world entire, a sense of which that line is the primary example, and then that singular sense is subsumed into the larger vision of which it is but a part. Then the poem may be the place Emerson suggests it is, where we “stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.” I imagine the poem also this way: a peacock with tail outspread, and the phosphorescent circle on each feather an actual eye. The poem lets us see through every eye. Then it is, as Wallace Stevens has it, that art in which “hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.”
Emerson’s own essays are exemplary of the next suggestion, an extension of his poetic insight: Every sentence of an essay must be an essay. It might be worth going further, and to alter Stevens’s lovely line, to make the essay that art in which “hundreds of minds, in one eye, think at once.” The bond between logos and logic that seems to drive the sentence through its argument to essay’s conclusion may be a more tenuous thread than one cares to admit. Keats knows this, as over and again he examines the fraught relationship between beauty and thought, summed up nowhere more succinctly than at the end of his letter, written in 1817, to his brothers, in which he defines negative capability. There he concludes: “This pursed through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” This obliteration of thought by beauty is something I’ve long pondered, but even more so as my own writing practice has turned to essays of lyric literary reverie and investigation. If Dickinson is right, and I think she is, that “This World is not Conclusion,” then the beautiful sentence might work to frustrate the considered logic of the essay’s larger aims, if not to obliterate them completely. I can imagine the mind as a knot trying to untie itself from within its own complexity, and though it may look from outside as if nothing’s changed, what’s inside has loosened its intricate ravel; I can see the sentences in an essay acting in just the same way.
Sometimes craft isn’t advice or technique, but simply a suggestion—a way of thinking, a method of approach. That is, craft can be revelatory of condition. When it is so, a poem teaches us what it is to think, and an essay teaches us what it is to see. We thought we’d entered into different lessons entirely when we picked up the book we’re reading, but when we put it down—whether it is essay or poem—we find both mind and eye opened. Not that it’s easy, in the end, to tell the two apart.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).