Of Time and Timelessness in the Poetic Sentence

I want to examine as simply as I can differences, real or imagined, between a sentence and a line of verse. Of course, one of the implicit complications in such work is that the imaginary, in poetic realms, has a claim in or as reality. Such is the danger of the questions that must be asked: that they sever one form of linguistic life from another and create a hierarchy of values instead of the deeper goal, an “appreciation” of the complex whole that undermines our ability to make such judgments. I want what I suspect most of us  want—to be thrilled by those interpenetrations at which the word “poetic” hints, seeking some admittance into that penetralia at the very heart of language’s whole architecture, where the numen behind her veils sibylline speaks. I want to know how to pay attention; and trust, because I must, that attention is itself the prerequisite for poetic apprehension. Apprehension feels a key word: grasp, fear, understanding. It speaks of that extraordinarily unstable terrain between the physical sensation of the world and the reality of the mind that absorbs it, keeping in delicate, imperfect balance, realms of experience that can never wholly co-exist—the actual and the ideal. And so we find ourselves continually reinitiated into that curious agony consciousness cannot help but be: that world and thought both are real, and as much as a stone is syllable of the actual, so is a word a kind of stone.

Sentences are made of words. Those words behave according to certain laws, none of them immutable. The sentence seems, at some level, to be the expression of those laws: grammar’s undergirding beneficence.

Most often we move from subject to verb to object. But it grows complicated.

Oddities in syntax awaken our sympathies. We gain some context for the eccentric whole because sentences help the overabundance of the world cohere into something manageable, thinkable, graspable. Sentences are kind because they keep us company in this endless effort of which they may be primary agent: they nurture continually this relation between a subject who says “I” and an object that says nothing at all.

Saint Augustine claims to remember coming into language and its powers. Of being an infant without speech, he recalls:

xxxxLater on I began to smile as well, first in my sleep, and then when I was awake.
xxxxOthers told me this about myself, and I believe what they,because we see other
xxxxdo the same. But I cannot remember it myself. Little by little I began to realize
xxxxwhere I was and to want to make my wishes known to others, who might satisfy
xxxxthem. But this I could not do, because my wishes were inside me, while other people
xxxxwere outside, and they had no faculty which could penetrate my mind.

This memory, given to him by others, sketches out a life common to each one of us but available to none. Augustine suggests that the infant is filled with wishes he cannot express, caught not simply in desires unfulfilled, but more darkly, trapped within an existence that has no outside, a center with no periphery, no others, so that the sum reality of the world exists within the limits of this one who feels but cannot say what is felt. The infant is somehow profoundly alone, living within the wishes inside him, unable to penetrate the nature of his own mind just as others find it also impenetrable. He can do no more than exist to himself until others can exist to him, until some force enters and realigns desire in such a way that the eye ceases to open only inward and gazes instead out. That force for Augustine is language:

xxxxThe next stage in my life, as I grew up, was boyhood. Or would it be truer to say that
xxxxboyhood overtook me . . . I ceased to be a baby unable to talk, and was now a boy
xxxxwith the power of speech. I can remember that time, and later on I realized how I had
xxxxlearnt to speak . . . For when I tried to express my meaning by crying out and making
xxxxvarious sounds and movements, so that my wishes should be obeyed, I found that I
xxxxcould not convey all that I meant or make myself understood by everyone whom I
xxxxwished to understand me. So my memory prompted me. I noticed that people would
xxxxname some object and then turn towards whatever it was they had named. I watched
xxxxthem and understood that the sound they made when they wanted to indicate that
xxxpparticular thing was the name which they gave to it, and their actions clearly showed
xxxxwhat they meant . . . So, by hearing words arranged in various phrases and constantly
xxxxrepeated, I gradually pieced together what they stood for, and when my tongue had
xxxxmastered the pronunciation, I began to express my wishes by means of them.

Augustine offers a strange map to the working of the mind in language, a quality, I’d like to suggest, wonderfully attuned to the work sentences accomplish in us and on our behalf. Learning to speak ushers us not only into the human community, and so integrates each of us into a social realm of shared values—the utmost of which might be the fundamental assumption of a reality all share and the ethical obligations that follow of the self in relation to others—but introduces us also to those two elements forged so deeply down in the human psyche: memory and desire.

“So my memory prompted me,” Augustine says. In so saying, he makes us aware of an aspect of sentences that, regardless of the sophistication of the writer, cannot help but speak itself within our prosaic life. A sentence is an engine of desire. It calls out into the world from the echo-chamber within us of all that we lack, and the world answers back as does a mother to a child’s cry, fulfilling what it can. It is desire of a particular sort, a recognition so basic as to lurk underneath awareness, some peristaltic motion below even grammar’s laws, this chthonic fact of appetite that is satiated only to want again with the same urgency. This repeated motion of desire, this force that propels subject through verb to object over and again, this momentum almost wholly oriented toward the future that so exacerbates the nature of our want, works by memory, by the backward glance, by all that time has stored away in the vaults of the desirous mind. The dark, forward grope of wanting is lit within by time already past that gives names to nameless wishes.

Such, I’ve come to suspect, is the kindness of the sentence—and by “sentence,” I mean specifically this group of words in prose, something distinct from the line and different from the “poetic sentence.” The sentence introduces us to our condition but does not abandon us to it. The sentence keeps us company. I want to think there is some sympathetic magic at work in honest language, maybe something akin to prayer but less lofty, directed only at the things of the world, the wants of the self, the reality of others. Within that sympathy that risks the utterance of wish because it has become so sure in its fulfillment, the fact of our mortal nature remains, reminds. The sentence, like us, has an end. Time moves through it even as desire does, following close on each word’s revelation as a shadow follows close upon a body. Sentences don’t repudiate what we ourselves cannot escape: that we want, and we are temporary. We want because we are temporary—and with us, a sentence wants, wants with us, and is co-temporary, and comes to an end.

2) The Line

The line of a poem also depends upon memory and desire, and yet, beyond the simple difference of fragment and line break, beyond its resistance to closure, it seems to have a different life than does the sentence. Augustine, despite not only learning to speak, but in becoming a teacher of rhetoric and then a writer of many volumes, finds himself as an adult in curious parallel to his infancy.

xxxxBut many people who know me, and others who do not know me but have heard of
xxxxme or read my books, wish to hear what I am now, at this moment, as I set down my
xxxxconfessions. They cannot lay their ears to my heart, and yet it is in my heart that I am
xxxxwhatever I am.

A man who has become famed for his eloquence, for the mastery of his tongue, finds that he is unable to offer to others those words that might give image to who he is at the moment. One begins to feel, pondering the passage, that the descriptions we give of ourselves, and so perhaps of most things, are so riddled by time past that the sentences come to us as memories already made, and the present moment which they are meant to capture abandons the sentence at the utterance of its first syllable. Impossibly, we may live in time already past. Here the heart has a language all its own, speaking to itself in such quiet tones that Augustine might often be at pains to hear what it is it says and so learn who in this moment he himself is. The heart becomes an alternate mind, filled with memory just as it fills with blood. The rational, prosaic mind, strives to overhear the heart in its ponderings, how memory in the other differs from memory in itself, how desire afflicts both—but desire too differs.

Enchanted by the way in which memory gives as present that which is missing, Augustine writes:

xxxxEven when I am in darkness and in silence I can, if I wish, picture colors in my
xxxxmemory . . . And while I reflect upon them, sounds do not break in and confuse the
xxxximages of color, which reached me through my eye. Yet my memory holds sounds as
xxxxwell . . . If I wish, I can summon them too. They come forward at once, so that I can
xxxxsing as much as I want, even though my tongue does not move and my throat utters
xxxxno sound . . . I can distinguish the scent of lilies from that of violets, even though
xxxxthere is no scent at all in my nostrils, and simply by using my memory I can recognize
xxxxthat I like honey better than wine . . .

These recollections bring back to the senses the physical realizations that years ago they first woke Augustine to—the ear fills with sound and the eye with color. These experiences must be so deeply embedded in the memory as to exist in some sense before the self-as-such. It is as if one learns to say “I” only after the taste of honey fills the mouth. More than a word, one becomes oneself, becomes an I, only after the heart has filled itself with lilies and song. There is no bewilderment dearer to poetic experience than the overwhelming sense of coming into a world that exists before I myself do—there fact and wonder are indecipherable.

It might be in such a place that the ongoingness of our infancy ceaselessly continues to exist. Augustine is of the same suspicion: that in his heart are those words that mark the moment, this now, whose reality separates itself from temporality. The desire that there exists does so not in order to be satiated, but to feel as immediately as possible all that is and is not us, this desire that orients us back to reality of the world as a value eclipsing the mere fact of our own. Where as infants Augustine envisions us filled with unspeakable wishes, in this other vision of our ongoing infancy, we find ourselves as an inarticulate point within the articulate wish. We find ourselves witness to that wonder of the world that speaks itself into each mind through the senses of the body, work not of recognition, but revelation.

Augustine describes this work in nearly elegiac terms—elegy being that broadest work poetry may be involved in. Wordsworth considers similarly when he suggests the poet is one who finds in absence, presence, and in presence, absence. Emerson, too, offers a parallel vision when he claims that “each word was once a poem.” Immanent in all these insights is a quality of poetic language that makes a line of verse seem its form of life. To the degree that any given word in a poem speaks out of that first realization of an object before it etches itself into consciousness, we find some portion of that timelessness inherent in the now of immediate perception relict and alive in verse. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Keats’s voice is so complicated with irony as he describes poetry as “a friend to man” in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Though we live in a cultural age in which concepts of the eternal in art, the immortality of the soul, are most often found heaped in the slough pile of yesteryear’s self-deceptions, such thinking forces us to consider seriously that to work on a poem is also to work in eternity. Keats, writing his ode on the urn as he felt the fever that signaled his own death approaching, feels the terrible irony of what it is to write lines to make a poem. Those words speak back into the eternity contained in beauty interpenetrated with truth, share a portion of it by participating in it—and in astonishing, heartbreaking ways, excludes from its cold heaven the fevered life that created it. The poem miraculously reverses our original position. No longer are we the silent thing filled with unspeakable wishes. No. We are the speaking thing that holds in hand the object articulate that holds its secret wish inside it and will not let us in. We hold the weight of those sweet, unheard melodies; we do not hear them. Even when we speak the poem so as to make it sing, it sings more sweetly to itself, the poem, and to that self-sung song, we are deaf, though we seldom know it.

I suspect it’s all too obvious where I’m going with these demarcations of memory and desire: some hope or some claim that the “poetic sentence” is one that combines the human company of the sentence with the eternal nature of the line. Obvious, maybe, but it feels worthy, truthful if not true. Not simply a hybrid, the “poetic sentence” is one that has the courage to undercut both the arts to which it may be devoted. To return to Keatsian terms: it uses beauty to tease us out of thought, and thought to tease us out of beauty. It figures time only to preface eternity; fulfills desire only to make us feel more keenly what in wanting cannot ever be satisfied. It comforts our helpless realization of our own mortality by coming itself to an end, even as it hides from us imperfectly what we also know: that it will outlive us, and speak to others with the comfort it now lathes upon our anxious hearts and minds.

One sentence of Proust’s has always felt to me exemplary of this double life:

xxxxFor this present object was the one I would have preferred above all, as I knew
xxxxperfectly well, having botanized so much among young blossoms, that it would be
xxxximpossible to come upon a bouquet of rarer varieties than these buds, which, as I
xxxxlooked at them now, decorated the line of the water with their gentle stems, like a
xxxxgardenful of Carolina roses edging a cliff top, where a whole stretch of ocean can fit
xxxxbetween adjacent flowers, and a steamer is so slow to cover the flat blue line
xxxxseparating two stalks that an idling butterfly can loiter on a bloom that the ship’s hull
xxxxhas long passed, and is so sure of being first to reach the next flower that it can delay
xxxxits departure until the moment when, between the vessel’s bow and the nearest petal
xxxxof the one toward which it is sailing, nothing remains but a tiny gap glowing blue.

Proust challenges to see in two ways at once: the whole horizon between two blossoms and the passenger ship involved in moving from one point to another, social, commercial, and the same stretch of ocean as something incommensurable but near, a radical shift in scale that makes of the butterfly something larger than a ship, and which fills its endless appetite by moving from blossom to blossom with the slightest flick of its wings. Mostly, though, I like to think of that “tiny gap glowing blue.” I like to try and see it. In the poetic sentence we are given the same gift of vision: some gap glowing blue. It is in that gap necessary forms of bewilderment occur. There the mind overhears the heart and the heart also listens; there eternity grows hungry; there time is patient with want. The poetic sentence teaches us to see that gap. It is no small feat, to learn to see absence, to watch as nothing for us begins to glow. There isn’t a word for it, nor are there words, nor sentences, nor lines. But in the subtle dissonance of the poetic sentence we gain some access to that which in being expressed remains inexpressible, that hold open within it some absence filled with wish, and those wishes are in no rush to cross the gap they exist in. They linger, they mutter, they moan in tuneless numbers—and then they sing.