Martha Kapos, Assistant Poetry Editor Presiding spirits
And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. – Revelation 10.9
The scene is a dinner party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, probably sometime in the 1950s. Richard Wilbur and the other guests around the table – not all of them poets, but all practitioners of one art form or another - are invited by their host to give an account of what started them off as artists. Each testifies to a significant encounter: the composer heard Caruso on the radio, the novelist came across a set of Trollope in a summer house. Rather than reporting the stimulus of a subject, or a momentous life-changing event, each of the guests describes an encounter with art itself. ‘Astonished by a poem, a painting, or a fugue, they had wanted to make something like that.’
The point Wilbur is making in ‘Poetry’s Debt to Poetry’ is a fairly conventional one - the fact that art has a history at all tells us that artists are linked together in a loose collective enterprise across time. But what is more interesting is the question he raises about the nature of a poet’s relationship with his or her presiding spirits. Our chosen ancestors are those poets we read over and over again because they help us to shape our own writing. These are the readings that act as transformations; they ignite a sense of coming-into-being within ourselves by making us feel that somehow, as we read, we are becoming what we are.
It would be difficult to be specific about what is often felt to be an ecstatic intuition. But Proust rightly called reading ‘a psychological act’. In contact with the organising sensibility of the poets we read, a re-organisation is going on within ourselves. It is as if, when we read another poet important to us, there is a process at work – a process of formulation whose subject matter is our own writing selves. The old ego, as Beckett observed, dies hard. But in reading, we are divested of an earlier ‘me’ and a new dimension of the self, which had previously been lurking in a vaguely embryonic state, silent and unavailable, is suddenly able to shift the boundaries of the sayable and speak out loud. We receive this aspect of ourselves back in an unforeseeable form: the strange new voice of which we are now the helpless owners.
When Yeats writes ‘And I may dine at journey’s end/ With Landor and with Donne’ I imagine him thinking of a room – at an address hidden somewhere inside himself shared with his presiding spirits - to which an aspect of his writing always returns. I imagine a kitchen with a table on which there is a glass of milk - like the one described by Primo Levi in his account of the carbon atom in The Periodic Table. The milk is swallowed; and one atom, he says,
the one that concerns us, crosses the intestinal threshold and enters the bloodstream: it migrates, knocks at the door of a nerve cell, enters and supplants the carbon which was part of it. This cell belongs to the brain, and it is my brain, the brain of the me who is writing.
I imagine that this is the same table at which Galway Kinnell sits down with his imaginary companion to eat oatmeal. The imaginary companion is Keats, but it becomes clear in the course of the poem, from the way that a line from the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’
will go into the configuration/ of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about,/ and then lay itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move forward with God’s reckless wobble
that Keats is the oatmeal itself. It is the food, both concrete and imaginary - and like a communion: devoured but never destroyed - which sustains the writer.