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The Crab in Alphabetic Heat: Three Guiding Principles for Poets

2008 December 13
by J. Scott Mosel

Language is the Midwife of the Unknown

Poets are  in constant artistic motion, moving backward in time to go forward with words. The poet is a crustacean, a crab in heat, and is equally comfortable on both land and sea. We all need to become crabs. If you cannot accomplish this, just go catch some crabs, nurture them, and you will feel better. If you are not willing, or able, to go there, here are some guidelines to ponder when you consider crabs and poetry:

1. Consider the integrity and movement of the line.

Lines of poetry can and should be able to stand alone and hold intrinsic meaning. Certainly some lines are better than others, but it’s the same with crabs, so what the hell. For example, if you look at “Insinuating Revival,”  written by Joe Bastow, you come across this line:  “the chimney — you want me.”  A good line of poetry moves a poem and carries some rhythmical pattern forward for both reader and writer.

A great line of poetry, like this one, stands alone, and creates intrinsic meaning of its own nature. First, you have the obvious phallic nature of the chimney, combined with the sexual overtones of “blowing smoke up” from the preceding line. However, this is then combined with a classic second movement–similar to the movements of a classical piece–“you want me,” and combined with the chimney, creates a line that resonates long after leaving it behind, especially for the patient and careful reader.

 2.  Use language that re-mythologizes the everyday world. 

As previously noted in the post in “Myth and the Poetry of Creation,”  good poetry hits the world head on and creates a new mythology of experience.  A dog barking annoyingly in the distance can become something much more significant to the eye and language of the poet. In this way, all of experience is open to this re-mythologizing of the world. It is important to note that the poet is not engaged in the act of recognition and framing of the world–no, far from it. The poet, here, is engaged in actually creating a new segment of the universe. The willingness to go to this place, experience it somehow in a mindful way and then return with a means to communicate a new truth is the life-work of the artist.

3. Remain infatuated with the tangible and in love with the unknown.

The poet begins with the objects of the world. Some call it the palette, the medium. The world grabs us by the tail, to borrow slightly from Yevtushenko, and infatuation nestles in to do its work.  A lot of good poetry is written at this interchange–object, infatuation, language–and there will be more incredible poetry written at this level. However, there are those who are willing to take the great leap–most do it without knowledge of it–into the unknown, into love itself:  “For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal”  (2 Corinthians 4:17-8). The act of creation is an act of love, and to create something that lasts, something eternal–something which outlives the creator–this is the real poetry. Poetry that returns to the eternals to make sense of modern living is essential right now. Infatuations are exciting, but ultimately puerile in nature. Think high school romance, and you are there.

We have had enough of this drivel in poetry lately. The unknown, the unseen, what we crave–the poet must fall in love with this other, this mystery, and be willing to fall in love with that part of the self where the unknown intrinsically lives, and waits, for language to breathe life into it. Language is the birth-mother of the unknown.

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