Our thoughts are often clouded and gnarled by our environment; our concentration and feelings can be affected by whether we are at ease or not, or by the attitude of peers etc. So how does one “clear” the mind, as it were, for the purpose of poetic receptivity?

Meditative preparedness, which Wordsworth talks about in his preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) as a way of gaining poetic knowledge, could also be latched onto by the reader as a way of being in a state of readiness for reception of a text. Barthes (1967) talks of the consumer of poetry encountering the word frontally i.e., no longer guided in advance with rational intention. It achieves a condition where, like in a dictionary, it can live without its article i.e., it is reduced to a sort of zero state. The word is a category, it initiates discourse. The poem is “full of gaps, of discontinuous speech, full of lights, filled with absences” (p.38).

According to Indian thought, knowledge is different when one is in different states of consciousness. It cannot be removed from the situation of the knower. Rilke represents consciousness as a pyramid, with everyday literal perceptions at the apex, and the transcendental at the base (Yarrow, 1985:2). A heightened state of consciousness enables us to create form, patterns and meaning, just as they appear on the point of happening. It is a condition where action is held in poise, like the balance of a trapeze artist. It leaves one open to total receptivity. It is what James Joyce meant, when he spoke of “epiphanies”.

How does one achieve this state? Yarrow suggests a method which involves a progressive reduction of effort, until one is simply conscious of being conscious, alert without engaging in activity. He mentions Transcendental Meditation as one way of achieving this wholeness.1 However, he is quick to point out that the restful condition achieved is not “quiescent… but rather a vital part of tuning up the mechanism by which we interact with the world” (p.4).

He discloses how the writer sometimes cuts the reader off from his normal assumptions of the world by shock devices.2 The reader of course must negate a priori beliefs and create a willingness to think otherwise. Thus, as Yarrow points out, a transformation takes place, where one global-view is displaced by another, and the reader is ready to make sense of the world anew. “It is the experience of the potential of consciousness which can then project itself onto the organisation of physical and verbal relationships” (p.7). This attempt, to use rationality to go beyond the limitations of language, has echoes in it of surrealists or even of mystics:

The goal is to discover a more extensive kind of being-in-language, and the conjunction of self, language and world both as process-in-formation and as a nodal point of that ongoing creative process is what links the preoccupation of writers with that of philosophers and mystics (p.8).

However, the mystical analogy, if constricted in a Christian sense, could be interpreted by a non-religious person as “passing the buck” of the unknowable, and that which cannot be expressed, to God (cf. San Juan de la Cruz).3 Nevertheless, his reference to Transcendental Meditation as a means of achieving a heightened state of consciousness appears to have some validity: while in this state  one which, as he points out (p.16), is common to many artists  EEG readings indicate that brain-wave functioning is at its most coherent. Thus, in order to achieve a gestalt, we are confronted with the paradox of withdrawing consciousness from an object so as to be more aware of its potentiality, “and in the process to sharpen and hone its focus” (p.9) (cf. Keats’ Negative Capability, or Hopkins’Inscape). It must not be forgotten that understanding is an organic process, and that the physical and unvoiced mantra effect of TM is not unlike the rhythmic ritual of early poetic recitation, giving insights to a “communal or archetypal nature, as also to a perception of linguistic resonances much fuller than surface levels of meaning” (p.10). It is worth considering in this context, the Vedic view of pure language, as an accurately encoded system of vibratory equivalents, which physically realise the world.

Nevertheless, if such methods fail, and one does not succeed in achieving such a transcendental state, all hope is not lost. One could lie in a darkened cell with a stone on one’s belly, as was the preparatory custom of ancient Irish filidhe prior to composition. Or failing that, one could take Stephen Spender’s (1962) advice in The Making of a Poem, where he cites Schiller’s practical technique of placing rotten apples under the lid of his desk (Vernon, 1970:62). This had the effect of banishing all other distractions, and enabled him to channel his concentration totally into the one area of poetic composition.

1. Yarrow further maintains that TM works, not only because it “tunes up” the mechanism, but also, because it “solves” the problem of language itself, “by passing the referential level altogether” (p.15). Such a state is not dissimilar to the Zen Buddhist non-judgmental awakening, as an aid to a non-biased view of the world, a process, which, as Marilyn French points out (1985:135), never allows “the ‘I’ to fare without the ‘non-I.”’ Octavio Paz (1970) cites Buddha
Only the man free of his necessity and the tyranny of authority will be able to contemplate fully his own nothingness.

2. The subversive power of poetry could be considered in the context of Walt Whitman’s use of religious language and poetic structure in Song of Myself (1855) to undermine prevailing dogma: “The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayers.” He mocks the sacred scent of incense, preferring the natural smell of human perspiration. A similar opposition to institutions is also evident in the Irish Fenian cycle of poems, where Ossian converses with St. Patrick. Ossian, like Whitman, prefers the golden rays of the sun as opposed to the metal shine of a chalice, and he berates Patrick for his subservience to the bell, summoning one to a cloistered world. Austin Clarke recaptures the mood and early Irish metres of the original poem (AgallamhnaSeanórach {The Colloquy of the Old Men}) in his rendition: The Blackbird of Derrycairn (Mahon, 1972:65)
Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling and the sun is brighter
Than God’s own shadow in the cup now!
Forget the hour-bell. Mournful matins
Will sound as well, Patric, at nightfall.

3.  A distinction must be made between mystical (in a Christian sense) and visionary. The latter, as Levi (1990) points out, is more personal and more rooted in earthy experience. While not denying the allegorical beauty of the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, his drawing of the way to the soul’s union with God appears today in the words of Levi (p.88) “like one of those Victorian games of snakes and ladders constructed for children by Bible societies”. Dante is visionary, but as Levi shows, his Hell is theatrical, a literary device, not meant to be taken literally. Blake is visionary, despite his “heretical” reference to a “hook-nosed Christ,” in his poem, Jerusalem. Eliot’s TheWaste Land is visionary, although it is interpreted by some as pessimistic. The iconoclastic Kavanagh is visionary, particularly in his early Monaghan poems, where his vision of poetry is trapped by the “peasant’s prayer”, just as the apparently hedonistic Larkin is visionary when he is at his loneliest as in HighWindows.

From: Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World
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About the Author

author photoJames Lawless’ poetry and prose have won many awards, including the Scintilla Welsh Open Poetry Competition, the WOW award, a Biscuit International Prize for short stories, the Cecil Day Lewis Award and a Hennessey award nomination for emerging fiction. Two of his stories were also shortlisted for the Willesden (2007) and Bridport prizes (2014). He is the author of five well-received novels, a book of children’s stories, a poetry collection Rus in Urbe, and a study of modern poetry Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World for which he received an arts bursary. His books have been translated into several languages. Born in Dublin, he lives in County Kildare.