The sense of the 'poetic' is hard-wired into us and, when pressed, most of us would admit, perhaps grudgingly, to understanding what it was. It is both inadequacy and overflow. We perceive something whose effect seems to be excessive relative to its logical importance: the way a wall darkens (or lightens), the way a cat places its foot, the way someone turns in the street, the way a footballer or cricketer executes a movement, the way a sound produces silence or clamour, the way the sea spreads its fingers along a shore. It is, as Auden put it, 'a way of happening', or as the Irish tale has it, 'the music of what happens'.
It is excessive in that it is more than is strictly required. It strikes us as a vital enlivening superfluity, a kind of grace that once perceived, paradoxically, establishes itself as strictness, a necessity from which we can lose nothing or to which we can add nothing without ruining it.
It is, at the same time, a reminder of deficiency, of our inadequacy. By establishing its own standard of existence it rebukes that which lacks it while at the same time giving us an earnest of whatever perfection it itself falls short of. Ye are not gods.
It is, in short, a human act, not an absolute. It is a moment, not eternity.
I wouldn't want to confuse grace, in this sense, with gracefulness. Its line of beauty is not necessarily the arabesque. It can wear clogs with as much grace as it might ballet pumps. It is not a 'type' of activity, it is a way, a momentary way, of going about any activity. It perfects itself the best it can and it seems to do so without any self-important artfulness. It resists artfulness and when it does put on its artful mask it does so with a certain mischief, against the odds. When it dances on a tightrope while juggling and breathing fire at the same time it is aware that the rope is high and there are no adequate safety nets. It cannot afford cosiness. Cosiness is the death of the poetic.
Poetry, as spoken, chanted, or sung, is also hard-wired into us and for the same reason. It is as old as language itself, and at least as old as story-telling, maybe older. No people have lived without it. I am not concerned to offer, however tentatively, a definition here, simply to say that while it has assumed various forms in various places at various times, it has nevertheless performed the same tasks, the chiefest of which has been to articulate a sense of reality in terms of the 'poetic' as above, in other words with a notion of momentary grace that embodies both excess and inadequacy.
It isn't a fresh effort each time of course. How could it be? Language is not the creation of any particular generation. It is inherited: it has a history. Each new usage struggles free from its predecessors but cannot help recalling them. Reality itself changes, sometimes drastically, sometimes cataclysmatically, but the core realities remain as they were: birth, death, chance etc etc History does not vanish. It goes underground.
I am prompted to similar reflections every time I read something unusual. This time it is a pamphlet of poems, mostly in prose, by Cat Woodward.
Two qualifications needed.
Firstly, the poet was in my class at undergraduate level for a semester and, afterwards, individually, as a tutee while she was producing a portfolio of poems for an end-of-year assessment. Her poems then were clearly sophisticated, skilful, aware of other poetry, and ambitious - not in the career sense but in that she had guessed that there was more to the experiences she was writing about than could be easily formulated. Her poems were the real if incomplete thing, dissatisfied with themselves for the best of reasons. They distrusted cosiness.
Secondly, the unusual is never quite as unusual as you first think. There are always precedents. There are always echoes. No articulate sensibility is going to be entirely alien. Each new work establishes its own rules, lodges in its own frame, but those rules, those frames, are not without history. Nothing is.
This post is long enough, but it is a necessary preamble to talking about the pamphlet, which I will do in the next post.