Robert Pack on Poetry

( Academic Questions )


In my sophomore year at Dartmouth College I took a course in modern poetry with Tom Vance. That crucial experience pointed the direction for my career as a teacher of literature and a poet and also shaped my attitude as a reader and a believer in the importance of liberal learning and the honoring of the great voices of the past. I can still see the blackboard on which he had just written the following lines from a poem by e.e. cummings:


dem gud am lidl yelluh bas tuds weer goin


I remember my bafflement. What did that nonsense mean? Could that possibly be poetry? During the ensuing discussion, I learned that cummings was parodying our prejudice against the Japanese after World War II and that the intent of the poem was to mock our own barbarism through the degrading of poetic language. I valued the insight that human beings could deny their own failures and project those failures onto others. I had learned something about prejudice and something about poetry, and I understood that poetry, in its indirect way (" tell all the truth but tell it slant" I would later learn from Emily Dickinson), could communicate an idea and the feeling associated with that idea--the two inextricably entwined--with precision and lucidity.

I asked Professor Vance what he considered to be the purpose of poetry. He looked like a huge raven with his glistening black hair and piercing eyes, and he often had an oracular manner of speaking, as if he might answer a question with an allusion, like "Nevermore." But on this occasion he paused and with concentrated deliberation looked at me and replied, "The purpose of poetry is to help one meet one's death with grace." My nineteen years, even having endured the death of my father, had not prepared me for such a remark. I was dumbfounded, though I knew that something crucial had been revealed to me. The remark was both exquisitely personal and strangely impersonal. But what did death have to do with reading? And what exactly did he mean by "grace"?

Years later at Columbia University, I came across Samuel Johnson's line, "The purpose of art is to help us better to enjoy our lives, or better to endure them," and the memory of Tom Vance at the blackboard flashed before me. Yes, it came to me with new conviction: the reason I was studying to become a teacher was that literary art provides a direct access to life. Art is not merely about itself, not merely a game of interpretation, not merely a text among other texts like newspapers or reports; it affects the way we look at things and how we feel even from day to day. Art enlarges our feelings both by offering pleasure and by creating a sense of dignity, perhaps even "grace," through the power to understand the human condition and thus to endure inevitable sorrow. Tom Vance was right: art exists always in the context of death; it is a powerful form of human resistance to the warring and defeating conditions of life. Great words from the past, as in Shakespeare's "Men must endure their coming hence even as their going hither," are there to console and support. In a blaze of confirmation of what would become my life's work, I knew that a teacher in the humanist tradition must be committed to help the young remember what others have experienced in order to make those experiences their own. As I read and talked to my graduate-school friends, the voices in me gathered, reinforcing one another, diverging, disagreeing, coming together. "And as for the great necessities of fate," said Freud, "these we will simply learn to endure with resignation." "A deep distress hath humanized my soul," Wordsworth declared. How strengthening it was to hear such voices speaking out of their own lives into mine.

Over the years, many great utterances have reinforced my fundamental belief that art communicates. Genuine art has a fundamental stability and integrity; its intent is locked into its structure; it says what it means through the language of metaphor; it represents not so much an individual or the age in which the author flourished, but an individual' s vision; it enlarges our lives by inviting us to participate empathetically in the imagined lives of others. The role of the reader is to respond to and comprehend the intent of the work. This can be done only by willfully suspending one's own theological and political preferences. In this respect, the reading of a literary work derives from the wish to be enlarged, not merely confirmed or justified. To be a reader, then, is to affirm otherness. The replacement of subjectivity, the impulse to argue one's own point of view, is superseded by the larger desire to understand what others have believed and articulated through metaphorical structures under other conditions and at other times. "If art does not enlarge men's sympathies," wrote George Eliot, " it does nothing morally." To the reader who seeks such enlargement, the world and the immemorial human condition take precedence over the self.

When Sidney Cox sent Robert Frost a draft of his biography of Frost in which he explained Frost's poetry in terms of his life, Frost wrote back: "To be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come on him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in pain of his life had faith he had made graceful." Frost's faith was that the pain of life, the struggle to endure, can be made graceful. This is the same faith that Tom Vance expressed in his belief that art can enable one to face death with grace. In this sense, poetic art takes on some of the attributes of prayer--if prayer is defined not as imploring help, but as the attempt to call forth the best in oneself. The sharing of art in the classroom is akin to worship, the sharing of faith. This sense of the holiness of art is missing in the academy today with its esoteric quibbles about interpretive methodology, its pinched specializations, and its eagerness to replace imaginative contemplation with social reform conceived in partisan ideological terms.


Two years ago I asked Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, about the health of my old friend Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the former chancellor, who by then was well into his nineties. I was told that Rabbi Finkelstein was still following his lifelong routine of study, meditation, and writing and that his health was good except for his arthritic feet, which made walking difficult for him. "Louis still starts every day with a prayer to the Lord," continued Rabbi Schorsch. "He begins by thanking God for allowing him to die from the bottom up instead of from the top down."

Although Robert Frost has claimed that humankind is "not equipped for judicious prayer," I consider Rabbi Finkelstein's prayer to be a noteworthy exception and a compelling model for the lyric poet. I would say that one prays injudiciously when one asks God for a favor, for special treatment or for special attention, or when one advises God to run the universe according to human wishes and human needs, to make it more comprehensible in moral terms. Rabbi Finkelstein' s prayer unites the related powers of comedy and humility. His funny, humble prayer allows us to reaffirm our latent power of acceptance and strengthen our resolve to exercise what is within our limited individual will to accomplish. As Frost also says in "The Masque of Mercy," "Our lives laid down in war and peace, may not / Be found acceptable in Heaven's sight. / And that they may be is the only prayer / Worth praying." These lines are judicious in that Frost is too canny to presume to know what in particular to pray for or to set himself up as someone who has advice to give to the creator of the universe.

Studying, teaching, praying, and the writing of poetry all require discipline, the de-emphasis of subjectivity, in order to focus generously on other people, on books, on artifacts, on the physical world. All result in a choice of what we allow ourselves to articulate: we choose to represent what we take to be the truest way of bearing ourselves in the face of reality, without self-indulgence or sentimentality, without the denial of the painful facts of human history or the indifference of nature. Rabbi Finkelstein's prayer implicitly rejects any hidden personal wish--to be young again or healthy or more fortunate in one' s circumstances. Countering the temptation of indulgent subjectivity, he acknowledges that the only thing under his control is his attitude toward existing conditions. His prayer, then, just like the poet's deliberately chosen words, is the creation of a point of view. He transforms his thoughts into a mode of acceptance. To the extent that comedy or the delight in language allows, the prayer, like a poem, becomes a form of celebration, just as studying a poem in a class provides an experience of sharing across individual differences.

Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Thou art indeed just, Lord" begins with Hopkins contending with the Lord over the issue of whether justice can be found in this world. "Why do sinners' ways prosper?" asks Hopkins, addressing the Lord as if He were Hopkins's adversary. His tone suggests he believes the Lord has no defense against such an accusation. Hopkins, the celibate poet-priest, continues his attack: "Oh, the sots and thralls of lust / Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, / Sir, life upon thy cause." Hopkins's addressing the Lord as "Sir" reveals a forced respectfulness, a psychological distance from the fathering God he nonetheless knows he should love, not doubt or fear. But a radical shift of tone and perspective occurs when Hopkins enjoins himself to look outward at the physical world beyond his own subjectivity, beyond his own suffering. Rather than conduct a philosophical debate with God in his own mind, Hopkins turns to the actual landscape that he is given to behold: "See," Hopkins cries out in response to springtime' s plenitude, "See, banks and brakes / Now, leaved how thick! laced they are again / With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes / Them."

Hopkins is pained to observe nature's fruitfulness because it reminds him of his personal barrenness, "birds build--but not I build," and goes on to describe himself in the most excruciating terms as "Time' s eunuch [who does not] breed one work that wakes." Nevertheless, Hopkins's response to the Lord has changed. No longer is Hopkins concerned with God in His inscrutable morality, which permits evil to occur in the world; now Hopkins is responding to a God whose creation is immediate and palpable. And with the change in perception, Hopkins' s distance from God gives way to a sense of God's immanence, so that the formal salutation, "Sir," changes to the intimate phrase, "Mine, O thou lord of life."

With this shift, Hopkins is able to pray to God, rather than contend with Him. Having identified himself with the plants and the birds, Hopkins ends the poem emphatically, with four stressed syllables, "send my roots rain." But the miracle of this prayer is that it has already been answered in the form of the completed sonnet. Hopkins has built the human equivalent of a nest, a verbal gesture toward his home in this world. In praying, Hopkins has asked only for that which is in his own power to bring to pass, just as writing the poem was within his power. The Hopkins prayer-poem is judicious in that it remains within the limits of the possible, and it releases a human power that heretofore had been unrealized. An attentive and unbiased reader, without any theoretical paraphernalia, can connect directly with Hopkins's experience.

I hope that in considering my brief analysis of this sonnet by Hopkins my reader has not been aware that personally I do not believe in God. In entering the world of Hopkins's sensibility, however, I have given myself over to Hopkins's experience and have felt what he has felt in his own anguish of doubt and despair. In sharing this and other poems with a class, I would invite students, also, to leave ephemeral and fashionable issues behind for a moment and to enter the lives of authors who have been blessed with the eloquent powers to evoke, express, and communicate either their own feelings or the feelings of their invented characters. The embracing project of liberal learning is to release the power in works of art to help us endure--to share both the sense of beauty and the burden of mortality--and this, I believe now, is what Tom Vance meant by "grace."

A good prayer-poem also can have an exorcising effect by converting negative emotions like anger or frustration into something positive like acceptance. In this sense, one can often find latent within a prayer, its opposite--the impulse to let loose with a scream, a grandiloquent curse. After the Lord lays His undeserved afflictions upon the innocent Job, and Job's friends have failed to comprehend his agony, Job utters the mightiest curse in literary history, a curse that would negate creation itself by undoing God's original commandment, "Let there be light!" Job cries out: "God damn the day I was born / and the night that forced me from the womb. / On that day--let there be darkness; / let it never have been created; / let it sink back into the void" (From The Book of Job, translated by Stephen Mitchell, 13). But The Book of Job ends with Job's curse being reversed back into a prayer in which Job turns away from his self-absorption, his obsession with his own condition, to concern himself with the very friends who have failed him. As if reflecting Job's concern, the Lord addresses Job' s so-called comforters and says: "I am very angry at you because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. . . . My servant Job will pray for you, and for his sake I will overlook your sin." The sin of the comforters had been to presume that they could understand divine morality or divine purpose, but Job's ordeal had revealed the vanity of such an enterprise. Job's final prayer in behalf of the comforters brings Job back to the human realm within which understanding and connection are possible. Job's final affirmation is an acknowledgment of the limits of human understanding. And so the narrator of the Epilogue of The Book of Job is able to connect with and reassure the reader: "And the Lord accepted Job's prayer. " Across the borders of ideological differences and misunderstandings, communication has triumphed.

Let me offer one more example of a curse that turns into a prayer, of subjectivity that is transformed into objectivity as the self reaches out into an awareness of others. W.B. Yeats's "A Prayer for My Daughter" opens with a description of a howling storm and its " haystack-and-roof-leveling winds, / Bred on the Atlantic." The scene represents the turbulence of human strife, as well as the cruel indifference of nature, described vituperatively by Yeats as the "murderous innocence of the sea." Against the threat of these vast forces, Yeats allows himself to indulge his own personal fantasy about the growth of beauty, both physical and spiritual, in his daughter: "May she be granted beauty and yet not / Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught, / Or hers before a looking glass." Yeats then goes on, still obsessed with his own personal grievances, to depict the destructive force of human hatred, the inner equivalent of the external storm, and he concludes that "to be choked with hate / May well be of all evil chances chief." It is apparent that the memory of having been rejected by Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats loved who married a man whom Yeats despised, is still bitter to him:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of plenty' s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

And yet this painful memory, now made manifest as part of Yeats's prayer, is exorcised in the very act of its conscious acknowledgment. This is the poem-prayer's magic, to help Yeats heal his wounds by bringing them into the light of their imaginative representation. Thus Yeats is able to assert that "all hatred driven hence, / The soul recovers radical innocence." Both the curse of his own hatred and that of the "murderous innocence of the sea" are redeemed by a prayer that has invoked no power other than Yeats's own exorcising and consoling imagination.

Having freed himself from his own hatred, Yeats in the final stanza allows himself a last wish, the culmination of his prayer, which constitutes an act both of self-indulgence and self-sacrifice. In imagining his daughter's wedding day, "And may her bridegroom bring her to a house / Where all's accustomed, ceremonious," Yeats achieves in preparatory thought what not all fathers can manage with generosity: giving up a daughter to another man. And yet Yeats does so under his own terms- -the value system of custom and ceremony, the tradition of high poetry, represented by the poem's final image of "the spreading laurel tree. " In that final note of serenity, the poem-prayer has answered itself and thus completed its work of transforming the curse of hatred into the blessing of a mind at least momentarily at peace. This peace is shared by the reader as well, a peace that can be further shared in the classroom where teacher and student, across the generations, come together in reverence for a beautiful and coherent work of art. Such moments, not the dark satisfactions of ideological attack, the wish to demean the past to aggrandize oneself, are the blessings the academy should offer to those who enter its walls.

In Book VIII of Milton's Paradise Lost, Raphael advises Adam: "be lowly wise. . . . Dream not of other worlds." Rabbi Finkelstein's prayer to God to give thanks for being allowed to die from the bottom up echoes such wisdom, just as Job's final quietude, "comforted that I am dust," is illustrative of lowly wisdom, an acceptance of the limits of our creaturehood. And so, too, does Hopkins return to his identification with the earth in his final phrase, "Send my roots rain," which carries essentially the same meaning as Yeats's recovery of "radical innocence." The absurdity of human pride is most fully on display when we conceive of ourselves as the center of creation, the culmination of an evolutionary process. To become aware of this fallacy opens up the possibility that we may be rescued from the illusion of dreaming of other worlds by laughter, by a comic sense of our minuscule place in the vastness of our universe in the fifteen billion years of its unfolding to who knows what end.

In Richard Wilbur's poem, "A Voice from under the Table," the speaker, having drunk himself into a state of "holy" lucidity, discourses on the themes of longing and love in the tradition of Plato's Symposium. His diction is as high as his posture is low as he contemplates the mystery of the endlessness of human desire: "The end of thirst exceeds experience. / A devil told me it was all the same / Whether to fail by spirit or by sense." His pun on the word, "spirit," combining the high sense of human aspiration with an allusion to his inebriation, acknowledges the contradictory extremes of the human psyche: our proclivity to long for transcendence, to dream of immortality, and our creaturely finitude, our construction out of dust.

Dying from the bottom up, in the wisdom of his lowliness, Wilbur's speaker utters his comic prayer: "God keep me a damned fool." Nothing in this prayer requires divine intervention, and thus it is easily granted, realized in the instant of its articulation. In the speaker' s self-parody, his spirits are lightened even further in his triumphantly unconditional acceptance of what he is:

God keep me a damned fool, nor charitably
Receive me into his shapely resignations.
I am a sort of martyr, as you see,
A horizontal monument to patience.
The calves of waitresses parade about
My helpless head upon this sodden floor.
Well, I am down again, but not yet out.
O sweet frustrations, I shall be back for more.

The eloquence of Wilbur's poem, the continuity it makes with the past in its formal structure of meter and rhyme, its power to bring pleasure and offer consolation, its own form of grace, come from the bottom up, and through its imagery returns us back to the bottom, the roots of frustration and longing, as in Yeats's great lines: "I must lie down where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." The representative longing of Wilbur's comic speaker, who embodies the paradoxical Socratic consciousness of ignorance, is what should animate the liberal arts classroom: the shared pursuit of knowledge that surpasses individual opinion, and wisdom that comes from the awareness of a collective human enterprise that spans all people and all times, an awareness of our creaturehood, our mortality, whose articulation through great art holds out, even in this late hour, the possibilities of high laughter, solace, and grace.

~~~~~~~~ By Robert M. Pack Robert M. Pack is College Professor of literature and creative writing at Middlebury College. This article appeared in the October 1994 issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Please address correspondence to Academic Questions, 575 Ewing Street, Princeton, NJ 08540-2741.

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