a letter to Elfie concerning
by Niki Clements
To respond to your question about poetry,
I am finally heeding your advice and taking
advantage of the letter format. While I
attempted to write paragraphs on my changed
relation to poetry, I felt that the detached
impersonal format contradicted the very
nature of how I now see poetry.
Before, I considered the aesthetic side
of poetry—in terms of form, style, and rhythm—to
be its distinguishing factor as a mode of
expression. For this reason, poetry seemed
to be shrouded with an intricately woven
veil of formalisms that I did not think
I could see beyond. At the same time, I
tended to view philosophy in a similar way.
Like the language modes of the priest and
the prophet, poetry and philosophy seemed
to carry the promise and sanction of divine
inspiration, so I could not readily approach
While I still see a veil covering the ‘meanings’
behind poetry, I realize that this is symptomatic
of the language games that it plays, and
makes us conscious of. The three formative
poems this semester attest to the different
approaches to the game: levity with Auden
and the Law, severity with Millay and her
injunction to Read history, and the vivacity
of Levin’s acorn. By understanding poetry
as a system of signs that point to some
as-of-yet unidentified signified, I have
learned that you must suspend judgment in
order to see beyond the craftiness of the
game, and learn how to engage in the game
My first insight was with the line in Natasha
Saje’s ‘Wittgenstein poem’, as she says,
“A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into
a drop of grammar.” I used to have a veritable
fear of these drops of grammar, but when
I could see their relation to philosophy
and see how reason underpins both, I realized
I could approach poetry not to ‘know’ what
the poet intended, but rather that my own
work of reason was sufficient to discern
the underlying dissonance-containing harmony
So my approach to reading poetry has changed.
I have realized that poetry as mode of expression
is not meant to be the monologue of the
poet. Poetry relies on the triadic relationship
between the poet, the poem, and the reader.
All three work together to reach towards
an insight into the true nature about relationships
among things. The poet articulates the ideas
in a concrete form, and gives shape to a
small kosmos-as-poem to be elaborated freely
by the reader. However, poetry gains life
as the reader takes the poem and achieves
specific insights that the poet may not
have directly intended, but are valid as
the reader’s personal linguistic transactions.
An Essay on three poems by Anna Swir
by Adam Jones
When paradox was “invented” by Parmenides
and elaborated by his pupil Xeno, a wonderful
addition to the language game was put into
play. There is something obviously fishy
about the phrase “Being ‘is,’ and not being
‘is not.’” Here is a sentence where the
words used are obviously and deliciously
playing with the meaning that lies behind
them, perhaps to show us something that
would otherwise remain unknown. Paradox
reconciles language’s two attributes; by
being true, it achieves the goal of absolute
proof, and through the empathetic function
of the imagination, it provides sufficient
faith to an engaging intellect to make a
leap of understanding. These ideas were
further synthesized in one of Plato’s dialogues,
at the end of the Phaedrus (line 275 to
the end). In the myth of Thoth, the written
word is depicted as inadequate not simply
because of its plastic stasis, but because
of language in general’s untrustworthiness.
One can reduce language to one perspective,
to one mode, but only at the expense of
the integral whole one is invariably trying
to express. The only way to appropriately
use language to apprehend the transcendent
is through an understanding of language’s
capacity for metaphor. The connotative functions
of language can perhaps (though imperfectly)
redeem its failure to achieve the eternal,
and to stymie the brain’s tendency to privilege
the ease of the singular.
These three poems by Anna Swir, one of
my favorite poets, can work along the triadic
scheme of thesis, antithesis and synthesis
in regards to language’s poetic and philosophic
goals. In the first one, “Poetry Reading,”
Swir reflects on her personal knowledge
of language’s horrible inadequacy – which
unfortunately couples with an obsession
on the part of both the individual and the
collective to try to ferret out the answer
from any sort of language mode, in this
case, art. “The Sea and the Man” is joyful,
though intelligent in its refusal to be
reductive. It shows how language can best
be used towards self-awareness, the ability
to laugh at itself in the face of the impossible
(like the Biblical Sarah), and in this humble
way to provide insight. “Troubles with the
Soul at Morning Calisthenics” illustrates
a profound secret of integrity while using
language that jokes around about serious
stuff – and it makes me laugh out loud.
It asks the question: How can mankind’s
two desires, for the imaginative and for
the ostensible, be reconciled? The answer:
* * *
Three poems by Anna Swir (from the English
language anthology Talking to My Body)
reprinted in Czeslaw Milosz’ A Book of
Luminous Things. New York: Harvest Books,
I’m curled into a ball
like a dog
that is cold.
Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
The telephone rings. I have to give
a poetry reading.
A hundred people, a hundred pairs of eyes.
They look, they wait.
I know for what.
I am supposed to tell them
why they were born,
why there is
this monstrosity called life.
THE SEA AND THE MAN
You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.
was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.
The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.
TROUBLES WITH THE SOUL AT MORNING CALISTHENICS
Lying down I lift my legs,
my soul by mistake jumps into my legs.
This is not convenient for her,
besides, she must branch,
for the legs are two.
When I stand on my head
my soul sinks into my head.
She is then in her place.
But how long can you stand on your head,
especially if you do not know
how to stand on your head.
Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz
and Leonard Nathan