Monday, July 2, 2012

This Sense

In the mood for a little poetry essay? Here are two poems that pair well, Wallace Stevens’ “A Clear Day And No Memories” and W.S. Merwin’s “Just Now.”  They are accompanied by a music playlist containing three pieces: “Tàrrega: Preludio No. 1 in D Minor” by Narciso Yepes, “On A Day When The Wind Is Perfect” by David Wilcox & Nance Pettit, and “Blue in Green – Take 3” by the Bill Evans Trio.  (The lyrics to “On A Day When The Wind Is Perfect" are based on a poem by 13th century Sufi poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi, that poem having been freely translated from the Persian by Daniel Ladinsky.)

A Clear Day And No Memories 

No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,
As they were fifty years ago,
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,
Bending in blue dresses to touch something,
Today the mind is not part of the weather.

Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness
And it flows over us without meanings,
As if none of us had ever been here before
And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,
This invisible activity, this sense.

––Wallace Stevens (Poems By Wallace Stevens, 1959)

Just Now

In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been here neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

––W.S. Merwin (The Pupil, 2001)

One of Wallace Stevens’ last poems, “A Clear Day And No Memories” was composed in January, 1955.  Stevens died that August.

The poem is filled with absences: nothing is attended to, focused on, held in mind.  Without memories or focal thoughts, Stevens is aware only of what he is not aware of.  Mind isn’t doing its ordinary job of filtering and selecting from incoming sense impressions, memories, and thoughts, is not processing the stimuli that stir consciousness –– stimuli which Stevens refers to as “weather":

      Today the mind is not part of the weather.

The weather of the first stanza is historical weather, the people and events from the poet’s past.  That weather is replaced by the “clear day” of the poem’s title, while the ordinary activity of understanding is replaced by an “invisible activity,” an awareness of awareness itself, without any object.  The medium the poet inhabits, the air of a clear day, is not thought about –– it evokes no memory, prompts no assessment:

     It has no knowledge except of nothingness
     And it flows over us without meanings.

This pure perception doesn’t name things, the poet lives in an unrecognizable place.  In fact, the ordinary feeling of even being an identifying and identifiable self disappears:

     As if none of us had ever been here before
     And are not now.

So that this perception is actually an unfocused and passive reception.

This state which Stevens describes and evokes is extra-ordinary, numinous –– analogous perhaps to a newborn’s primary experience of being, in which no identifiable thing is and yet everything is.  The two oxymorons, “shallow spectacle” and “invisible activity,” suggest such a state, in which a sensory parade of stimuli (color, light, sound, motion) is not shaped by mind into familiar objects with distinct features; as if, to speak digitally, pixels fail to emerge as familiar forms.  A lot "flows over us,” but nothing stands out and there is no felt meaning-making.

Put differently, because mind is not parsing experience, there is a collapse of separation between perceiving subject and perceived object, between “I” and its world (image, thought, memory).  This allows an openness to and acceptance of whatever comes into mind, like the experience of reverie or daydream, in which thoughts, images, urges float into and out of consciousness.  Mind has stopped editing; ego is on hold, has left its desk; outside and inside are fluid.

We are therefore not making sense of “reality” so much as swimming in it, intimately absorbed in life-stuff.  Such a state is close at hand and not on a plane apart: deeper more than higher, immanent more than transcendent.  (The metaphysical thicket of immanence versus transcendence can only be hinted at here; intrepid readers may wish do their own research.)

Similarly, W.S. Merwin’s “Just Now” evokes an extra-ordinary and numinous state:

                                     ... it seems to me
     that there has been something simpler than I could ever
     simpler than I could have begun to find words for

In the same way that Stevens' “sense” is "not part of the weather," so too does Merwin’s “something” appear once the clouds and murk of a storm have been blown away, as if this something required a blank screen in order to become manifest.  For Merwin this experience is felt as a grace for which he is thankful; it has the quality of revelation.

For both poets, this extra-ordinary state is a “just now” zone, detached from time and personal history.  Both men receive unexpected and intense impressions.  A tingle of awed discovery informs the poems, and clear air and clearing skies are precursors to altered perception, a charged present, expanding horizons.

Beyond this, air itself is important as an invisible surround that interpenetrates the poets.  Merwin in particular employs air as metaphor for the something he is beginning to realize.  He likens his relationship to this something to that which he has to air –– to breathing.  Although he relies on air, he takes no notice of it when inhaling and exhaling:

              ... the air itself that became part of me for a while
          with every breath and remained with me unnoticed

So that just as with air, this something has been here all the time, around him, in him, sustaining him.  Akin to Stevens’ “invisible activity,” it is:

     something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
     and the nights not separate from them
     not separate from them as they came and were gone

Central here is the idea of separation, or its lack.  Merwin’s something has nothing of the objective reality of, say, Stevens’ young women “Bending in blue dresses” in the first stanza of “A Clear Day And No Memories."  The object world is indistinct in both Merwin’s poem and the second stanza of Stevens’ –– and the numinous state is one in which perceiver and perceived are not separate.

A technical way Merwin depicts this lack of separation –– and consequent sense of connection –– is that he uses no punctuation in “Just Now,” no commas, no periods, nothing to break up the stream of words.  The structure of the poem itself represents the flow of a “now” experience.  Perhaps tellingly, a July 2, 1912 New York Times review notes that Merwin has lived for decades in a remote part of Maui, is interested in Zen Buddhism, and that:

     On the page Mr. Merwin's poems are ... instantly recognizable.
     Shorn of punctuation, they are usually short, and in recent years
     free of capital letters except at the start.  "I came to feel that
     punctuation was like nailing the words onto the page," he once
     explained.  "I wanted instead the movement and lightness of the
     spoken word."

Finally, “A Clear Day And No Memories” and “Just Now” show an ironic combination of detachment and immediacy, a combination familiar to contemplatives from different spiritual and philosophical persuasions. When not attached to, not “nailed” to life’s weathers –– memories, thoughts, diverse ephemera –– we stop holding our breath; we release, breathe more easily, slip into a “now” place, become more aware of a permeating flow of impressions.  A rhythm of ongoing communion replaces a separate studious self.

This borders on mysticism.  These poems resonate but are not easy to explicate –– almost by definition, since their subject matter concerns sensory and intuitive apprehension, not logical comprehension.
Stevens has a “sense” of a deeper reality, and it “seems” to Merwin that this is also the case, but neither of them knows with (or is interested in) factual certainty.

I will bolster these thoughts and close this post with a passage from the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  It may or may not add clarity but I shall be in good company:

     The “reality" through which the contemplative “penetrates”
     in order to reach a contact with what is “ultimate” in it is
     actually his own being, his own life.  The contemplative is
     not one who directs a magic spiritual intuition upon other
     objects, but one who, being perfectly unified in himself
     and recollected in the center of his own humility, enters
     into contact with reality by an immediacy that forgets the
     division between subject and object.  In a certain sense,
     by losing himself and forgetting himself as an object of
     reflection, he finds himself and all other reality together.
     This finding is beyond concepts and beyond practical

     (The Inner Experience: Notes On Contemplation, 2003,
     pp. 151-152)

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