Enrichment & Repair:
How Poetry Can Refresh Our Vision
by Thomas R. Smith
We are accustomed to hearing that poetry is useless, accomplishes nothing, in the words of Auden, “makes nothing happen.” That may be true, though I believe that even in the arena of politics and great social change, not to speak of more personal realms, the poems of Neruda and Akhmatova, among others, have indeed made a very great difference in the lives of people and societies.
I want to say a little about two related aspects of poetry that in my experience have the power to change lives for the better, if not the reader’s then certainly the poet’s (though poets’ most fervent wish is that readers will somehow be better for the fact that the poet has written).
I am going to address the subject of how poetry can help repair our world and the accomplishment of that repair by way of what I call the process of enrichment.
First, an example of repair:
In 1942, the French poet Francis Ponge published a collection of prose poems titled, in Beth Archer’s translation, Taking the Side of Things. These were prose poems about the most ordinary, least literary subjects imaginable: a crate, a candle, an orange, a pebble.
The same year, while Ponge and his family hid from the Nazis in a rural French village, Ponge became fascinated with common hand soap—in short supply during wartime—and wrote a book-length prose poem celebrating it, called, unsurprisingly, Soap. Given its obsessive subject matter, Soap is amazingly readable—in fact it foams and bubbles, so to speak, with Ponge’s humor, wisdom, enthusiasm and delight in his subject. Here is a brief sample:
There is nothing in nature comparable to soap. No stone is so modest nor, at the same time, so magnificent.
To be frank, there is something adorable about its personality. Its behavior is inimitable.
It begins with a perfect reserve.
Soap displays at first a perfect self-control, though more or less discreetly scented. Then, as soon as one occupies oneself with it . . . what magnificent elan! What utter enthusiasm in the gift of itself! What generosity! What volubility, almost inexhaustible, unimaginable!
One may, besides, soon be done with it, yet this adventure, this brief encounter leaves you—this is what is sublime—with hands as clean as you’ve ever had.
(Lane Dunlop, trans.)
Ponge’s poems may be somewhat esoteric, perhaps even difficult, for those unfamiliar with the prose poem form. Uninitiated readers may ask, “What did Ponge think he was doing in these strange hybrid paragraphs?”
Ponge wrote insightfully about his philosophical approach, never more clearly than in a 1950 essay on the painter Braque’s drawings. What Ponge says Braque is doing in his art happens to be an exact description of what Ponge is doing in his art:
Never, it would seem, from the time the world is a world, never has the world in the mind of man—and precisely, I suppose, from the time he began seeing the world as no more than the field of his action, the time and place of his power—never has the world functioned so little or so badly in the mind of man.
It no longer functions at all except for a few artists. And if it does function, it is only because of them.
Here then is what some few men feel, and from that moment their life is traced out for them. There is only one thing for them to do, one function to fulfill. They have to open up a workshop and take the world in for repairs, the world in pieces, as it comes to them.
From then on, any other plan is wiped out: it is no more a question of transforming the world than explaining it, but merely putting it back into running order, piece by piece, in their workshop.
(“Braque-Drawings,” trans. Beth Archer)
Here we have the key to Ponge. Each of his prose poems takes a piece of the world—which for Europeans was badly broken by two world wars—into his writing workshop for repairs.
And how does Ponge “repair” these pieces of the broken world? He does so by attending to them, paying attention, not only to the factual aspect of them, the reality of them, but also by honoring them with the application of a sophisticated, linguistically savvy wit that might be said, in the best sense, to play with them. Thus in Ponge we sense a curious mixture of the grief of loss and brokenness balanced with the joy of a playfulness that brings the poet back into a living relationship with what was lost, which may finally be less the thing itself than the poet’s relationship to it. In other words, writing Soap helps restore imaginatively the actual soap that is lost to daily life through wartime shortages.
The term I give to Ponge’s way of repair is enrichment. Enrichment is a value-added approach to poetry. It stands in direct contrast to the kind of poem, all too common in our time, in which the poet adds no imaginative dimension to an experience, but merely reports it in a journalistic way. I believe that the motivation to write such poems is wholly honorable—in a world where we are surrounded by 24/7 misinformation and outright lies, there is value in straightforward reporting or witnessing, in honestly saying what happened. But true creative repair demands more of the poet than mere reportage. True creative repair depends not only on reportage but on imaginative enrichment.
The English literary scholar Jonathan Bate has said, “Freshness of vision is life.” Too often our overly journalistic poems reflect the staleness we paradoxically feel amidst the unceasing barrage of the “new.” Imagination freshens all subjects to which it is applied, lifts all boats of the commonplace. Even poems about grave contemporary issues and events can and must be freshened with the enlivening element of imaginative vision.
That freshening of everything Ponge’s vision touched is his great project. In our hemisphere, Pablo Neruda spectacularly succeeded in enlivening his subjects, enriching them with the freshness of metaphor. Neruda’s protean series of odas elementales, odes to elemental or ordinary things, applies a kind of Midas touch of imagination to a stunningly diverse range of subjects, most of them as mundane as waves, socks, cats, and dictionaries. Perhaps surprisingly, given the poets’ temperamental and stylistic differences, Neruda is one of the purest practitioners of Ponge’s way of repair, whether he knew of Ponge’s work or not. Since the first of Neruda’s three collections of odes appeared in 1954, it’s likely that the cosmopolitan Chilean had encountered Ponge’s Taking the Side of Things, a popular and influential book in its day. The ode, I should add, was a form that by the middle of the last century had fallen out of favor with English-language poets, the horrors of modern mechanized mass slaughter perhaps having reduced Westerners’ inclination to praise.
Here is one of Neruda’s odes that shirks neither the demands of truth nor of imagination:
Ode to Salt
I saw the salt
in this shaker
in the salt flats.
will never believe me,
the salt sings, the hide
of the salt plains,
through a mouth smothered
I shuddered in those deep
when I heard
in the desert.
it is a
a song full
Then in its own mines
rock salt, a mountain
of buried light,
a cathedral through which light passes,
crystal of the sea, abandoned
by the waves.
And then on every table
on this earth,
the vigorous light
of the stores
of the ancient ships,
in the ocean,
over the unknown, barely open
routes of the sea-foam.
Dust of the sea, the tongue
receives a kiss
of the night sea from you:
the ocean in each salted morsel,
and therefore the smallest,
wave of the shaker
brings home to us
not only your domestic whiteness
but the inward flavor of the infinite.
(Robert Bly, trans.)
I would like to stress here that in laying out these thoughts about enrichment and repair, my intent is to reach beyond the aesthetic properties of poetry into that area in which poetry is actually of use in our lives. What I am saying here about the practice of poetry can apply to any of the arts. I believe that these capacities for enrichment and repair are a crucial part of the reason human beings do art, beyond the appeal of the aesthetic or the lure of beauty, which of course is also important. And in this respect there is a basic practicality to art often overlooked in the superficial view.
I’ll bring one more poet into our discussion, the English Romantic poet John Clare. Clare’s whole development as a poet crystallizes around the process of repair, a process in which, literally, his sanity was at stake.
The loss against which Clare struggled was the removal of access to his rural environs through an act of Parliament called Enclosure. Clare, a self-educated man who made a living at farm labor near his native village of Helpston, was 16 years old when the Enclosure Act of 1809 declared certain common lands private and made off-limits countryside Clare had roamed freely since boyhood. The radical insecurity of losing his literal grounding in the land of his childhood seems to have unhinged Clare; consequently, he spent the last 27 years of his life in and out of mental asylums, though fortunately this does not appear to have diminished his creativity. Clare wrote thousands of poems, many of which not yet been published.
In the sonnet “The Gypsy Camp,” written during Clare’s last long asylum stint, we can read his own radically tenuous position on earth in the displacement and unprotection of the gypsies:
The snow falls deep, the forest lies alone,
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The gypsy knocks his hands and tucks them up
And seeks his squalid camp half hid in snow
Beneath the oak which breaks away the wind
And bushes close with snow like hovel warm.
There stinking mutton roasts upon the coals
And the half-roasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong and goes aloof;
He watches well but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away.
’Tis thus they live—a picture to the place,
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.
I find Clare, in his failure to maintain mental equilibrium, a poignant example of the limits of poetry’s capacity for repair. No poet has wielded in his work the particulars of his native place in more thorough, knowledgeable detail than Clare, and perhaps no one has so thoroughly memorialized a place with its customs, flora and fauna. And still that wasn’t enough. Though poetry enriched Clare’s unenviable situation through a mad sort of imagination, it wasn’t enough to significantly repair the damage inflicted on his mental balance by Enclosure.
Clare was also a sufferer of what Glenn Albrecht, an Australian professor, has named solastalgia. This strange word (which I encountered in Richard Louv’s recent book, The Nature Principle) combines Latin and Greek roots for “comfort” and “pain” to define “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.” It is an emotion many of us feel today as development encroaches on the places that have been dear to us in the past, as development can be said to have encroached on John Clare’s place in the early 19th century. In Wisconsin, the political events of the past two years may deliver a sharp stab of solastalgia for the state we thought we’d known all our lives, which now seems as vanished as Clare’s free fields and woods. Solastalgia is a concept that urgently needs to enter the mainstream of contemporary thought.
As human beings, we live increasingly in the midst of loss, some of it the inevitable result of change over which no one has control. We lose not only to human-made change but to natural change. If we live long enough, we may lose our health, and we will certainly lose our youth. Many elderly people sense that they are exiled from their former, vital selves, from a vanished homeland of their personal past. They find the present, to paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, “no country for old people.” The practice of poetry, I am suggesting, can be useful in facing such inevitable loss.
At the very least, writing “The Gypsy Camp” gave John Clare a way of sharing his loss with others, even with you and me. That is a consolation. That there is a you to hear us at all is a consolation. That we can write poems to memorialize our losses is a consolation—even if we are so unlucky as to be writing them in a mental institution.
William Wordsworth posited that the original function of poetry was epitaphic—it marked a location where someone or something had passed or was lost. Though scholars roundly disagree with Wordsworth, there is a grain of emotional truth in what he says.
Marking a loss is part of how we repair that loss inside us, to the extent that we can. For a while, as we make our epitaphic art, we are reunited with the object of our loss. A poet friend of mine who lost a child provides an example of this process from her grief work. “One of the metaphors they use at the Center for Grief is that of a lovely piece of pottery that is shattered. Rather than throwing the shards away, one can keep them and fit them into a mosaic, thus creating a new bit of art from the pieces.” That is what Ponge and Neruda do in their poems, and what we all must do to move through life’s losses.
I don’t mean to suggest that this process I call enrichment and repair heals every injury life deals us. It doesn’t. I am not invoking closure, that word that so bedevils people who’ve sustained crushing losses when it’s uttered by well-meaning would-be comforters. No matter how we reduce the pain and introduce a certain amount of repair through enrichment, if the loss is deep enough, there will be scar tissue and subtractions. Things will not return to the way they were. The loss, especially, of another human being cannot be “repaired.” That loss will remain. But poetry may be instrumental in helping us live through it and with it.
Francis Ponge, Soap, trans. Lane Dunlop, Jonathan Cape, London, 1969, pp. 21-22.
Francis Ponge, “Braque-Drawings” in The Voice of Things, trans. Beth Archer, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1972, pp. 162-63.
Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Salt” in Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, trans. and ed. Robert Bly, Beacon Press, Boston, 1971, pp. 153-55.
John Clare, “The Gypsy Camp” in I Am: The Selected Poetry of John Clare, ed. Jonathan Bate, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003, p. 237.
Richard Louv, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of the Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 2011, p.63.