I urge my students to think of it as re-vision when they work on their poems: to see it new, from a whole different angle: change the speaker, the verb tense, the order. Blow it up, and see where the pieces fall. I also think this deeper re-vision is one of the great gifts of reading and writing poetry. When we revise our own poems we also revise ourselves, our sense of how we think and feel about something. I’ve often had the experience of a poem turning on me, of resisting what I thought I was going to say because it has something else in mind, something closer to the truth. That’s exactly why I write: to get to those truths only poetry reveals to me. Nietzsche said that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you. I think the poem does that too, and that in that mutual gaze we see what’s false. And hear the false notes in the words we’ve written down. I’m thinking right now of Robert Hass’s beautiful poem “Heroic Simile,” from his second book, Praise. The last line reads: “There are limits to imagination.” I’ve heard that the line was originally, “There are no limits to imagination.” I don’t know if that’s so, but it seems utterly plausible to me—the recognition that the truth is the bracing opposite of our first sentimental thoughts. And to finish the poem, you have to let it say so.
When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in the Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.
They stacked logs in the resinous air,
hacking the small limbs off,
tying those bundles separately.
The slabs near the root
were quartered and still they were awkwardly large;
the logs from the midtree they halved:
ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood,
moons and quarter moons and half moons
ridged by the saw’s tooth.
The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon. They are too canny
to call in neighbors and come home
with a few logs after three days’ work.
They are waiting for me to do something
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them.
How patient they are!
The old man smokes a pipe and spits.
The young man is thinking he would be rich
if he were already rich and had a mule.
Ten days of hauling
and on the seventh day they’ll probably
be caught, go home empty-handed
or worse. I don’t know
whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean
and there’s nothing I can do.
The path from here to that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.