Now that we’ve spent a couple of weeks immersed in the sublime, talking about it and reading poems written out of encounters with it, I’m thinking about the many, many poems I love and would describe as great that are written out of something else. They’re emotionally powerful, and moving to me, but they don’t seem to speak on the edge of the abyss. They’re more grounded in things of this world, for the most part, and often on relationships with other people rather than one person alone confronting the overwhelming.
I’d say that emotions in poems cover a wide range, from mild to intense, with what we’ve been describing as sublime at one end.
Here’s a landscape analogy that’s related to what I’m getting at. I grew up in a valley bordered on the east by the Rocky Mountains and on the west by the Nevada desert. Both landscapes were awesome and terrifying–people died in both. When we drove across the desert on the way to California, the emptiness was so overwhelming I hid on the car floor. But the sight of the mountains was central and powerful, and I missed them when I moved east. When I took the train home I spent the last few hours staring out the window, desperate for my first glimpse of them. Westerners are landscape snobs–I needed that scale. In the east I sneered at the hills people referred to as mountains. When people said, “Isn’t this landscape beautiful?,” I literally couldn’t see what they were talking about. If it wasn’t awesome it didn’t even matter. It took me years of living in it to realize one day, setting out for a hike (walk) with friends: Oh, this landscape is human scale, you can just walk out into it without risking your life. And for the first time I saw the value in that.
I think the sublime has to do with extremity and intensity, with things larger and deeper than the human scale of things, with situations where one person encounters whatever it is–the void, the abyss, the unfathomable, immeasurable. I think the sublime is something we can visit but not live in–the intensity would crush us, as Rilke says. And the solitude. Most of our lives include relationships with other people. When it comes to poetry, the awesome/ sublime may be the most powerful, but I think more poems, including many great ones, are written out of our human relationships–that scale, the one with emotions that range from happiness to rage to love to sadness, subtle and nuanced, looked at closely. I don’t think I’d describe any of Shakespeare’s sonnets as sublime, for example, however beautiful and moving they are.
I take enormous pleasure in the poems here, and find all of them moving. They include transcendent moments and powerful emotions, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as encounters with the sublime. I’ll be curious to see your examples, and your comments.
THOSE WINTER SUNDAYS
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
HOMAGE TO MY HIPS
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
MY PAPA’S WALTZ
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
WHAT THE DOG PERHAPS HEARS
If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth;
it may be asparagus heaving,
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog
if there is a continuous whir
because the child in the house
keeps growing, if the snake
really stretches full length
without a click and the sun
breaks through clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees
dry up their wells, there isn’t a shudder
too high for us to hear.
What is it like up there
above the shut-off level
of our simple ears?
For us there was no birth cry,
the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
and we heard nothing when the world changed.
BURNING THE NESTS
Atop an orchard ladder my father
stands half-hidden by the black cherry’s
tangled branches, holding a gasoline-soaked
rag wrapped on the end of a broomstick.
He flicks open his silver lighter, tells us
to stand back as the torch ignites
and he thrusts the burning thing up
where the white nets of caterpillars
tent the upper branch tips. A terrible
crackling like singed hair
fills the early April evening
as we squeal, and the smoldering
bits of caterpillars fall to the ground.
Weeks later we will eat the spicy
meat of the cherries, not even thinking
of this carnage. Or if we do, only
as the kind of work that fathers
will do, for their children.
WE’RE EXTREMELY FORTUNATE
Wisława Szymborska (trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)
We’re extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in.
One would have
to live a long, long time,
than the world itself.
Get to know other worlds,
if only for comparison.
Rise above the flesh,
which only really knows
how to obstruct
and make trouble.
For the sake of research,
the big picture
and definitive conclusions,
one would have to transcend time,
in which everything scurries and whirls.
From that perspective,
one might as well bid farewell
to incidents and details.
The counting of weekdays
would inevitably seem to be
a senseless activity;
dropping letters in the mailbox
a whim of foolish youth;
the sign “No Walking on the Grass”
a symptom of lunacy.
TALKING IN BED
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
As though we could string pearls into a necklace
of only good moments, between knots of waxed
string. Tonight, a month after the last lilac bloomed,
I finally noticed, and no hothouse could make the bushes
flower again late, early, whatever you call the period
after you’ve lost everything. Still, cells replicate,
shed skin is replaced. We are not who we were.
I’d seen the lilacs, gone through the motions
of breathing in, swirled the scent in the goblet
of my brain but I wasn’t listening until
this evening, after the first warm day in June
when I considered how fine a bunch of lilacs
would be, enough to fill my arms, to hide my face
in their tender, sweet nostalgia for ordinary life.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
W. B. Yeats – 1865-1939
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I love this poem. Are you sure it’s not sublime?
IMO nothing scary or chilly or infinite at all. No abyss. Not sublime in the least, as we’ve been thinking of ‘sublime.’ What seems sublime to you in it?
Maybe that last line?
Great discussion! My first thought was that all great poems are infused with the sublime in some way–but now I think I was wrong. I would agree that Shakespeare’s sonnets are not “sublime” in that they are more about the ins and outs of human nature–the lies, foibles, and scraps of self-delusion that make up so much of who we are. Bawdiness seems to banish the sublime, at least for me–also the satirical. I think of Carolyn Kizer, who admired Pope and Dryden.
It is hard to see the sublime in the Clifton poem (although lovers of her hips might disagree!). To me, the sublime is a sense of the inexplicable, producing wonder. I think the sublime can infuse relationships and how we speak of them: “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?” evokes the sublime. I would also argue that “My Papa’s Waltz” veers into terror and the abyss, and “What the Dog Perhaps Hears” is all about the unknown, the unreachable: “…the sound of spiders breathing/and roots mining the earth” and “…when the trees/dry up their well, there isn’t a shudder/too high for us to hear” and “What is it like up there/above the shut-off level/of our simple ears?/For us there was no birth cry,/the newborn bird is suddenly here,/the egg broken, the nest alive,/and we heard nothing when the world changed.” The poem brings us all these multitudinous possibilities, as as we read it, we are taken there. In “Burning the Nests” “…A terrible/crackling like singed hair/fills the early April evening…” is linked with “…the kind of work that fathers/will do, for their children” elevating the poem, infusing it, I think, with the sublime. Also in the Szymborska poem “…one would have to transcend time,/in which everything scurries and whirls./Form that perspective, one might as well bid farewell/to incidents and details” –the title and conversational tone is down-to-earth, but the poem still veers into the sublime. Also in the Larkin poem: “Yet more and more time passes silently./Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest/Builds and disperses clouds in the sky, And dark towns heap up on the horizon./None of this cares for us….” In “Lilacs”: “…whatever you call the period/after you’ve lost everything. Still, cells replicate,/shed skin is replaced. We are not who we were.” This seems to me, what Dickinson called finding the sublime in the –what was her or Helen Vendler’s word for it?–inconsequential, humble, small things in life.
To me, even William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow” is infused with the sublime, because of the words “so much depends/upon”–which elevate it, taking it out of the realm of mere description and make us wonder.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I appreciate your thoughtful response. I think I know what you’re describing about moments that take our breath away, that make us weep or shiver, the uncannny, the transcendent. But I think the historical concept of the sublime is something else–at least for me. I think that sublime requires terror and solitude, in addition to those other characteristics. I want to reserve it for those confrontations between the invdividual and the abyss, not just for any deeply moving moment. Wislawa Szymborska is one of my favorite poets, but I don’t know that I would describe any of her poems as sublime–there’s too much irony, and always a sense of humanity as a whole.
I think it’s about the human scale vs. the scale of the “gods.” I’ve been wanting to post a poem by Thomas Lux (any poem–), so here’s one. Yes, we’re looking out towards our own death, here, but death is human. What is beyond death might not be. Anyway . . .
A Little Tooth
Your baby grows a tooth, then two,]
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. it’s all
over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,
your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.
Thanks for this!
That makes sense, Sharon! I’m going to revisit my definition of “sublime”–perhaps there’s a better word out there for what I’ve been feeling. Love this discussion.