Essay: A Quick Moment in Making and Movement
reviewed by Richard Scheiwe
“Biologists can point to unambiguous evidence that evolution truly does happen, and that it can account for many otherwise inexplicable aspects of how organisms function” (italics mine). A quote from Corey Powell’s New York Times review of the book The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind. As mammals have evolved over a few hundred million years, little has changed regarding their instincts I’d assume. As I watch a squirrel hastily climb a birdfeeder to reach the seed, its main concern is easily discernible: to get food without capture. It takes the squirrel a good minute to climb a few feet because it stutters, constantly looks around, aware but unable to understand its surroundings, the noises, the quick movements in and out of its view. And it hesitates not because it wants to, but because it needs to, according to its biological makeup.
Auden’s “Making, Knowing and Judging” is one of the best sources detailing the initial stages of the poet– the making of the poet. Even though the essay was delivered well into his career (upon accepting the Chair of Poetry at Oxford), Auden nevertheless clearly appreciated the developmental characteristics of the young poet, just as a linguist or child behaviorist might understand the stages of language in human development. Auden’s understanding is a scientifically good understanding. (Though it might lack the scientific element of being verifiable, it’s a very accurate portrayal). Intriguing because, I would argue, most poets tend to disregard the early memories of their poetry in order to consent more fully to the New World of aesthetics. Auden: “Never again will a poet feel so inspired, so certain of genius, as he feels in these first days as his pencil flies across the page.”
The interconnectedness of art (as one poem might relate to another poem, one painting to another) and the connectedness of the art with the outer-world (as Guernica is informed by the Spanish Civil War) can overwhelm or overburden a writer; the best writers are readily conscious of this weight, and readily acknowledge it. The quiet understanding of how art exists as an intricate web focuses the poet’s attention to said web. Upon further discovery, and ultimately evolution, the poet realizes he/she is not a singular.
I have been reading many essays lately (not just limited to poetry) and much criticism. In the last few weeks alone it has been Auden, Jarrell, Gander, Henry James, various scientists like Feynman and Greene, philosophers, etc. In order for the criticism appropriate to each discipline succeed, it must resound and apply thoroughly to its specific discipline, obviously. What is interesting, and typically overlooked, is the effort these essays make to connect their subject matter to scholarship and areas of study outside their fields. Notably Forrest Gander’s essays in his book A Faithful Existence. As he states blatantly, in an essay discussing Oppen’s poetic strategies, “engineering sciences had given me an analogy for understanding some of [Oppen’s] syntactical strategies.” The analogous, the connectedness- all synonymous.
As ideas such as intelligent design gain momentum, art and the sciences will suffer. It’s definitely not a new idea. Creationism has more than once made its foray into scientific matters (and the Conservative restricting of art). To paraphrase again, this time consider the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker who said that now is a time the sciences and arts need each other more than ever. The idea that science needs art, or art needs science, without further intrusion from faith-based matters, shouldn’t be viewed polemically, which may be due to the fact that art and science themselves might be viewed as diametrically opposed.
Concerning “movements” in poetry, and their relationship to the moments or eras in which they existed, it is necessary to note the scientific advances that were happening concurrently. Why? Because, for one thing, it is typical of artists to understand in a precipitating or predicting manner the changes occurring in society. Think of Picasso and his reaction to the industrial revolution; or Pollack and his reaction to post-World War II. There is an intuition that aids in the formation of connectedness. An unconsciousness.
“Many of the books which have been most important to [the young poet] have not been works of poetry or criticism but books which have altered his way of looking at the world and himself” (Auden).
- Auden, W. H. The Dyer’s Hand. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
- Gander, Forrest. A Faithful Existence. Emeryville: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005.
- Pinker, Stephen. The Blank Slate. New York: Viking, 2002.
- Powell, Corey S. “Across the Megaverse.” New York Times 15 Jan. 2006, natl. ed.