Ars Poetica

I always wanted a religious experience. Something really showy that would indisputably seal God’s hand on me. And I felt like I deserved it, that my suffering had primed me for something transcendent. In the logic of childhood faith, I understood that God had singled me out. He loved me so much he seared my heart with pain.

I grew up and lost belief in the miraculous, or at least in experiencing it personally. I understood God as silence, part of everything we cannot hear. Then I understood Him as Nothing and called Him Night.

And then I forgot about Him. I was in college and in love. I’m not ashamed to make the nostalgic shark jump and say that the years I spent as an English major at the University of Connecticut were some of the best years of my life. I read for hours. I dreamt about the books I read. I often fainted from poverty-induced malnutrition, but I felt something huge.

And then one November day, it happened. I was reading on the couch in the living room about Gerard Manley Hopkins. First I read an anemic biographical sketch of him, then some commentary (which, rippling with rumors of his homoerotic tendencies, was much juicier), then I got to the marrow—his work. I started with Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

Hmm. That was kind of nice…an unabashed love for the natural world. But what is that word, lightnings? Is that a misspelling? A typographical error? I wasn’t sure. I read on.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, –the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

What…what was this? A poem about noticing a bird—a homely subject. He must like birds. So what was it that made these lines jump? With each reading, I heard something new. NEW. That was it—part of it. What I heard in these lines was different from anything I had heard in any of the Romantic or Victorian poets… I caught this morning morning’s minion. This morning morning’s minion. Dalylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon… This was excess, a verbal abundance! Here was a man who heard his own music. It didn’t matter what the poem was about–it couldn’t be distilled into a summary. It had to be experienced. What did that mean? Hopkins heard with his inner ear, which might be located (I’m not a doctor) somewhere near his heart. The ear is connected to the feeling.Tangled in his weird rhythms, his ecstasies, I read poem after poem, the lines becoming a cathedral.

And then my body let go of me and I was rising.

And then I came back. My consciousness narrowed to that of a young woman again. I was back on the couch with tears streaming down my face. What had happened?

I was shaking and could feel the vestiges of light inside me. I had left my body—I had an out-of-body experience. My mind became space and in that space, there were words. Or words made the space itself. I don’t know the mechanics of the extraordinary. 

I didn’t tell anybody about this experience for a long time because it was too rare; sharing it might dissipate its tender power. The long sought-after sign that I was not forsaken had come. But it didn’t mean that anymore. What this out-of-body experience meant had changed.

This happened many years ago to a young woman I barely resemble now. My taste in poetry, in men, in everything has evolved. What has not changed is my fundamental belief that poetry is bigger, more beautiful, and more profound than anything I have ever known.