The Portals of Discovery: A Manifesto on Writing
“Bosch!” said Stephen rudely, “the man of genius makes no mistakes. His mistakes are volitional. They are the portals of discovery.”
-James Joyce, Ulysses
What is a poem? A poem is a portal into the physical world. Just like the birth canal you dropped through into the world of gravity. You have to make it and find it.
What is that world? That world exists halfway between the physical world and the transformed world, half in the past, and half in the most immediate present moment, and it projects a corridor into the future.
What is the poet? She’s the one who opens that portal for the readers. She’s the one who makes the door. She’s the one who walks through it first. She discovers that world. She makes it real. She walks through that door and leaves it open.
Does it matter that poetry has fewer readers than other forms of entertainment based prose?
Only in desperate moments when the starved ego exerts itself out of envy. The Russians have pinpointed two kinds of envy: white envy and black envy. Only in moments of black envy does the size of the readership matter. It’s like complaining that you have only one mother or one child to have one reader.
What is the poet? The first reader of the poem she has created. She is both image maker and node through which the lyric conducts itself.
What is an image? An image is a portal or door into that poem. And what is a genius? A maker of images. According to that definition, we are all men and women of genius who want to be. A moment of genius is merely a moment of generative spirit. That’s it.
Where does a poem’s heart beat? Half in the past, in moments that are wholly gone, and half in the present moment of each reader, which is another way of saying that the poem projects its own portal into a kind of corridor which reaches into the future.
Can we speak to future generations? What do you think a poem is but a letter sent forward in time. Can we walk through that corridor? Is anything physical projected through it volumetrically? In other words, do our bodies abide?
Does it matter that poetry has so few readers today? It only takes one future reader to resurrect a poem. Odysseas Elytis put it this way once, to a friend of mine, the poet Kevin Prufer, who, after picking him up from the airport in Kansas City, apologized for what was sure to be a small crowd at his reading. That’s okay, Elytis said—(and here I paraphrase)—in order to give a reading, the poet only needs three people, and one of them can be the poet himself.
One future reader, then, is an entire universe, a half-closed system, like a black hole, half-opening terminally inward, half-newborn and half-Lazarus.
Who am I? A tree made entirely of words, a beast who howls in thought, a man whose screams come across the airwaves in a whisper, a computer that breaks that whisper down into binary code, the ones and zeroes the wind carries in its mouth, a poor, forgotten man, one who can only write if he doesn’t get what he wants, one who has chosen deprivation of the highest order, a deprivation of the soul, a soul which exists like a light around a body and fades immediately with the life of that body, like the light that a piece of phosphorus gives off, like the white flame a piece of magnesium produces when you drop it into water, that blinding, searing moment at which matter consumes itself.
If the universe is a closed system, or a black hole, as one theory suggests—then time is a loop, and even as I write this, the reader sits somewhere in the future, waiting to receive this missive. The light goes in one end, and comes out the other—or so simple souls like me have it—on the other side, as my father once said, in Brighton.
So experiment as much in the tradition of the Modernists, or the Romantics, or the Acmeists, as in that of L=A=N=G=and so forth. In other words, don’t chuck out emotion with the bathwater, nor clarity, nor the baby’s body, and if you meet the baby in the road, kill it in a way that coaxes out soft, lyrical, strangling sounds. In other words, writers of easy formulae and recognized patterns, or merely gibberish, need not apply. In other words, do something appalling with the flarf that has meaning, don’t merely replicate interesting patterns. Make it sing! Discover! And so on. . .
As Charles Olson once wrote, “MOVE! INSTANTER! ON! ANOTHER!”
Can we talk to the dead? Directly, through those portals of discovery. Didn’t Charles Olson just speak through me? Didn’t I just listen to Olson?
What is a poem then? An attempt to rectify the uncomfortable fact that my mind often keeps me out of the physical world, by making that body sing by thinking.
I don’t know much about the workings of the brain; I don’t think we should even pretend that we have any idea about how the brain operates, nor the physical structure of the universe, except to say that even I can see the way the two mirror one another. Have you ever seen an amniotic photograph of the brain of a foetus, its network-bursts of brain chemistry glowing like an electrical storm or a nest of worms connecting the branches of a tree? And doesn’t it also resemble a galaxy, either dying or being born? A gooey web of light? Hold it in your hand and spin the light out of it like honey. Let it twirl as it falls off the spoon into your tea in the morning light.
Therefore what do you suppose the cosmic role of a poem to be, bursting like that nebula at the center of all darkness and light? What could be less important than a poem? Isn’t that what gives a poem its most enduring power?
I don’t know what that role is, but I do know that physical indolence is a part of the process that discovers it.
In other words, at the risk of sounding clichéd, be a bit of a dreamer when you write.
What’s the exact relationship of light to dark in this alchemy? What’s the relationship of sound to silence, of emptiness to the fullness of time? Is it equal parts matter and antimatter? Equal parts mother and anti-mother, space and matter, particle and wave, rose and thorn?
One theory of creation has it that the Big Bang is occurring infinitely and simultaneously, like grains of sand on a beach that never ends, and each grain locks in an immensity in a Blakean sense. Why therefore send out a message at the margins and the heart of such immensity?
Because if, as one theory has it, the universe we live in is a closed system, one massive black hole, then it gets bigger the smaller it gets, the word carries its flesh forward and backward, swallowing its light all along the way.
Zounds=God’s Wounds=the place where the nails pierced his palms and the spear penetrated his side=history is a nightmare I can’t wake from=my brother, as a child, blending the words night terror and nightmare into one=Mummy, I had a night mirror.
Do the dead talk back? Only in silences and immensities.
I don’t know if the universe is expanding or collapsing in on itself at an endlessly increasing velocity, but I do know that the pattern replicates itself endlessly, outwardly, and inwardly, like a nesting doll. I feel this. I see it in the patterns of the physical worlds, in the fractals of nature, in something as simple as how the intricacy of an oak tree in full leafage replicates the branching of the arteries and veins in our hearts, in mathematics, music, image, art, psychology, dreams, we are folded into one another, so why not speak, why not find the pulse?
Therefore, in such a closed yet infinite system, wherein time is relative and exists in a looping relationship to itself, when right now is also yesterday and tomorrow folded within each second, it must be possible for those who have yet to be born to speak to the dead, through us, through my mouth, this moment, this here, this now—
I take a poem to be that message, written on the back, curving side of a Möbius strip. Or how about this: I am not the reader. I am the dead. I am the one speaking, who cannot yet be heard, speaking like the echo of a creek in a dark forest, and the variations are mazelike, unknowable, intimate with one’s body, never to be repeated, replicable, resistant of the flesh, beginning and ending, Poof! all at once.
If there’s a galaxy within each thought, then the energy of a great poem can hardly be exhausted.
Where am I when I write? At the center and the margins of everything, at the center of all hearts as they form, at the center of each different moment when each tiny heart ceases to quiver and beat, at the center of nothing, at the center of all Creation. Poof! And it’s gone.
How old am I? I am both a child and as many years as the most distant poem reaches back into all those millennia.