The quick and the dead

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring is set at that moment in Moscow when the change of seasons is marked by a quickening sense of liquefying movement: the melting of ice, fluidity of streams, the unsealing and opening of windows onto the air. A lovelorn student has secretly placed a note between the pages of a magazine a girl is reading in the library; when she reaches that page she discovers ‘You are alive. I am alive.’ This curious announcement is lent a certain force by being delivered in a world that has been, so to speak, in the midst of death, locked down under the spell of a hard Russian Winter.

The thought of coming alive in the midst of death took me back to the story about Hokusai that CK Williams recounted in his Poetry Society Annual Lecture ‘On Being Old’. Hokusai is looking forward to the time when ‘he can really know how to paint’ – an ambition he admits it will take him a lifetime to achieve. But by the time he is 130, the tiniest dot, mark and stroke he paints will have come to life. One thing that struck me was how different Hokusai’s ambition as from Pygmalion’s (to take one example from the European classical tradition) – whose marble figure itself turns into a human being. It is not Mt. Fuji that comes alive for Hokusai, but the lines that compose it. These are ‘The Minute Particulars’ Bake exhorted the poet to ‘labour well’: each dot and stroke of the medium itself.

Aging and death could be described as the fate awaiting each ‘minute particular’ as it becomes assimilated into literal language. Mallarmé used the image of a coin we silently pass back and forth until the original struck imprint has been worn smooth. In a similar way, etymologists tell us that swathes of our literal vocabulary have their origins in acts of transference that belong specifically to metaphor. Combs were invented with teeth and needles with eyes – to mention only a few of the metaphors whose dead figurations now makes up the texture of everyday speech.

This is the flattened discourse TS Eliot referred to as ‘a burden of anxiety’ to the poet. It is only relieved when the strong habitual barriers holding language in life are lifted, if only for the moment: the moment of the poem. When Eliot says that the barriers re-form very quickly, he is merely reminding us how much of our language remains buried under a slab. In their liveliest form, words have, as Aristotle says, ‘the power to place a scene before the eye’, to make us ‘see a thing’. He is invoking that ‘ecstatic’ moment of animation as language stands up ‘beside itself’ rather than dying back within the confines of the already said.

When Wittgenstein tells us that the act of ‘seeing as’, unique to metaphor, means that a person is ‘having this image’, he is describing something very particular to the experience of reading a poem that distinguishes it from any other form of reading. Poetic language lifts the location of the word, taking it to a place of inner possession by the reader, to the mind’s eye where it is given life by the sensuousness and immediacy of the reader’s own experience. In this way (to return to the Penelope Fitzgerald story I began with) ‘You are alive, I am alive’ is the reciprocal discovery which a poem is uniquely able to place within the pages of a magazine.

Do I need that Poetry London is that very magazine? The further good news is that an anthology, The Best of Poetry London is coming out from Carcanet this summer to celebrate our 25 years of publication. Keep your eyes peeled.