THE POEM IS THE REAL: A POETICS*
Gémino H. Abad
The real is the poem. To write the poem is to get real.
The real is what we call “our world.” But our world is only our experience of it. If so, the world is only, for each one, that little time-space where we “ex-ist” or stand out as conscious beings; the world is only our consciousness of it in our experience of it. It is our only world; we have no other. A cat’s world is its own; we have no access to it: the living of it.
What we call reality is only, and forever, a human reality: what we are able to perceive. The world of matter is our science; the world of spirit is that of our world’s religions.
And who are “we”? – Not I, not you, not the other; it is in their interconnectedness that we are: thence, you and I and the other, and thereby we are.
“To experience” anything, in consciousness of it, has from its etymology in Greek,enpeiran , and Latin, experiri , both an active and a passive sense: it is “to try or attempt, to pass through, to undergo.” The word in both Greek and Latin is associated with going on a journey, faring, meeting with chance and danger, for in setting forth nothing is certain. Such the meaningfulness of our English word “experience.”
But then, it is only with words and words that, after the event – that “fundamental entity,” the experience – we again try and remember, undergo and pass through what we call our world. This other journey is verbal; it may end nowhere, the trial fail, the experiment pall. But working our language – soil and fallow of all human thought and feeling, our only ground – we invest our words with a power to evoke, to call forth, to our mind and imagination a meaningfulness that we seem to have grasped in that human event or experience: indeed, whether that event did happen, or had only been dreamed or imagined, or is only an inextricable conflation of fact and fiction; indeed, too, that we call an “event” or experience may only be a thought that seeks a clearing or a feeling that haunts. And in that finished weave of words – the very text – our aim is to apprehend, to understand, the living of it, the full consciousness of the event or experience: its very sensation.
When we speak, write, or read a word, we begin to create our world again – our world in our image, in or from our language; this is so because it is with words that we connect to reality with each nerve of perception – a filament of feeling, a spore of thought: we have no other means for connection but our words; with our words, we give a meaningful form to the feeling or thought that pulses with our grasp or apprehension of the world in our experience. And that apprehension sows our mind with images of the encompassing reality and thereby re-forms our language and shapes us, forms us within. We are in-formed, we are formed within.
To understand our experience then is with words and words to stand under a cloud broken by shafts of light from a makeshift sun. To understand, to stand under, for the immense Reality of creation is essentially, infinitely mysterious. Here is the poem, this poem, and that poem: we journey from sun to sun, then pass to night again. What we understand is not a meaning, fixed and stable, but a meaningfulness of the living of it: the very sensation of it.
Yet the living of it is only one human being’s memory of it: as Eduardo Galeano says, “to remember is to pass through the heart.” And the reader, another human being, also remembers what he may have lived or passed through: the living of it as he now imagines it himself. And thus, as he reads alive, he dwells where all things live – that universal plane where his humanity is always achieved, for that moment, as he reads, as he is also read. Here, indeed, on that plane, is that vibrant interconnectedness of the human community: each one immersed in a history, a culture, and a natural environment – all change, transformation, energy. The words chosen, to convey that vibrancy of interconnectedness, are cathected : that is to say, invested with mental and emotional energy.
Poems are forms of thought and feeling wrought from language by an individual mind and imagination. Feeling is deeper and wider than thought; it is also the most honest part of oneself. And, as Derrida suspects, peut-être, “perhaps, there may be forms of thought that think more than does that thought called philosophy.” The poem leaps over Derrida’s perhaps ; for what is wrought there is what has been lived as imagined . We may see only what our words permit us to see, and yet, with imagination, we are enabled, also with words and words, to see beyond them the infinite possibilities of invention and innovation; we perceive other worlds, other possibilities.
So here then is my own poetics, in response, it may be, to present and future critics:
Poems are forms of the imagination. The imagination has infinite possibilities of apprehending a human experience in the very living of it. Thus, my critical standpoint seeks to engage with the varicolored forms of the imagination because, for me, what is most imagined is what is most real. I would much rather go by what Wallace Stevens says of “the nobility of the imagination.”
The word “criticism” and its kin, “crisis,” both come from Greek krinein , “to divide and judge”: that is, to discriminate, to perceive distinguishing features, to use good judgment. Thus, in any critical approach, from any standpoint, it is in fact much simpler, and more honest, to say just what you mean. It is also much more exciting to be free to draw from all sources of possible enlightenment: for revel and revelation. You need only choose your words with care and respect for their freight of meaningfulness.
This is why I would much prefer for my standpoint not to be pinned by any label on the critical board. All labels are constrictive: formalist, feminist, Marxist, deconstructive, poststructuralist, postmodern, postcolonial, other “posts.” My chief care and concern is to rescue the living experience from the discombobulations and borborygmus of theory and ideology – to rescue the experience, as lived as imagined , even from the words that would evoke it: just as though the words themselves were a hurdle to leap over. One aspires to that state of contemplation where no words break – where one no longer has even any need for words.
Only for convenience of overview, I here encapsulate certain assumptions about language, about the literary work and its form, about the writer’s playing field, and about a country’s literature as its image. The “field work” in research – that is, the reading of the poetic texts themselves over the last century, our poetry from English since Man of Earth through A Native Clearing to A Habit of Shores; our short stories through English, 1956 to 1989 so far in my field work, from Upon Our Own Ground to Underground Spirit – all that field work enabled me to clarify to myself, chiefly by the inductive method, those assumptions. The argument is as follows:
Particularly when the work is literary, linguistic usage is essentially translation. The word, “translation,” is from Latin transferre, translatus , meaning “to carry or ferry across.” When we write, we ferry across our words our perceptions of reality. Such working or tillage of language is work of imagination: it makes things real to the mind, for it is the mind that has the imaginative power. This implies that one’s sense for language is the basic poetic sense. It is intimately bound with one’s sense of reality. As Albert Camus says, “When the imagination sleeps,” says Albert Camus, “words are emptied of their meaning.” The same tillage or cultivation of language implies that the meanings of our words do not come so much from the words themselves as from lives lived. This is why, in the critical response to literary works, the stress falls not on meaning but on meaningfulness. We translate a thought, a feeling, or an impression into the words of a language; the translation could fail. We try and choose the right words in the right order, we invent or even reinvent our words, or transform or even subvert their accepted syntax, in order that we might ferry across them our own soul’s freight without hurt.
I might note here that English is already one of our Philippine languages, not regional, but national. We have used it for our own purposes for over a century now, and it ischiefly through that language, in speech and writing, that we are understood in the world outside our shores. English is already a national language like Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilocano; that cannot be helped, it was simply inevitable, for their speakers live all over the archipelago, and even globally. Only by legislation is Tagalog-based Filipino the national language. This certainly is not to assert that Filipino is adventitious; it is an inherent aspect of our aspiration to be our own country, one people. That aspiration should be rooted in respect for all our languages and their cultivation in literature because our literature presents our image of ourselves. Personally, I believe that there is no English, no Tagalog, no Filipino: there is only one language – language itself. And that language is most manifest in our finest writers, whatever the provenance of their idiom.
About the Literary Work
The literary work itself, without Theory, isn’t mute. The word “theory” is from Greektheoria , meaning “a way of looking.” Any theory then is only a way of looking, and essentially heuristic; none has monopoly of insight. Now then, for me, a literary work’s chief appeal is to the imagination, and the basic requirement for intimate engagement with a work of imagination is a sense for language. There in any literary work a human action, a human experience, as imagined as lived, is feigned or mimicked in language; be that human action or condition only someone’s mood or train of reflection, as in a lyric poem, if it is then shaped or endowed with form, it becomes meaningful. Not a fixed meaning, but meaningfulness. That meaningfulness is its moral or ethical dimension. And that moral dimension raises it to a universal plane. That plane isn’t the site of eternal verities, it is the clearing of everlasting questioning.
Granted a fair enough sense for language, to read an essay or a poem is first to interpret the text on its face, to deal with it by and on its own terms. The text, after all, has come to terms with itself. That close reading, attending to the form of the literary work, is the antidote to the text’s predestination, that is, the privileging of Theory over text such that the text is read to conform to the theory one prefers. Such theory-bound dealing with the text is eisegesis: that interpretation of the text by reading into it one’s own ideas. The critic aspires to a reading of the text that isn’t beholden to any theoretical or ideological commitment.
“To interpret” is from Latin interpretari , from interpres , agent, negotiator, interpreter. To interpret then is to present in understandable terms, as when you interpret a dream. You might say that the literary text is the dream on the page. To interpret is also to bring to realization by performance or direction, as when you play a role in the theatre. You might say that the literary text is a stage on which a moment or a life is lived.
What I have in mind is first-level interpretation, for the literary work is already interpretation of a human experience, it already represents that experience by means of art. First-level interpretation then means that you present that experience again in understandable terms. You bring to realization in your mind – and in the reader’s mind – that experience as already interpreted and realized by the means of art. You have to deal with those means of art. The human experience in the literary work has already been performed and directed in the text by those means of art.
This is what is meant by close reading of the text.
When we read a story or poem, we need to imagine the human action, the human experience, that is mimicked or simulated there. That is the form of the literary work. It is that which must direct and validate the interpretation of its content. For the form that has been wrought is that by which the content is achieved, that is, endowed with a power of meaningfulness by which we are moved. Form is the matter of art, content the matter of interpretation. When Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., was asked whether his stories are true, he said, Yes, of course, because “on the page,” where the story is, “is the life that matters.” That life is achieved by the story’s form.
In practice, it may be useful to distinguish the literary work as a work of art from the literary work as discourse . In my view, the work of art precedes the discourse. There is no meaningfulness without form; but form is achieved content; in discourse, the focus is on cultural and ideological content, but in a literary work, content is achieved by the means of art.
About the Writer’s Playing Field
The writer’s playing field is the field of imagination. For the writer, poem or short story is only a convenient label; when they write, they do not adhere to any fixed criteria or theory of the literary work. They only aspire to creating something unique in their playing field: they make things anew or make new things. Without a masterful use of language, no literary work can rise to the level of art. For that thing made anew, or that new thing, is the very form of the human experience as imagined as lived that has been simulated by a particular use or deployment of language, a particular style. Albert Camus speaks of such style as “the simultaneous existence of reality and of the mind that gives reality its form.”
We shouldn’t forget that the word “poem” is from Greek poiein , “to make.” The poem or short story is a thing made of words, an artifact. It may sometimes be claimed that “in English, we do not exist.” But of course, nor indeed in any language, except in and through the poem, where – as the poet Isabela Banzon says – “the lights mutate from artifice to real.”
About a Country’s Literature as Its Image
A country’s literature is its own imagination of how its people think and feel about their world and so, justify the way they live. In short, its literature is its lived ideology. In that light, our writers and scholars create our sense of country. Our writers and scholars do not proclaim their nationalism, their love of country; their works proclaim it – but of course, as with everyone else, not only their writings, but all the other things that they do.
Let me make myself clearer by stressing the obvious. The things that a people do make their country. Writing is also doing, and more: those who write create a people’s sense of their country. In their writing is a people’s memory, and a people is only as strong as its memory.
For one’s sense of country is basically how one imagines her; essentially then, a poetic sense: an imaginative perception of our day-to-day living in the very element of our history and culture. While it may be shared through education, the mass media, the arts, and other means and institutions, our sense of country is, in the first place, personal and subjective, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It is more image than concept, more feeling than thought. Which of course is why that sense is more readily apprehensible in the artistic media – painting, film, theatre, song, the literary text. The literary text, as language purposefully worked, may be the clearest expression of one’s sense of country; in that light, a poet’s sense for language – whatever the language he has mastered – may be his most intimate sense of his country’s landscape and his people’s lived lives.
For the writer, one’s country is what one’s imagination owes its allegiance to.
Gémino H. Abad
20 October, 19, 30 November 2008
U. P. Faculty Center, Rm. 1062
*ICW Panayam Centennial Lecture series, UP Faculty Center, 5 December 2008. This lecture sums up earlier essays: “Poiesis: Toward the Lyric – A Way To Hear,”Tomas 10 / The Literary Journal of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies, March 2006: 54-59; “Creativity and Philippine Literature” in the University of the Philippines Forum , vol. 7, no. 3, May-June 2006: 1-3; “As Imagined as Lived: Sense for Language, Sense of Country,” Bookwatch / Quarterly Publication of the National Book Development Board, Apr-Jun 2008: 14-17 (from my Centennial Fellow lecture, in U.P. Mindanao, 29 Feb 2008).