At this late point in literary history, what spaces (in reality, in the mind) can a poet occupy to write poems? One possible answer may be in an essay from the American Romantic period: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance.” In his discussion of the Foreworld, Emerson lays out what I will argue is a possible way for a poet, in this case, Franz Wright, to keep writing powerfully and meaningfully despite the weighty past and the bleak present. This is not to say that Emerson is showing the way to write, but that in our current age Emerson’s work can help us understand how a poet like Franz Wright can create a sense of possibility, a way to make poetry feel new.
Emerson claims that, “The power which resides in [an individual] is new in nature” and that “Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none” (176). What does or does not make an impression on one is not the result of idiosyncrasy and whim; “This sculpture in the head is not without preëstablished harmony” (176). That the harmony Emerson speaks of is pre-established, suggests that it is something one must get back to, to rediscover. For this reason, a pre-established harmony must be linked to memory. Emerson, then, is saying that we possess some sort of preexisting memory: “The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray” (176). If the ray that falls on the eye is read as the memory of pre-established harmony that one has gained access to, one way to read poems is as “testimonies” to that ray.
But how, if this “ray” of pre-established harmony does exist, how does the poet access it? Wright’s poems in The Night World and the Word Night, on many occasions, explore the difficulties involved in that question. For Wright, the idea of harmony is problematic. The world presented in his poems is far too dark and turbulent to be called harmonious. In his work there is, however, the sense of something having been pre-established, as vague and mysterious as that may seem, that perhaps at one time could have been harmonious, but is not now. One representation of this is Wright’s conspicuous yet subtle use of white space on the pages of his poems. (I say “conspicuous yet subtle” because, while he does make more use of white space than is done traditionally, his text is not all over the page; his margins are always flush left and he does not make excess space within his lines or across the page as, for example, Frank Bidart and Charles Wright do.) Franz Wright’s use of white space, I will argue, is ultimately a representation of his efforts to make something new.
One function of Franz Wright’s use of white space is to convey the difficulties involved in dealing with the gaining access to this pre-established harmony Emerson discusses. Take these lines from “Loneliness”: “Like the taste of alcohol to children //// No //// That with which there is nothing to compare”(13). The speaker is struggling to find an accurate, sufficient description of his loneliness. Like conspicuous pauses in speech during a conversation in which one struggles to articulate oneself, the large amounts of white space in these lines are pauses between thoughts in which, one senses, the speaker considers and reconsiders what he has just said, stares at the word as it lies on the page, and then decides that it is not right, that each statement somehow does not ring true. “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity,” Emerson says (187). Wright’s speaker is certainly the receiver of something, and the organ of its activity, but that thing itself, that “intelligence,” cannot come through clearly into this world, to the world the poem, once written, must occupy. In fact, the poem begins by supposing an interruption between one state of being and another:
Say you wake
Or at an intersection windows
The white space is “testimony” to the speaker’s sense of this “particular ray” – loneliness – but it is also a portrayal of the difficulties involved in expressing that testimony, in getting it right. The particular difficulty in doing so is that the world (at least as presented in this poem) is full of interrupted and broken things. The poem begins with the interruption of sleep and dream. One goes from being “in the midst of addressing vast stadiums,” to being abruptly alone in a room. In the second stanza, one goes from simply being alone in a room, to waking to find that one has been in a car accident. Both stanzas take us from the public world immediately to the solitary and lonely night. But the night the speaker wakes in is not “the night world.” The public world (presumably) was a dream world, one inhabited during sleep. But in the context of the poem, that makes sense. As we will see later in the poem, the world of sleep and dream is the closest thing to an ideal world the speaker can imagine. In this poem, the world the speaker is in while sleeping is the night world. (It may seem contradictory to say the world in which one is addressing vast stadiums is one of solitude. But for this speaker, as I will explain later, addressing people in a dream is a form of solitude.) Loneliness, then, results from being abruptly pulled from the sleeping world into this world. “Testimony” to something is difficult when one is constantly being taken from the place one is trying to “testify” to. The white space is representative of the space the speaker has been taken from, for the speaker is now absent from the space he once occupied, and that space, for all intents and purposes, is now much like a blank in the speaker’s mind, an absence.
“Loneliness” also gets at one major cause of the difficulties involved in expressing one’s perceptions (which consequently brings to the fore one reason why “Self Reliance,” despite being written in 1841, is still an important text for contemporary poets and poetry). “[M]an is as it were clapped into jail by his consciousness”, says Emerson. “As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account”(178). Emerson is talking about consistency. When one speaks – that is, expresses a private thought publicly (publishes a poem, for example) – one immediately creates expectations. Moreover, one’s own consciousness will urge him toward consistency in thought, “For noncomformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face”(182). Here is Wright’s estimation of a sour face in “Loneliness”:
Say you have no friends, or
To see your friends
It’s not so bad
Where they removed
And no one
After several weeks
You get a little doll that looks like you (14)
“[T]he voices we hear in solitude,…[become] faint and inaudible as we enter into the world”(178). Wright distinguishes between solitude and loneliness. Sleep for this speaker is an odd form of solitude. The speaker is not alone in his dreams; he is addressing people. They are (presumably) listening to him, hearing his voice, and he is hearing his own voice in a way that he does not when he is awake. In this sense, sleep for this speaker is, by Emerson’s definition, a form of solitude. Sleep is one space in which this speaker hears a voice, his own addressing vast stadiums. The speaker’s anger and cynicism in these lines is a result of the voice he hears while sleeping, in Emerson’s words, becoming inaudible as he enters into the world; that is, being taken from him. The waking world is one of loneliness and loss, and again the white space on the page of the poem serves as a representation of the more ideal space the speaker has been taken from.
Entry into the waking world out of the night world for Wright’s speaker is much more violent than Emerson suggests. The speaker’s entry literally wounds him, removes what is inside him and leaves him with stitches that itch, a cut that has been treated and is supposed to heal but, because of the itch, constantly reminds him of its existence and, presumably, is a cut that has scarred.
Society removes his rage, his thoughts, things that allow “nonconformity” – qualities, in short, necessary for an inner life. The speaker is, in a sense, emasculated by society, which, as Emerson puts it, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members” (178). One could also say the speaker has been dehumanized. The speaker and “everyone” are taken from their solitude, out of the space in which they can see each other—their sleep, which is analogous to the white space of the poem, blank spaces between “waking” moments, between what the speaker has said and what he will say. Once they are pulled out of their sleep “everyone learns how to tie his own shoe”; that is, everyone learns a practical and “useful” skill to take the place of their thoughts (inner lives) that have been removed. What everyone is left with is a doll that looks like him; that is, parodies of their former selves, versions of their selves that are, quite literally, made by others, by the authority figures (one suspects) that teach everyone to tie his own shoes. The doll and learning to tie one’s shoes are tropes Wright borrows from rehabilitative therapy. References to therapy of one sort or another are throughout Wright’s work. It usually, as is the case in “Loneliness,” presented as a mixed form of ridicule and pity, pity society aims at the speakers that winds up coming across as ridicule. Society does this to its members, Emerson says, because it “is a joint stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity”(178). For Emerson, “self-reliance” (the character trait and his essay) is an “aversion” to conformity (178). For the poet, poetry is and must be an aversion to conformity, to his being made to learn how to tie his own shoes. Poetry, for Wright, is a rehumanizing force, or at least a means of resisting being dehumanized. It is a way to avoid becoming “a doll that looks like you,” a way to try to occupy the white spaces, the spaces where he may gain access to a pre-established harmony, that he is constantly being pulled from.
But how, when he lives in a society that must remove his rage and thoughts, that dehumanizes him, how can Wright occupy a space in which he can rehumanize himself by writing poems? I have suggested that the conspicuous white spaces on the page in Wright’s poems are an approximation of Emerson’s idea of solitude. I want to take a moment and talk more clearly and specifically about that. “Insist on yourself;” Emerson says, “Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again” (199). “Reproduce the Foreworld again?” What is the Foreworld? What good will come of reproducing it, not to mention reproducing it again?
The Foreworld is, one gathers, the place in which one hears the voices of the pre-established harmony Emerson speaks of earlier. It is a place of solitude in which one (including and especially, the poet) can do a number of things, one of which is escaping the trappings of society and hearing the voices that become faint and inaudible as we enter the world. But it is also a place where one can keep “with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”, where one can “Insist on [one’s]self; never imitate” and, above all, for Emerson, the Foreworld is where one can “Trust thyself”(181, 199, 177). What Wright wants to (re)produce in his poems is something like the Foreworld, for it is the place where he can rehumanize himself. It is the pre-established space his poems come from, the space that allows him to keep alive a sense of poetic possibility and newness.
Emerson’s description of the Foreworld makes it seem like a very charged and empowered place, almost prophetic. In what else but a place more empowering than this world could one never imitate and insist always on one’s self? To some readers, it may seem odd to say that Wright’s poems come to him out of a place like Emerson’s Foreworld. One often feels that Wright’s speakers are so depressed they can barely get out of bed, that his poems are very much of this world. In some poems, the personas are clearly suicidal. The speaker in “Certain Tall Buildings,” for example, says, “I know a little / about it: I know / if you contemplate suicide / long enough, it / begins to contemplate you— / oh, it has plans for you” (19). These are not the words of someone who believes in trying to access an empowered place, a place that helps keep poetic possibility—as well as the poet—alive.
Or are they? The speaker knows a little about suicide; he knows that if contemplated long enough, it exerts power over the one contemplating it. At the same time, he clearly has not committed suicide, and may never have even attempted it, for that matter. The speaker knows that when suicide begins to contemplate “you,” “It calls to your attention // the windows of certain tall / buildings, wooded snow fields / in your memory where you might cunningly vanish / to remotely undiscoverably / sleep” (19). Suicidal thoughts can call to one’s attention means of committing suicide (jumping off of a tall building, for example), but they also call back places one existed in before feeling suicidal. That one can think about cunningly vanishing to these places to “remotely undiscoverably sleep,” suggests that one is at least somewhat empowered not just by these places, but also by the memory of them, just as one is said by Emerson to be empowered by the Foreworld and memory of it. (Notice the return of “sleep” and “memory” in this poem.) While Wright does not make the same use of white space on the page that he does in “Loneliness,” white space, nonetheless, is well represented in the poem itself. It is the “wooded snowfields” in the speaker’s memory.
Empowerment is also evident in the sarcasm and humor of a statement like, “oh, it has plans for you” (Wright makes brilliant use of humor throughout his work). That tone is one taken by someone who has survived despair but at the same time does not feel saved, and therefore sees the perverse humor of his predicament; its effect is that of a menacing smile and quick laugh (at but also with the reader). What Wright does in this poem and throughout the book is adjust his tone so that, as Stevens instructs, it can “face the men of the time and […] meet / the women of the time” (240). Wright’s time is late in history. One poem refers to “posthistoric clouds” (11), which further suggests that the poet is in a completely uncharted and unknown place, one where something new may indeed be made to happen. By going back in time, so to speak, in his memory, and in harkening back to Emerson, Wright is able to keep moving forward. But Wright’s time is also one in which it is more difficult than ever to keep alive a sense of possibility, a sense of hope. Therefore, Wright’s desire for something like Emerson’s Foreworld is more than credible. He needs something that, in its original incarnation, is powerful enough to survive adaptation to the climates (poetic and otherwise) of the contemporary world. The alternative, it seems, is death of the poems, in the sense that they will not do anything new, will create no sense of poetic possibility, and death in the sense that suicide may well always be a viable option for the poet.
Never imitating, always, even when among the masses, maintaining solitude, always trusting one’s self; this is rather high idealism, even for Emerson, a thinker often accused of being too ideal. And Emerson himself seems to acknowledge his high degree of idealism: “And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far off remembering of the intuition” (190). Because it is the product of (fleeting) intuition, a thing that cannot be grasped by the rational mind, the Foreworld has to it an element of unattainability; it is a fiction that one knows is a fiction, but chooses to believe in nonetheless (something like Stevens’ “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction”).
Obviously, Wright does not truly believe he can attain the Foreworld (I have my doubts as to how much Emerson even thought it was possible), and that unattainability, along with the desire for newness, is exactly what makes the idea of the Foreworld such fertile soil for Wright to till. Emerson puts it like this: “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag of a hundred tacks” (184).
If Emerson were to use the word “interesting” instead of “best,” one would have exactly what I am talking about. The most interesting poetry is not that which is concerned so much with its destination, as it is with the variety of exciting ways it can conduct its journey; that is, how the journey be (re)presented on the page and in speech. But even my description of Emerson’s idea of a zigzag voyage seems too ideal and optimistic in tone when applied to poems as dark and speakers as depressed as those in The Night World and the Word Night. “Ilegibility, ” the beautiful and disturbing poem that begins The Night World and the Word Night is illustrative of what I mean. Here are the first three stanzas:
Hawk in golden space
Though it is not zigzagging, the beauty of the poem is in the movements of the speaker’s eye. It is almost always gazing upward, at the hawk, the thick-leaved trees, the peaks of the thunderheads. The poem is composed almost entirely of images, and they are reminiscent of the “stones” and “bones” and, I suspect not coincidentally, “trees” of the deep image poets. [For more on Deep Image and contemporary poetry, see Nick Halpern’s excellent essay, “‘Coming Back Here How Many Years Now’: August Kleinzahler and James Wright’s Shall We Gather at the River” in “American Poetry of the 1990’s” a special issue of Contemporary Literature, Vol. 42, #2]. They are being evoked and, one assumes, are expected to resonate somehow. In other words, whatever work they are in the poem to do, they are expected to some degree, to do it on their own; the speaker is not going to interrogate them. The objects themselves are not even moving, or at least not moving very quickly. The hawk is “in” golden space, which creates a feeling of suspense: the hawk seems almost literally suspended in space. Even if it were floating, as opposed to suspended in space, it might not convey a feeling of movement. The leaves are beckoning, but that does not suggest they are moving. Or if it does, it is minimal movement. The leaves might, like a hand motioning, be beckoning by moving, but beckoning doesn’t require much movement. The thunderheads are fading, which implies that they are moving, but it is most certainly a slow movement and one that will soon cease, as the word “fading” suggests. And as these objects are suspended in the readers mind, held in the speaker’s gaze, one becomes aware that the poem, in a sense, is punctuated with white space. It is as if the words are suspended in the white space of the page. The white space, we begin to see, represents the space the speaker has been taken from in that it is part of what Wright brings back from the Foreworld. It is also analogous to the time in reality when a poet is not actually writing. It is the space (the “sleep” and “memory”) out of which his poems are made.
Where other poets might convey either satisfaction or disappointment with the images they had chosen, Wright does neither. Instead of expressing satisfaction with the work the images have done, he looks away, presumably to the,
The stranger who approaches on the
Earlier I argued that Emerson is aware that the Foreworld is in many ways unattainable. Wright also acknowledges this. In the above lines he is talking about the difficulties of the “Foreworld.” Emerson says, “all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition” (190). Wright complicates this idea in “Illegibility.” He is saying the Foreworld is a possibility, but that if it does exist we may be so far removed from it that even when it presents itself we don’t recognize it. Even if we could recognize “the stranger,” we wouldn’t remember having known him. For Wright, the intuition that Emerson speaks of is an absent presence, “the stranger who approaches on the / street and says, You / don’t remember me.” “Remember” should be read very literally. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” Yeats said (187). In “Illegibility,” and many of the poems in this collection, the reader enters a world in which things have already fallen apart, including the speakers. In some sense it is as if “You” and “me” are the same person split in two, “me” being the self from the “Foreworld” and “you” being the poet/individual in society (on the street). Wright is always considering the possibility that things, including his speakers’ selves, could somehow be put back together (re-membered). Wright’s poems are meditations on how difficult it and depressing such a quest often is. He has the desire and hope for things to be put back together, but the pieces are often illegible; a neon sign will be “missing a letter,” a shotgun will have “an obliterated serial number”(11). Even titles of poems suggest that things have fallen apart. I have already mentioned “Illegibility,” but the there is also “Forgotten in an Old Notebook,” “Gone,” and seven poems called “Untitled.” The titles, then, are also a kind of white space, for what they immediately convey is the sense that the poem that follows comes from a space that the speakers once, but no longer, occupy.
These poems are examples of the great strain Wright’s speakers are under to keep writing, to make things new. They have a sense, can intuit, that something like the Foreworld exists, or at one time may have existed. But their access to it is at best severely limited. In the first poem of this collection, the Foreworld is presented as an illegible space, a stranger we (the speaker and readers) do not remember. In “Loneliness” it is a place one must go to sleep to have any hope of experiencing. In both poems society is an impediment to the Foreworld. And in poem after poem in this collection we get variations on the idea, and essentially the impossibility of truly accessing the Foreworld. Why then, some readers may ask, would a poet put so much work into what seems to be such a hopeless project? One answer, I think, is that at this late point in literary history, when everything there is to do feels like it has been done, one recourse is to explore what it feels like to live in that poetic climate, what it feels like to carry on, to try and keep any sense of poetic possibility alive, to try and use that feeling to make something new. The other answer harkens back to something I quoted from Emerson earlier: “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag of a hundred tacks”. If one cannot find/does not have a consistent space to occupy, if one has no place to rest; in short, if one has no poetic equivalent of home, then one option is to keep moving. What is important, then, is the movements themselves, and what they come out of, not necessarily what they lead to (though that does matter to some degree), for what they ideally lead to are dramatizations of the “zigzagging” itself and what that feels like. That is what makes Wright’s poems in The Night World and the Word Night so powerful and beautiful, so subtly awake and alive: the feeling they convey of (near) hopelessness, and how they make a reader feel that it is all Wright could do to muster the energy to write them (all his speakers’ could do to say them), that they indeed are all that stand between him a complete despair. And it is also why Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is an important text for contemporary poetry: it can help poets find new ways to say things, to create new versions of old myths and ideas. It can, in short, be a powerful aid for poets looking to make a space for themselves to occupy in a world where so little space seems left available.