. . . .
Facts and Poetry
By Eli Siegel
The relation of wildness and causality
in history is like the relation of freedom and order or structure in a
poem. When I say that history is the poem of time and space and self, I
donít mean to be looked on as making a portentous statement. One can see,
in history, poetry occurring. The only difference is that in poetry there
is such an arrangement, through words, that music occurs.
I take now a fairly
popular history ó I remember it was popular many years ago when I got it
from a Baltimore library. Itís The Story of Russia, by W.R. Morfill
(London, 1890). On page 3 we have the following:
Russia has the command of abundance of
waterpower. Her lakes ... are intersected by rivers and canals. Ládoga,
the largest lake in Europe, contains many islands. The great rivers are
the Dniester, which empties itself into the Black Sea;...
A river like the Dniester emptying itself
into the Black Sea! It looks romantic. It is romantic." ... the
Dnieper, which enters the same sea by Ochákov and Kinburn; the Don,
which flows by Vorónezh; and the Volga, the largest river of Europe,
which empties itself by seventy mouths into the Caspian." What an organization!
Napoleon crossed this river in 1812 to
invade Russia. Its basin is occupied by the Lithuanians .... Siberian rivers
are the Obi, the Tom, the Irtysk, the Yenisei, and the Lena ....
Thereís a mighty
jumble here of lakes and rivers, the Don, 70 mouths, Lithuanians, what
Napoleon did, the date 1812; and here it looks pretty simple. As these
names, which are compounded of known and unknown, reach one, the poetic
thing happens; because whenever the unknown is dealt with solidly, or the
known is dealt with as if it were freely running into unknown places, we
have poetry. If it is affirmed, and known to be affirmed, there is the
music which is in poetry.
Take another little
collection of facts:
For some time the Russians were confined
to Archangel on the White Sea .... Ivan the Terrible made many efforts
to extend Russia to the Baltic, but this plan was not realized till the
days of Peter the Great. The latter monarch took Azov, thus getting an
outlet to the Black Sea; but his possession of the town was only temporary.
So from the point
of view of 1890, we can look at what happened to rivers, towns, kings,
peoples, and single people, and out of it all can come an arrangement in
sentences. The arrangement, of course, is not just imposed on what happened:
it is found to be in it. In art, the creator doesnít plaster on something:
he, as creator, also finds what was there. His creation consists of finding.
If we look at
this pretty carefully, something like poetry comes through. And it is like
the poetry which has been acclaimed as poetry quite often. Milton, for
example, uses names. Some of the greatest things in Paradise Lost
are collections of names that are somewhat historic yet have the redolence
of the unseen, unperceived, unknown. These names are aromatic with pleasant
misunderstanding. I read now from the first book of Paradise Lost:
Those names get you. Very few people really
could say what Aspramont is, or Montalban, or even Trebisond. It is all
spatial and definite, and it seems to be running through time and giving
forth the incense of the years.
|... and what resounds
In fable or romance of Utherís son,
Begirt with British and Armoric knights;
And all who since, baptized or infidel,
Jousted in Aspramont, or Montalban,
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond,
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore
When Charlemain with all his peerage fell
to Say, ed. J.E.B. Breslin (New Directions, 1985), pp. 250-51.