All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, preface (1801)
Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.
Poetry has many definitions, but I would define it as an intuitive description of objects, nature, or an inner state of a poet, expressed with carefully selected words along with a spontaneous and powerful flow of feelings and emotions, limited by space and poetic clarity. And yet, it is imposable to squeeze poetry into any specific frames. It is free like a warm breeze, free to fly above our earthly existence and to touch the most sensitive strings of our soul.
However, not everyone can call himself a poet. Some verses, written by “so-called” poets, and considered to be the “work of art,” often, by their creative realization, have nothing to do with the real art. There are poems that we can call – apparitions; they are hardly visible and tangible and they don’t leave any impression either on paper or in the hearts of their readers. Vladislav Khodasevich, a Russian poet and literary critic, called those poets “the poets of reverse greatness.” And he gave such an example: “Judas hang from the aspen tree/first blue, then red, then free.” The author of that verse regarded himself as the reincarnation of Alexander Pushkin, and therefore, required a very special attention to his creative work.
What is the difference between such verses and those we call “real poetry”? It is probably a poet’s talent or gift from God that places him in a special spot, the gift from God that first of all weaves with inspiration. Only when a person finds himself in an unusual spiritual state that lives beyond the line of his everyday life, he gets charged with some unusual creative impulse, necessity to splash out his emotions, leave his everyday homeliness for this “extraordinary” state of mind, almost a delirium, when one can fly above the earth, above the surface of reality into unreal, into a spiritual and supernal world. And at this acme, when feelings and ideas are intertwined, the real creative process begins and the high poetic verses are being born, “irreplaceably, unstoppably my verses gush out”.
I cut my veins: unstoppably,
Irreplaceably, life gushed out.
Put down the bowl and the plate!
Any plate will be – too small
And the bowl – too flat,
Over the edge, – and away –
Into the black earth, to feed the reeds,
Unstoppably, my verses gush out. *
Sometimes, by striving to be original and complicated, poets exclude the real inspirational poetic feelings or replace them with some artificial emotions and shrewd craftsmanship that may even annoy a sensitive reader. Not only a rational mind, but also a creative emotion move poet’s hand, and at this very moment, based on his intuitive sense of poetry, it reaches its highest point. Nadezhda Mandelshtam wrote in her memoirs: “Poetic thought is a synthesis of all layers of human personality, including intellect and physiology, spiritual and emotional structure, everything that can be achieved with the help of heart.” The creative poetic intuition can be viewed here as artistic flair, astuteness, based on poetic imagination and previous experience. It is born “in the unconscious of the spirit.”
The intuition comes as a spontaneous ascent of soul painted in rich spiritual and emotional colors. The real poetry, to my opinion, carries an element of mysticism, element of poetical intuition that is an important part of any poetic inspiration. Poet’s intuition leads us to some secret places of his soul and the world around us, and helps us to find the depth of our own soul.
The Russian composer, Nikolai Medtner, in one of his articles wrote that in a creative process the idea and feelings are not separable, and that the inspiration is like a lightening that illuminates them both. A poet can always find the right words and use them in a special form. These words are tightly chained to each other and inseparable in their musical texture, colorful execution and sudden passages; and blended all together, they create those unusual images – profound and monolithic, unexpected and polyhedral. In other words, the poetic word weds together matter and manner: emotion, inspiration, intuition, musical pattern and profound ideas.
We walk along the streets like in a dream.
We look at women, and we coffee drink.
But real words we still can not reveal,
And the approximate we do not feel.
What shall we do? Go back to Petersburg?
Or fall in love? Or blow the Operá?
Or simply lie in bed – which’s cold,
Or close the eyes without waking up?*
These lines belong to one of the greatest Russian poets whose poetry combines all the elements of a high poetic expression. We can view poetry as a bridge that connects both spiritual and physical worlds. Our feelings, emotions and intuition are those components that emanate from our soul and, eventually, come to the world in a form of poetic word. We can say that poetry is the language of emotion, intuition and reason. It is the language of symbols that helps a poet to reveal his inner sacred world. Only a sensitive reader, whose feelings are tuned to the same poetic wave, is capable of deciphering this poetic language.
Often poetry is the result of profound ideas and poetic intellect combined with creative spirit and high poetic emotion. The French philosopher, Jacques Maritain wrote in his book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: “Poetry is the fruit neither of the intellect alone, nor of imagination alone. Nay more, it proceeds from the totality of man, sense, imagination, intellect, love, desire, instinct, blood and spirit together.” However, we should not exclude logical thinking and rational connections when a poet describes set of things, such as dawn, sunset, etc., “flash of reality captured in things.” We are now talking about art and reason. Notwithstanding, a poet often tries to liberate himself from any logic, concepts or reasoning, and express himself through the power of “unreason.”
In this relation, it is necessary to mention here the significance of power of music in poetry which is in other words, is the music of written words.
Frederic Chopin wrote about music: “The main thing is that there should be the greatest amount of inspiration and the least possible amount of work.” A poem, like a musical composition, makes us look deep inside our soul and share the power of emotions along with a poet or a composer. Soundless music of a poem has almost the same effect as a powerful musical symphony, where spiritual tension intertwines with imaginative mind of creator. In a nascent state of any creative process, the sounds and the words of a poem are born out of unconscious fantasies, imperceptible touch of inner spiritual power when the poetic intuition arises beyond his consciousness. Such poems often help awaken the sensitive musical strings of our own soul and penetrate our own dreamworld.
It will be wrong not to compare poetry with a work of art, which depict and reflect the inner feelings and emotions of an artist. We can talk here about primitive and surrealistic paintings, impressionistic and classical. The artist works with his brush the same way as the poet works with a word. The painter puts on his canvas not only what he sees, but also what he feels, and what he sees within himself. The same with poems – only the poet works with a word, not with a brush. It will be wrong not to mention here that many poets were also the artists.
Here, we can conclude that poetry, as well as music and art, have the same common components, such as intuition, imagination, logical thinking, feelings, idea, reason and unconscious fantasy that penetrate our soul and leave there an emotional imprint for many years to come. “Art is a virtue of the practical intellect – that particular virtue of the practical intellect which deals with the creation of objects to be made.” (Jacques Maritain). We can probably suggest that art and music stem from poetic spirit and is the direct expression of poetic experience. Often a musical composition sounds like a poem transformed into music and has the same effect on our emotions. A powerful melody may give us an instant feeling that we plunged into our inner self, into a closed space, away from reality, as well as a powerful and emotional poem implies a moment of contemplation, a moment of inner silence.
Be silent, listen to the rain.
The miracle of Truth will shortly die.
Love God. He is inside your pain.
The rest is just a lie.*
A real artist, in search for beauty, goes beyond the physical description of things and objects; he penetrates into their essence, their entity, hidden meanings. Poetry creates beauty in different forms, although it has no goal or task to do so – it creates beauty naturally, only by its own existence. However, the beauty is usually refracted first in poet’s imagination. It wedges into his space where his inner vision transforms it into words. “Poetry can not do without beauty, not because it is submitted to beauty as an object, but because poetry is in love with beauty, and beauty is in love with poetry.” (Jacques Maritain).
Beauty is a subjective concept as it is seen through the eyes and a soul of creator. It can exist in a specific physical form, but it can be also an abstract idea. For a poet, there are two descriptions of beauty – beauty of body and beauty of soul. In poet’s eyes, they exist next to each other and chained together, like musical scores, creating a harmony of sounds. Such harmony leads to the poetic perfection. On the other hand, Edgar Allan Poe considered that the poem must arouse the reader’s sense of beauty, an ideal that closely associated with sadness, strangeness, and loss. A poet helps us discover the mystery of the universe, some hidden from us beauty to which we had been blind before.
Death is deep, but deeper resurrection
Of all transparent leaves and summer grass.
I suddenly have realized –
The world of spring is action
Of beauty . . . and of my affection.*
Or, the famous poem by Nikolai Zabolotsky where he meditates what is the real beauty.
And even if her features are not fine,
And she has nothing to attract your fancy, –
The infantile gracefulness of soul
In every movement there will shine through.
But if it’s so, then what is real beauty,
And why it’s idealized by every man?
Is she a vessel with an empty essence,
Or is a flame which shines inside it, then?*
Art in any form comes naturally into our lives, as necessity that gives us energy, and charges us with a moral approach to our own vision of the world. Such an effect can be produced by poetry alone when we begin appreciating the power of written word and drink it as an elixir of life, as impetus to our own creativity. Good poetry invokes our own power within ourselves. The core of any poetry is its dramatic incandescence that seizes every stanza, and skillfully combines it not only with rhythm, but also with some emotional tension.
Nevertheless, as I have mentioned before, I do not wish to squeeze poetry into any specific frames of rules – free expression is the most important thing in poetry which depends on poet’s skills and talent. The poetic sense should be set free for poet’s creative process.
Often verses do not have a plot or any specific topic, they are like sketches of internal emotional state of poet, subconscious flow, where a specter of feelings directed into the depth of his soul. This kind of poetry is not “meditative,” all created images are born out of the inward perception of the world and, at the same time, a poet, like an artist, splashes on paper his different and colorful strokes that bring to life his inner vision of the world.
Poetry is often a biography of poet’s soul, the sensible soul that suffered and, therefore, through his own experience, the poet understands the inner world of human being. Yevgenii Yevtushenko wrote: “A poet's autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is just a footnote.” The deeper are the poet’s sufferings, the more experience the poet gains, the more profound is his reasoning and creative intuition. Any creative process goes through different stages and has diverse levels of depth. He is digging deeper and deeper into the depth of his own soul where his verses take their start. Poems carry such a powerful spiritual energy that often they bring on the surface strong emotions from the depth of man’s soul.
Every evening, as soon as the nightfall is fading away,
I am saying goodbye with the burning desire to die.
At again, at the dawn, with the fall of the day,
Life will grab and will torture the soul of mine.*
During centuries, with the development of complicity of our soul, the poetry develops into depth. Some poetic images may be chaotic, but in this chaos lay the truth, the experience and spiritual growth of poet, the biography of his soul.
The English philosopher of the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill said that the truth of poetry is to paint the human soul truly. However, he accuses poets of being selfish: “Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves; they have found within them one highly delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters.”
I would like to remind the readers that the famous Greek philosopher, Plato, suggested that all the poets should be expelled from his ideal Republic as a threat to the Republic, or at least, to be censored of what they had written. Plato says that art only imitates objects and events of ordinary life. In other words, a work of art is a copy and even more – it is an illusion of any ordinary experience. Poetry, in his view, is closer to a greatest danger than any other art form because it creates an illusion of real objects and has a power to evoke our strong emotions. Therefore, he suggests that poetry has the greater power over people than any other form of art.
On the other hand, Edgar Allan Poe said that a poet is a “genius” as “the state of mental disease arising from the undue predominance…,” while Jacques Maritain called it “madness from above.” These both statements carry elements of truth which can be only explained by the ability of poet to look deep inside his self in search for the poetic truth, sometimes experiencing unceasing pressure, stress, personal tragedy and emotional pain. By his ability to go into the depth of his soul, he stands above many individuals incapable of such depth. Is it “madness from above”? No, it is rather “madness from inside” that for many is beyond the reach. Lord Byron wrote in Lara: “His madness was not of the head, but heart.”
Sometimes, it is meditation that runs through the litmus of poetic moods. Poetic observation and ability to absorb not only the events, but also the phenomenon surrounding them, ability to see life through the impenetrable shell that others are incapable to see – is characteristic to any profound poetry. Some poetic themes are often eternal – they are based on emotions of love, meditations about life and death, about human relations, while the poetic sketch itself should be laconic, emotional, musical and colorful.
The Russian writer Michail Osorgin wrote: “Probably, there are many duties for a young poet: to bring up our soul, to reflect our epoch, to improve and to elevate our native tongue: maybe even something else. But there is no doubt about one thing: the one person that can’t be called a poet is a person whose poetry does not touch your heart.”
Poet’s outlook on the world, his spiritual vision, ideology, disposition, his heartfelt kindness and purity of his soul, his emotional and intellectual acuteness are that main components which define poetry. Any poetic process requires from the poet some tension of its spiritual power, creative impulse, and ability to express his thoughts firmly and laconically. The complicity of poetic process is obvious – in a small passage a poet should express his main idea, to deliver that important thought in a special form, should invest that high poetic emotion, strong human and poetic feeling that makes poetry the “divine superstructure” above our earthly existence.
I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name,
There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame:
But the tear which now burns on my cheek may impart
The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart.
* Poetry translated from Russian by Yelena Dubrovina
Yelena Dubrovina was born in Leningrad, Russia. Immigrated to the USA in 1978. The author of two books of poetry, two books of short stories and a bilingual anthology “Russian Poetry in Exile. 1917-1975”. She co-authored a novel with Hilary Koprowski, entitled “In Search of Van Dyck”. The editor of two journals “Russian Poetry Past and Present” and “Russia Abroad Past and Present”. She is a bilingual writer, published in both Russian and American periodicals.