If you ask a student where a poem is, they rapidly reach a point where they can’t answer the question. Because of course, there is no answer to the question. Where does the poem exist? Is it on the page? Is it in your head? Is it in time, at the moment that you’re looking at it? Has it been there all along? Where is it? You don’t know. You don’t know where it is. You know that it is between two other mysteries. One was the original experience of the poem; the other is your own experience, which allows you to respond to it. None of these things can be defined or turned into something you call the squirrel or the tree. They’re all of them amorphous, they’re moving in time, changed by everything, but they are a constellation that works together. And that is far more mysterious than critical theory. When you read a sonnet of Shakespeare, you don’t think about Shakespeare’s love life, you probably don’t understand your own love life very well, but something in between them, which is these extraordinary words, wakes them both up and makes a link between them. And yet it is something completely unresolved, too. Because that’s the thing about a poem, a poem is a primal thing. It’s about something maybe, but it is something itself first, and we respond to that fact too. These things to me seem so obvious about poetry, but they’re sometimes overlooked when one is writing about it. I think the Abrams you quoted is amazing and I certainly agree with him, and I love the thing about the squirrel and the tree, which is very close to some teachings of Buddhism, of course, too. I think when you begin to have theocracy and theology with a monotheistic god, and monotheistic system, you begin to have that dualism. The “I” becomes separate from the world around it. Then the words become separate from the things around them. One of the things that is fascinating about pre-written language is exactly what Abrams is talking about, that attempt to get past that difference between language, and what it is referring to, leading to, pointing to.
A poem, very seldom, for me, begins with an idea of something, it almost always begins with hearing some language, a phrase, or some part of a sentence. It may be something that I’ve heard all my life, that I hadn’t paid any attention to, and then all of a sudden there it is, as though a light went on and it had a whole life that I had never heard before. And I know that that could be part of a poem, or a part of a line of a poem, and I don’t know what the poem is about, but it’s hearing something. Poetry to me is always connected to listening. It’s always physical in a way that prose may or may not be. It’s not essential to prose, but it is essential to poetry. So, I just want people, and I want readers, to listen. I want young poets to listen to themselves. That’s what you want poets to hear. And what is it that you hear? I don’t know. Just that. You hear a phrase, or a word, or a way of saying something that you hadn’t heard before, and that’s the beginning of something.