The poet is as old as history, he lies at the very roots of human life. Anthropology tells us that the mind of early man worked more in terms of poetry than in those of prose. Not that early man talked about everything in accomplished verses: surely he spoke prose about daily trivialities. But when he employed language not for mere utility, when he employed it for a satisfying self-expression and with an enjoyment in its use he spontaneously composed poetry. Present-day primitive races have a large fund of poetic utterance. Of course the utterance is itself primitive, but it shows how very naturally the poetic impulse comes to the mind and heart of man.
Poetry is not a matter of surfaces, of outsides; it is a matter of profundities, of insides, and the appreciation of it has to come by a response of the inner self, the inmost soul. I want to give you what I have felt most vividly of the poetic utterance, my stir to it in the recesses of my being and I want my words to get into your recesses so that you too may kindle up likewise. Then alone will poetry have been truly taught and truly learned.
Perhaps you will say: “You are a poet yourself, but we are not. How can we respond in the way you wish?” But, while pleading guilty to the charge of being a poet, I say: “There is a poet in each of us, because each of us has in his composite personality a dreamer, an idealist, a beauty-lover, a seeker of concordances, and poetry is but these beings in us grown vocal, finding tongue. Now, there are two ways in which the vocalisation, the tongue-finding can take place. Either you burst into poetic speech or else you get so identified with the creative life-process of somebody else’s poem that you feel as if the poem came out of your own soul. That is to say, when reading a poem, you experience as it were the actual writing of it. First, you draw away from common clamours and hold an attentive and receptive silence in yourself, for all poetry comes from beyond the ordinary noises of the world and of our own mind, from an in-world or an over-world whose native voice we can hear only when we turn to it with an intense hush. Not that poets always openly practise this hush by going into solitude or by shutting their ears to daily distractions. What hap-pens very often is just an automatic inward switching off even while the outer self is engaged in common occupations or else two lines run side by side, an inner line of receptive attention catching the in-world’s or the over-world’s vibration and an outer line directed towards day-to-day affairs. But, in whatever form, essentially there is what I have called an intense hush. You too have to repeat in yourself the calm which precedes all creation. But the calm is extremely sensitive — it is nothing dull and apathetic. It is all alert, it is emotion and imagination held in a profound poise, ready to light up. You have to thrill to the significant turn of the word-sound, you have to glow with the imagery in which the thoughts and feelings move. Then the poem repeats in you the act of its creation and what has happened to the writer happens to the reader. This is a wonderful experience and by it you can feel as if you were Shakespeare, you were Shelley, you were even Sri Aurobindo!”
“..the poet, though the most natural part of your being, is yet the part most to be watched, most to be carefully kept alive. Poetry as an art is older than prose because the emotional and the imaginative in man is older than the intellectual, and the moment the more deeply established part of us is stirred the impulse to poetry is there.”
Poetry goes beyond the usual knowledge acquired by looking outward or inward. It plunges farther than the objective or subjective surface of being — without really rejecting this surface. It sees the surface as constituting symbols of a hidden reality and, at its intensest, it lays a hand however lightly on the body of that reality itself. In various ways it uses the surface of being, objective or subjective, as pointers, peep-holes, glimmerings of a secret Splendour or a magnificent Mystery. It is this activity of poetry that we call its magic.
Poetry is primarily a speech of the soul – not the mind’s exclamation, not the cry of the life-force, not the lifting of the body’s voice. All of them are audible too, but in tune with a central’ note that is the soul’s, a note charged with some divine presence. It is because the soul finds tongue through the poet that there is a light in poetry, a delight in poetry. Light and delight are the soul’s very stuff, and by virtue of them the poetic expression which fuses the “vivid imagery of earth” with the soul’s “inner seeing and sense” is not just a fanciful entertainment but a kind of revelation. Of course it is not directly a spiritual, a mystic movement: it is only indirectly so and even when its subject is spiritual or mystic the poet does not necessarily become a Yogi or a Rishi. But the soul-quality ensures, as Sri Aurobindo puts it in The Future Poetry,1 that the genuine poetic expression is not merely a pastime, not even a godlike one: “it is a great formative and illuminative power.”
The psychological instrument of this power is defined by the phrase: “inner seeing and sense.” Here the stress is not only on the inwardness: it is also on sight. The poet is fundamentally concerned with the activity of the eye. When he turns to the phenomena of earth, what he busies himself with is their “vivid imagery”. An image is primarily something visual. A keen experience of shapes and colours is the poet’s speciality and it is this that is conveyed in the words: “seeing and sense”. “Sense” is a term suggesting at once perception and feeling and understanding, a contact of consciousness with an object; but the main channel of the contact here is the sight. The perceiving, feeling, understanding consciousness of the poet comes to an active point, an effective focus, through the function of seeing: his the concentration and merging of all sense in vision. “Vision,” says Sri Aurobindo in The Future Poetry,2
“is the characteristic power of the poet, as is discriminative thought the essential gift of the philosopher and analytic observation the natural genius of the scientist.”
Philosophy and science are the literature of knowledge while all prose and poetry that are pieces of art fall under the category of literature of power because they affect the emotions and change attitudes and remould character.
The ancient Indian word for poet is Kavi, which means one who sees and reveals. Of course the revealing, the making manifest, the showing out is an inevitable part of the poet’s function, and it is this function that is stressed in the Latin term poeta from the Greek poetes, which stands for “maker”, “fashioner”, “creator”. But the whole labour of formation lies in rendering visible, in making us see, what has been seen by the one who forms. The vision is the first factor, the embodiment and communication of it is the second. The Indian name goes to the root of the matter in speaking of the seer who reveals instead of the revealer who has seen. Shakespeare — the greatest poetic phenomenon in English history, poetry incarnate if ever such a thing has happened — bears out the Indian characterisation by the famous passage describing what the poet does. In picturing the poet’s activity he speaks of “the poet’s eye” —
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Yes, the poet is primarily a seer, but we may remember that he does not stop with mere sight of the surface of reality: his is not sight so much as insight: he sees through, behind, within, and he bodies forth the forms of things unknown, and there is always something unfathomable about his vision — a distance beyond distance, a depth beyond depth: this constitutes the transcendence of the intellectual meaning by poetry.
Ultimately the transcendence derives from the Supreme Spirit, the Poet Creator whose words are worlds. The human poet’s vision has a contact, remote or close, with “some eternal eye,” as the phrase runs in the fourth line of our quotation from Savitri. Sri Aurobindo has written in The Future Poetry:1
“The intellectual, vital, sensible truths are subordinate things; the breath of poetry should give us along with them or it may even be apart from them, some more essential truth of the being of things, their very power which springs in the last resort from something eternal in their heart and secrecy, hrdaye guhayam, expressive even in the moments and transiences of life.”
Mark the words: “something eternal”. In another place in The Future Poetry2 we read that the poet may start from anything, “he may start from the colour of a rose, or the power or beauty of a character, or the splendour of an action, or go away from all these into his own secret soul and its most hidden movements. The one thing needful is that he should be able to go beyond the word or image he uses or the form of the thing he sees, not be limited by them, but get into the light of that which they have the power to reveal and flood them with it until they overflow with its suggestions or seem even to lose themselves and disappear into the revelation. At the highest he himself dis-appears into sight: the personality of the poet is lost in the eternity of the vision, and the Spirit of all seems alone to be there speaking out sovereignly its own secrets.”
The poet is primarily a seer, but his instrument for seizing his vision and communicating it is the word: it is by the inspired sound that he creates a form for his intuitive sight. The full Vedic description of the poetic tribe is kavayah satyasrutah, which Sri Aurobindo elucidates as “seers and hearers of the poetic truth and poetic word”.1 The inspired sound is implicit in the poetic act — and, just as the poet’s vision must ultimately have behind it the working of some eternal eye, the poet’s word must ultimately have behind it the working of some eternal ear. The ultimate home of the poetic process is the spiritual Akash, the Self-space of the Spirit, the Divine Consciousness’s infinity of self-extension. And this infinity has its creative vibrations that are at the basis of all cosmos. These vibrations are to be caught, however distantly or indirectly, by the sound of poetry.
Talk Twenty Eight
Perhaps the best distinction we may draw between prose and poetry is that in prose the words are only a means to an end whereas in poetry they are as much an end as a means. Of course in prose too we have to attend to our language, but we attend in order that the thoughts we wish to express may get better clothed. And here we can always distinguish between the thought and the expression. The same thought can be expressed in prose in different ways. Poetry uses words with another spirit. Here words in themselves are the object of attention. Clearness and orderliness of language are not our whole aim. Colour, music, subtlety of suggestion, appeal to emotion, stir of imagination — all these are to be compassed by poetic speech. And, what is more essential, the words are to be not a clothing for whatever is to be said but themselves the very body of it. They cannot be cut apart from the substance as you can extract the substance of prose from prose-words or as you can take off your clothes and jump into your bath.
Words as living expressive units are poetic — and words particularly as expressive of something else than what is called an idea. Prose consists of using language as an instrument of ideas. Poetry consists of using language not as an instrument of anything but as the audible self of something else than ideas.