“What works of art testify to is the presence in this world of consciousness, consciousness of many extraordinary kinds,” [William Gass] writes in “The Literary Miracle.” But this is “not that of the artists themselves, for theirs are often much the same as any other person’s. . . . It is not the writer’s awareness I am speaking of but the awareness he or she makes. For that is what fine writing does: it creates a unique verbal consciousness.”
Or think of it this way: Dull confessional poetry is dull because it records the consciousness of the artists themselves – I feel this, I feel that, this scene makes me feel this way, that scene makes me feel that way… As Gass says, the artist’s consciousness is liable to be just like ours, so there’s no art, no surprise, nothing new, when she simply discloses it.
Poetry lifts us from propositional statements about what it’s like to have a particular human consciousness to a unique, fashioned, verbal, consciousness. This consciousness is not the poet’s – it’s not anybody’s. It’s the product of the poet’s transcendence of her measly consciousness via the act of writing the poem. If she’s a good writer, the words will push past the ego and its restless self-monitoring to a stately capture of broader truths. The poet will make an awareness, a verbal awareness.
And you want that from the poem, because you know damn well your measly consciousness traps you in triviality and anxiety. You want the doors of perception cleansed.
So Iris Murdoch says:
The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one. . . . This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals.
Great poems are cleansed perceptions wordified. Somehow the discipline of ordering words in a certain way is the cleansing, an act of self-transcendence and true-world-invocation. For us, reading the poem, activating its verbal awareness once again is the discipline.
Meaning if you want to feel the truth of consciousness – not be informed about a particular state of consciousness being experienced at a particular time by a particular person – you could do worse than this sort of thing:
No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,
As they were fifty years ago,
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,
Bending in blue dresses to touch something,
Today the mind is not part of the weather.
Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness
And it flows over us without meanings,
As if none of us had ever been here before
And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,
This invisible activity, this sense.
Well, this Wallace Stevens poem is consciousness of – as Gass says – an extraordinary kind. Yet everyone has shared some aspect of it; everyone knows the truth here conveyed. It’s like – UD‘s here at the beach, at Rehoboth, and the water’s dark gray and the sky is gray and the sand just sits there.
Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day
Riddled by wind…
This is Philip Larkin, finding sure verbal footing in a shoreless world, creating a verbal awareness of there being nothing underfoot. As when, on a vacant cold beach day, the mind clears of everything, the air carries no implication, no mood, no memory. “The mind is not part of the weather.” Somehow the atmosphere overwhelms the mind’s effort to establish itself in the world, to interpret the world, to make the world human. We now have the conviction of our non-existence; the air “flows over us without meanings” because we are not there to lend meaning to the air, to arrest and shape its flow. In the recession of consciousness, the world becomes a “shallow spectacle,” mere sense without significance. It carries on its invisible life with with no heed of us.
Is this a horrible thing? Does the poem express misery, anxiety? No. It’s not even told from a first-person point of view — it’s about “us.” The mood is calm, accepting. We can’t reanimate the dead with our loving memories – so be it. We’ve faded to nothing; the world has won. Okay. This is pure awareness, no strings attached. And there is something euphoric, exhilarating about this purity; it makes a great poem. It infuses the delight of clarity into our consciousness as we read the poem. It is a peculiar sort of victory, after all, that one of us has found the words that capture a wordless feeling of nothingness.