Friday, November 27, 2009


Corn-coloured, stroked movement, a dark brown of choosing
sailing it forward, the animal came near the round woofed willow
hut, bees stabbing along the pollen-knuckled dome;
The animal curved to the place that breathed apart, on its own
its breath circling it like a moon
and lodged itself in the deep water of wintered-over leaves
where an ear scouted, spinning the leaves with a throaty blue light.
The animal came plumed and choired with night.

(From the poem “Quiet, Quiet”, Tim Lilburn, Killsite 2006)

At one time I had a theory about the complexities of Tim Lilburn’s poetry. He had erected what I impressively described to myself as an “internally referential” system of language and thought, a way of writing that suppresses direct reference to the objective world, lacks any obvious narrative or thematic thread and as a result creates an opaque mask through which the reader is at great pains to penetrate. The reader’s job is to break the poet’s code, by recognizing distinctive symbolic and syntactic strategies used to convey meaning.

Nice theory, but it never really helped me get down to what an actual Lilburn poem was about. So I eventually adopted other approaches for uncoiling the mystery. Like reading his work aloud and discovering its surprising musicality, but still uncertain about its meaning. Like presenting a Lilburn poem to my reading group, only to find that others seemed equally mystified. I read his earlier poems, examined his earliest sources like the 4th century monk Evagrius and worried over Jesuitical concepts such as acsesis (discipline), sophrosyne (temperance) and noesis (cognition).

None of it mattered. None of it helped – and then suddenly I found myself, unaccountably, back where it all begins, back to Plato - or at least to Tim Lilburn’s re-working of Plato in his book of essays Going Home. Understand, this is not the Plato we commonly encountered in our first year of university philosophy. Socrates is no longer just the sweet old man patiently guiding handsome young boys to ineluctable truths about the physical world and ideas. A different game is afoot according to Lilburn. In that highly stylized, mythological fashion that we both respond to and resist as modern readers, Socrates and his young charge, Phaedrus, set out on a journey to discover nothing less than the character of the soul:

“The wings of the soul – all of the soul is winged – are what is most divine about it and, thus, divine things –wisdom, beauty, goodness – cause them to strengthen; foul, ugly things atrophy them.”

The soul ascends “to the banquet at the rim of heaven” where it sees, but cannot partake of, “views of justice, interior order, knowledge – contemplative clarities `of what really is that is’”. The ascent of the soul, symbolized as the heavier, more unruly of two winged horses, is followed by the inevitable fall and loss of wings. The soul’s wings may grow again, so goes the story, but only as a “philosopher’s mind grows wings because in memory it keeps close to what it has seen.”

Here’s where the light goes on for me. Not coincidentally it’s also where Lilburn is at his most poetic (at least in prose) and his most illuminating. “Phaedrus and Socrates," he writes, “sit on the riverbank in the heat of the afternoon, talking, talking. The day is hot; the stream is cool.” Let that image sink in a little bit. See those two sweet souls sharing a moment made up entirely of contrasts, the heat and cool of their thoughts meandering like a stream from one consciousness into the other. What are they talking about? They’re talking about, replies Lilburn, the only thing the winged soul has managed to wrest from the banquet at the rim of heaven:

“Beauty is one of the radiant things the soul saw as its head momentarily lifted above the high rim before it was yanked downward by the team it could never control, that had never stopped pulling, before it was shouldered aside by other enthusiastic souls keen to see `that blessed and spectacular vision’ in the hectic, noisy moment of rapturous insight: feathers broke off in the melee and forgetting immediately began.”

For the first time I recognize an agony, an agony of desire there on the banks of a river shared by one old man and one very young man, an agony intense enough to match the torn, tumultuous struggle in Lilburn’s poetry. Beauty, now the charge of Philosophy, “is the only one of the ultimate things that still comes through to human beings.” It becomes available through “apokatastatic” or restorative remembering, through something Lilburn later calls “an erotic enterprise” that grows “at least, in part, from an experience of poverty”, the poverty of our human understanding. “Want to understand me?” I hear Lilburn saying. “Then first acknowledge this poverty and how it belongs to us both.” Know above all that this poverty is mirrored in all good writing, writing which, like philosophy, is characterized by what it does not know and has yet to learn, driven by desire to know. Writing “that takes itself as unparalleled achievements,” says Lilburn, "truncates desire.”

Lilburn’s activities as a poet and philosopher meet here, informing one another; in fact, one can hardly comprehend his poetry without understanding and appreciating his philosophic mind’s search for truth, just as his philosophy searches for its living body in his poetry. But to understand Lilburn is to understand that neither poetry nor philosophy commands his entire allegiance.

Instead, Lilburn is preoccupied by something larger and deeper: to recapture the western contemplative tradition through a reconsideration of desire as a critical and underlying human impetus for everything: for social and political organization, philosophic positioning and finally for poetic art - in contrast to the rational foundation upon which our civilization is commonly believed to rest. What this might mean for poetry is intriguing. What it might mean for us as human beings might very well speak to our survival as a species or at the very least to how we prioritize the competing interests of our hearts and minds and ultimately their mutually dependent well-being.

But I keep coming back to that moment on the riverbank where Socrates and Phaedrus sit. And I seem to have found an answer - in my desire to grasp the complexities and explorations of a beautiful mind. I am made “permeable”, as Lilburn might put it, by the poetic experience, while remaining hopeful that eventually I am better able to grasp, in a way that Phaedrus was not, the intent of that mind and its direction, to know better what it means to say.


Anonymous said...

Introduction to Poetry
Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

David Kosub said...

Great dig. I love Billy Collins. When we're faced with a very complex poetry, though, we have a right it seems to me to ask questions, to probe our experience of the poem. In a way, it's one of the best ways to honour a poem and the poet. As I do Lilburn.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you David. If the poem prompts engagement, why not accept the invitation?

I agree with Anonymous that reductive dissections are a disservice to great poetry -- however, it's no disservice to acknowledge the craft with which a poet carves the poem, nor a disservice to acknowledge a poem's complications.

Re: reductive dissections. I don't notice that going on here. I do notice it in many high school or university English classes, but that's because government institutions usually frown on direct conversation about Mystery, which leaves little else but history, mechanics, or the bankrupt ether of theory.

While a strictly Apollonian approach to poetry forgets awe, forgets mystery, the contrary is equally a problem. The vast majority of examinations (reviews, blogs, what-have-you) of poetry are inexact, vacuous, emotional dither-dather. Poetry, as Lilburn proves, is not just terrain of the emotion, but also of intelligence.


David Kosub said...

Thanks, Garth. To say, as someone once said to me, that a poem is something you should “get” upon first reading; otherwise throw it away, won’t get you anywhere close to the heart of Lilburn’s poetry.

Anonymous is right in her/his central point, though, that at the end of the day we must return to the poems themselves. Happily, that's easier for me now that I have a slightly clearer idea of what Lilburn is aiming for. I hope it helps others a little, too.

David Kosub said...

BTW don't forget to check out the film of Ken Babstock's poem "Firewatch" just under his photo to the right. dk

Anonymous said...

Thanks David. I spent two four-month periods in a fire tower myself. I'm enjoying Babstock's poem and the film.

David Kosub said...

Yes. I tend to be a little suspicious of efforts to "backstop" poetry through music or film, but this works beautifully. Babstock is one of our very best poets. Glad you like him, too.

Jannie said...

What I keep from my now years-old reading of Lilburn's How to Live in the World as If It Were Home is that our yearning to connect in a personal way with the natural world, that leaning puts us in a state of "poverty" that is erotically and spiritually charged. That place/state of poverty is our home.

David Kosub said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Kosub said...

Thanks, Jannie. I think that makes sense. Desiring anything by definition signifies incompleteness, so whether it's nature or art we're yearning after, we always begin from a position of a lack or poverty. This is how I understand Lilburn, anyway.

I'm also reminded of the myth in Aristophanes' play The Frogs, in which the gods split human beings into three parts: male, female and hermaphrodite. The parts then spend the rest of their lives seeking out the other parts to become whole; the driving force is that spiritual, erotic charge you write about - or desire.

I'm sure I've not come anywhere close to doing Lilburn complete justice. Part of my desire, you see. Frankly, I need to get closer to his actual poetry, not just surrounding texts.


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