Where Did Poetry Come From: Some Early Encounters by Geoffrey O’Brien (Marsh Hawk Press, 2020)

Geoffrey O’Brien’s Where Did Poetry Come From: Some Early Encounters is part of Marsh Hawk Press’s Chapter One series of memoirs by poets, “recalling the ways by which they found their start as writers.” But Where Did Poetry Come From is no conventional memoir. A longtime writer for the New York Review of Books, O’Brien is the author of eight volumes of poetry as well as numerous books on film, popular music, and the art of reading. Here, he trains his sensitive, meticulous instruments of attention and his eloquent prose style upon his own poetic origins. This is, as he writes in the introductory poem, “not about wanting to be a poet / or trying to become a poet.” Rather, “The question here was only / where did poetry come from in a single random life / …haunted like a house by what is overheard / a transience perpetually surviving.”

The answer to this question comes in a sequence of brief meditations on literary quotations, starting with the nursery rhyme “Diddle Diddle Dumpling (My Son John)” and moving through passages from A Child’s Garden of Verses, canonical Shakespeare verses (by way of comic books), Donne, Coleridge, Blake, and Kipling, to phrases from television and film, to the prose of Poe and Dickens. Each author’s passage is printed in bold at the start of the corresponding reflection, as are phrases from the passage and words related to the passage’s author woven through O’Brien’s sentences. In some cases we learn the circumstances of O’Brien’s first encounter with the work. What counts is the way the sound of the passage becomes part of the fabric of the poet’s consciousness. The music of the words enriches his sensorium, deepens his emotional life, and fills his inner world. For instance, Lewis Carroll’s “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves” and Shakespeare’s “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements” enter O’Brien’s word hoard and contribute to his own verbal style.

Because these words come to the future poet starting in infancy, they are part of his internal and external reality. Indeed, they come to him at a point when the child’s consciousness has yet to fully distinguish outside and inside, body and mind, real and imaginary. In the opening paragraphs of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the little story of baby tuckoo and the moocow, the song about the wild rose, and the rhyme of the eagles pulling out his eyes, are heard by the young Stephen Dedalus, but also constitute part of Stephen’s psyche. The nursery rhymes O’Brien hears about other children also provide him with an experience of himself, one that is preeminently bodily, related to “all the stages of washing and undressing and being put to bed and given over to darkness.” The sound of “Diddle Diddle Dumpling” and other nursery rhymes is that of the mother, lovingly caring for the baby’s physical needs, “Not speaking but half chanting and half teasing. It is the sound of an intimate knowledge of the inside of the body. A sound of love or what sounds like love, of a desire to give comfort. Of the pleasure of sharing what is almost too silly to be said aloud. Of a holy and inane abandonment.” This becomes the origin of the poetic voice, “an inner voice, if not the voice of the listener then a voice that installed itself within, reciting what never needed to be memorized.”

The early chapters of O’Brien’s book recall psychoanalyst Hans Loewald’s comment in his essay “Primary Process, Secondary Process, and Language” (1978): “One might say that, while the mother utters words, the infant does not perceive words but is bathed in sound, rhythm, etc., as accentuating ingredients of a uniform experience.” Only later does the child’s psyche enter “secondary process,” where the correspondence of word and thing is recognized. For Loewald, “great poetry and creative prose” is “an interweaving of primary and secondary process”; he quotes Mallarmé: “between the old methods of magic and the sorcery which poetry will remain, there exists a secret parity.”

Where Did Poetry Come From is an exploration of just this sort of language magic, part sound, part sense, part bodily sensation, part thought process. O’Brien repeatedly notes that the poems that have had such a profound impact on him were originally experienced as spells. Recalling the aunt who introduces “Jabberwocky” to him, he tells us that her “voice by itself brought light into the house — reciting, from memory, with the air of someone sharing a great secret.” “Here mysteries begin” he declares of Oberon’s speech to Puck about the love charm in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wilde’s decadent Salome is “Like the Bible made strange.” And Poe is “the necessary book, necessary because the words are stored and may be suddenly required. Consulted, like a book of spells.”

Casting a spell, however, entails some degree of psychic risk. One of O’Brien’s most compelling chapters engages Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” surely one of the most magical poems in the language (and the poem that transformed this reviewer into a poet nearly a lifetime ago). For O’Brien, the poem, as he tells us, like the flower which Rod Taylor brings back from the future in the film of The Time Machine, is “The object that by its existence smashes the separation between incommensurable worlds.” The mystery of this impossible object is that its words are experienced not merely as fragmentary (the poem, of course, is the most famous instance of a Romantic fragment), but as replacements, “Words representing other words. Tokens replaced by further tokens, ceaseless turmoil seething leaving as debris a series of occult signs.” But this is not an endless chains of signifiers. Rather, it is like Freud’s dreamwork, in which the unconscious defends consciousness against the direct expression of desire. As the remnant of a dream, “Kubla Khan,” according to O’Brien, “Protects itself from being understood.” A poem of this sort haunts the reader. It is an instance of “The Occult. The name for what is most desired. Desired because not to be contacted by any ordinary means.”

For O’Brien, writing is always marked by such desire. Thinking about the “long unfolding stretches” of prose paragraphs in writers such as Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner, he observes that “the separate words [are] not made out at all except as familiar but only blurrily recognized shapes heaving and coalescing into some new organism.” Reading and writing are in constant metamorphosis, partaking equally of the familiar and the new. We find ourselves in “tracts of endlessness. Once inside,” O’Brien tells us, “you might be there forever. Reading becomes something like the idea of writing. A continuous act never done.”

Where Did Poetry Come From ends with a cento composed of lines from more of the writers who have left their marks on O’Brien, from Chaucer to Susan Howe, demonstrating how completely of a piece the acts of reading and writing can be. The first line comes from Otis Redding: “and I want to tell you right now everything that’s going through my mind.” For the poet, these reciprocal processes create a mental space in which language and thought are perpetually read, perpetually written. “Years later fragments of it continue to roll into the night.” Poetry is a dream without end, and O’Brien is our witness to its continuity.

Where Did Poetry Come From: Some Early Encounters by Geoffrey O’Brien is published by Marsh Hawk Press. 

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Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is a poet, literary critic, and professor of English at Xavier University. Recent books include The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems (Dos Madres Press, 2016)...

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