The opposite of being told

It is because of the open-ended images of poetic forms that their power is exercised. All imagery forces us beyond containment. Words carefully crafted induce us to move beyond their literal meaning towards thinking in quite a different way, and so, potentially, of a quite different order of reality. Poetry allows a creative freedom in terms of ‘constructing meaning’ as opposed to ‘being told something’.

Mark Oakley
The Splash of Words – Believing in Poetry

‘Are you paying attention to this poem?’ I was asked by a schoolmaster I held in high regard. I can’t remember now what the particular poem was (so, literally, it served poetic purpose!) but that I smiled and nodded, too young, inarticulate and timid to verbalise the thought – that he could ‘no more read my mind,’ as I responded to the poem before us, than I could read his.

Unique persons can have none other than unique responses to anything. So humankind must learn to express, with mutual respect, what our unique response to the poem – to life – is, or has been – a conversation (not dictation) made up of the partial, since our responses (millions of them, every second) are dynamic and ongoing. And these communications will be received uniquely. And initially, even if only for a nano-second, silently. The ‘understanding’ of the receiver will never be identical to that of the communicator. There’s an inbuilt creative provisionality inherent in all that exists. Unfinished works.

Therein, I think, lay my earliest personal comprehension of what poetry is about. The opposite of being told. Invitation, rather, to co-create – with the self-giving risks involved. On both sides.

Creative precision – precisely open-ended. No walls. The vehicle, the means, for eternal potential and always-unfolding creativity and renewal. Nowadays I recognise this experience, this ‘eureka’ moment, as the platform from which, very early in my life, I began to reject all forms of fundamentalism and unexamined literalism. The Creator of All Things is so much greater, so much more liberal, generous, inclusive and complex than one, literal, understanding of anything at all can possibly be. That’s why the guiding texts of the world’s scriptures – in all faith traditions – were written poetically.

The Source of Life – the eternal and universal Poet – affords each the possibility of an open-ended ‘paying attention’. We’re all allowed our own responses and interpretations.

Poetry – some of the greatest literature known to humankind – philosophical, political, sacred, scriptural, scientific, secular or speculative – celebrates the unique responses of individuals to its creativity within us. Creative communion and (Eden-like?) cohabitation for humankind will only be possible when the inbuilt responses to life in the hearts and minds of individuals are universally respected (when R S Thomas‘s ‘blind look at themselves and love looks at them back’) – and readily welcomed (even where a felt need to challenge or contra-dict exists) as necessary constituent parts of a creative and always-creating whole. When unity is found in human diversity.

The other day I read one man’s serious insistence that all humankind should assent to his assertion that ‘God prefers that men and women should …’

Poetry helps me respond to the outrageous suggestion that one person, or group of persons, should presume to speak to humankind of God’s preferences. I do sympathise with the frustration of the literalists who, often angrily, insist ‘It’s a question of authority! It’s all there. Plain as a pikestaff. In the Bible’ – (or other particular source of their presumed written absolutes). Nonetheless it remains plain as the aforementioned pikestaff to me that it’s all poetry, a process of creative unfolding – and there’s nothing absolute, or plain, or final about that, now or in eternity.

For the umpteenth time I find myself persuaded that Louis MacNeice had a great grasp of provisionality, which I return to again and again –

For every static world that you or I impose
Upon the real one must crack at times and new
Patterns from new disorder open like a rose
And old assumptions yield to new sensation;
The Stranger in the wings is waiting for his cue,
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation.

Louis MacNeice
from the poem Mutations

5 thoughts on “The opposite of being told

  1. Such insistence in one’s perspective – without being open to the thoughts of others, the vast beauty of possibility, is in my view, hubris. We cannot speak for Gd, any more than we can speak for the clouds, the conversation between birds, the interpretation of a falling star. The key, I think, is that it means something – that we marvel and humble ourselves to its wonder. And that we share what we see or feel without the belief that it is the only way…xx

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