Poetry, it’s a funny old thing. It never really played much of a role in my early life. Although, saying that, I do remember writing a poem in primary school, when I was about 6, which my teacher was so impressed by that she got me to go round to another class and read it out aloud. We had been told to each write a poem about the colours of the rainbow and what they meant to us. Mine had a line in it about how the colour yellow reminded me of a jazz player’s trumpet and my teacher really loved that, even though jazz trumpets are usually made of brass and therefore aren’t very yellow. Still she had managed to see a tiny little hint of artistic flair in my choice of imagery. It is one of my favourite memories from childhood, but by itself it didn’t do very much to convince me of the power of poetry.
Instead, the first time I recall being deeply affected by a piece of poetry myself, the first time I “got it”, I was about 16 and it was actually due to a film I saw on TV, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The lines in question play a significant role in the life of one of Dead Man’s chief protagonists, the troubled Native American character, Nobody. They are taken from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
“Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.”
In fact the whole film could be interpreted as an extended meditation on these two stanzas (actually it could be interpreted in an endless number of different ways but that’s a discussion for another day). Like all of Blake’s best lines it has an unworldly perfection to it and seems to be saying something incredibly simple but at the same time unspeakably profound. Those lines taught me a lot about poetry, more than I learned from all those hours studying Keats or Shakespeare at school — and which indeed enabled me to go back to Keats and Shakespeare and begin to appreciate their work in a way I hadn’t before.
I must say that Blake’s poetry in general has really helped me to appreciate that poetry at its most successful doesn’t just merely convey information in the same old way that everyday, mundane language usually does; indeed it is, to quote Ezra Pound’s felicitious description, “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”. It is the magic of those particular words in that combination and no others: the marriage, the yoga, of meaning, sound and imagery so that they become an inseparable unity.
I liked Dead Man a lot, but it was those few lines of Blake’s that stayed with me long after the other details of the film had quietly faded away in the distance: I have read few things as insightful about the agony and ecstasy of the human condition, that speak to the seeming meaninglessness and randomness of life at the same time as its horror and beauty.