T.S. Eliot Lecture 2004, The Dark Art of Poetry by Don Paterson | 09-Nov-04THE DARK ART OF POETRY by Don Paterson. The TS Eliot Lecture, commissioned by the South Bank Centre, and delivered as part of Poetry International on Saturday 30 October 2004 in the Purcell Room.
It will be blindingly obvious to all of you that the title of this lecture is less a paradox than a nonsense. How can anyone give a public lecture on a Dark Art? The answer is of course that they can't, or at least shouldn't. And I'm not going to: you have been lured here under thoroughly false pretences; I have no intention of revealing any of the appalling secrets of my black trade. But I will tell you why I can't - or at least shouldn't.
Perhaps 'Occult Science' is a more accurate description than 'Dark Art'?. As a science, it usually fails, because most poets are bad at it. Poetry is a form of magic, because it tries to change the way we perceive the world, that is to say that it aims to make the texture of our perception malleable. It does so by surreptitious and devious means, by seeding and planting things in the memory and imagination of the reader with such force and insidious originality that they cannot be deprogrammed. What you remember changes how you think. So an occult science is exactly what the practice - as distinct from the study - of poetry is.
There are dangers involved in committing bad things to memory: about a hundred years ago the mathematician Charles Hinton devised a series of three-dimensional geometrical objects, known as Hinton's Cubes. The idea was that once memorised they could be mentally reassembled into a 3D net, and then infolded to produce a 4-dimensional model; this, he claimed, would allow you some conception of 4-space. Bizarrely, it actually seemed to work. There were two unforeseen consequences, however: four-space is not a happy thing to carry around in your head when you have to have to wake up every day in 3-space, put your clothes on in the right order, use the toilet accurately, and place your breakfast in the right holes. But much worse, Dr Hinton had devised no mean by which, once 4-space was memorised, it might be forgotten again. A few folk went irrecoverably insane, and the cubes were quietly withdrawn from public sale.
I've said this so many times it's beginning to sound a bit self-satisfied - but a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself. Whatever other function a rhyme, a metre, an image, a rhetorical trope, a brilliant qualifier or stanza-break might perform, half of it is simply mnemonic. A poem makes a fetish of its memorability. It does this, because the one unique thing about our art is that it can carried in your head in its original state, intact and perfect. We merely recall a string quartet or a film or a painting, actually, at a neurological level we're only remembering a memory of it; but our memory of the poem is the poem. A poet exploits this fact, and tries to burn their poems into your mind, and mess with your perception. Its most primitive (and so we can probably assume its earliest) function is as a system for the simple storage and retrieval of information, and sometimes its concealment; the poets of certain nomadic Saharan tribes are charged with memorising the location of the waterholes, in way that will not betray them to others. No wonder that poetry, from the earliest so deeply connected to the world and our own survival in it, was quickly invested with magical properties, and soon took the form of the spell, the riddle, the curse, the blessing, the prayer. They are - and poems remain - invocatory forms. Prose evokes; the well-chosen word describes the thing. But poetry invokes; the memorable word conjures its subject from the air.
So that's the occult part; but I also believe that poetry is a science, and that poetic composition can be studied in much the same way as music composition. But I think the language of verse composition has been lost, or at least disfigured to the point of uselessness. Poets no longer feel confidently expert in their own subject. The language of academic versification studies and 'poetics' is only appropriate for something that describes the result, not the working practice; the noun, not the living verb. This language always makes the error of talking about the messy, insane process of verse-making as if it were a clean operation. Our business is not with rhyme, but with rhyming; not with metaphor but with metaphorising, the active transformation of the image; and there is as much difference between the two as there is between checking a watch, and building one.
Such description as exists of the real composing process is couched in the language of the beginner's workshop, with its nonsensical talk of show-not-tell, and 'good subject matter' - or the language of self-help. Incidentally, the systematic interrogation of the unconscious, which is part of the serious practice of poetry, is the worst form of self-help you could possibly devise. There is a reason why poets enjoy the highest statistical incidence of mental illness among all the professions. Your unconscious is your unconscious for an awfully good reason. If you want to help yourself, read a poem, but don't write one. Then again I think maybe 5% of folk who write poetry really want to write poetry; the other 95 are quite safe, and just want to be a poet. If they knew what the dreams were like, they wouldn't.
Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry. Restoring the science of verse-making would restore our self-certainty in this matter, and naturally resurrect a guild that, I believe, would soon find it had some secrets worth preserving.
But the main result of such an empowerment would be the rediscovery of our ambition, our risk, and our relevance, through the confidence to insist on the poem as possessing an intrinsic cultural value, of absolutely no use other than for its simple reading. Perversely, it has been the insistence on poetry's auxiliary usefulness - for example, in raising issues of cultural identity, as a form of therapy, or generating academic papers - that has encouraged it to think far less of itself, and so eroded its real power to actually inspire readers to think or live differently.
I wholly agree with the Postmodern diagnosis made in the sixties that our poetry was becoming domestic, subjective and trivial. But if anything that situation is now far worse. Back then, your post-Movement poem about moving the settee was at least really about a failed relationship. Crippled by the sense of our own cultural irrelevance, we now write poems about moving the settee that are just about moving the settee - or if you're a Postmodern, about 'moving the settee'.
(A web of ironization hangs over their whole project like Reagan's SDI program, and offers the same kind of illusory protection from the missiles of the barbarians; if we never really mean anything, we are safe from their idiotic interpretations - and guaranteed the incontrovertibility of our own. By 'Postmodern', I'm well aware we all mean something different. In my own case I'm referring to that peculiar and persistent brand of late romantic expressionism, almost always involving the deliberate or inept foregrounding of form and strategy over content - almost in a proud demonstration of their anti-naturalism, of the fact they did not evolve together. Homophonic translations of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Lithuanian; poems freakishly juxtaposing archaic and contemporary registers, or mutually exclusive jargons; poems consisting of nothing but five-letter words, or non-sequiturs, or typographical errors; poems whose main subject we ultimately identify as the self-consciousness of their own artifice. It is a project wholly blind to one of the first rules of reading, something any literate, non-practising reader would tell them: that there is nothing quite so boring and predictable as a work consisting solely of exceptions.)
The way forward, it seems to me, lies in the redefinition of 'risk' To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world's greatest living playwright. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism - that's to say by the time it reaches the page, it's less real anger than a celebration of one's own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one's mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it. Neither is 'risk' the deployment of disjunctive syntax, innovatory punctuation or wee apropos-of-nothing allusions to Heisenberg and Lacan; because anyone can do that, too. Risk, of the sort that makes readers feel genuinely uncomfortable, excited, open to suggestion, vulnerable to reprogramming, complicit in the creative business of their self-transformation is quite different.
Real danger flirts with the things we most dread as poets. Perhaps the biggest risk of all is that of being largely understood and then found to be talking a pile of garbage. But risk is also writing with real feeling, as Frost did, while somehow avoiding sentimentality; simplicity, as Cavafy did, and somehow avoiding artlessness; daring to be prophetic, as Rilke did, and miraculously avoiding pretentiousness; writing with real originality, as Dickinson did, while somehow avoiding cliché (since for a reader to be blown away by the original phrase it must already be partly familiar to them, if they are to register the transformation; a point fatally misunderstood by every generation of the avant-garde, which is one reason they are stylistically interchangeable). The narrowest of these paths, though, the poets' beautiful tightrope-walk, is the one between sense and mystery - to make one, while revealing the other. As, I think, Michael Donaghy did.
(As someone once remarked, there is no golden mean in poetry. The merely good poem does not stand somewhere between the great poem and the bad poem, and is almost another genre. Between the great and the bad, there's a hairline fracture, one we spend our lives trying to map. )
I believe we've become trapped in a vicious circle; the expectation readers invest in us becomes lower and lower by the year, as we disappoint them again and again, whenever they have turned to us, instinctively, for all the old reasons - to both voice and draw out the voice of their fear, love, outrage and wonder, that their human voice might become woven again into that greater inhuman natural harmony - and in doing so, find both its sense and its mystery.
Our problem is that the roles of poet and reader have become blurred; on the one hand we have the populists, who have made the fatal error of thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum. They infantilise our art: chicken-soup anthologies full of lousy poems; silly workshop exercises where you write a poem in the voice of your socks; ultra- 'accessible' poetry programs, where the general public text in poems to be read out on the show. Poetry is a wonderfully therapeutic thing to do at amateur level; but amateur artists and musicians don't think they should exhibit at the Tate, or play at the Wigmore. (Serious poets, I should say, don't start off amateurs, but apprentices - just like any other vocation.) The result of the inadvertent democratisation of the art has been many people feeling that armed with a beer-mat, a pencil, and a recent mildly traumatic experience they are entitled to send 100pp of handwritten drivel into Faber or Cape. (The myth is that these people are all lunatics. Many of them are well-adjusted, courteous and intelligent individuals; but writing poetry tends to bring out the worst in almost everyone.)
On the other hand we have the Postmoderns, who have made the fatal error of thinking that theory and practice form a continuum. They don't: this foolish levelling of the playing field in favour of the merely clever has led to an art-practice with no effective internal critique. Genuine talents such as, say, Tony Lopez and Denise Riley, working recognisably within the English and European lyric traditions, are drowned by the chorus of articulate but fundamentally talentless poet-commentators. Their situation is analogous to British free improvisation in the 80s, where one could hear great jazz virtuosi like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey sharing a stage with people who had barely mastered the rudiments of their instruments - simply because the valorisation of talent itself was felt to be elitist and undemocratic. (The thought that some of the art itself afforded the perfect cover for what was, at its worst, pure intellectual charlatanism - I?ll leave you explore at your own reflective leisure.)
The populists, on one side, purvey a kind of straight-faced recognition comedy, and have no need either for originality or epiphany. On the other side we have the avant-garde so desperate for transcendence they see it everywhere: they are fatally in the grip of an adolescent sublime, where absolutely anything will blow your mind, as your mind, in its state of recrudescent virginity, is permanently desperate to be blown. The Norwich phone book or a set of log tables would serve them as well as their Prynne, in whom they seem able to detect as many shades of mindblowing confusion as Buddhists do the absolute. Of course we should meet poets at least halfway - the poem, in fact, demands the complicity of the reader in its own creation; however the amount of running certain readers are making in the relationship should be a matter of mortal embarrassment to them.
Both talk, amusingly, of having struck a blow for the Left - the populists having democratised the art, the Postmoderns subverted the currency of received form and sense, which they see as a kind of capitalist commodification (it's much worse in the US, where I have been personally denounced as an agent of Rumsfeld and the Neocons for my support of the fascist strictures of the English pentameter. This is someone who thinks of Chomsky as a moderate, incidentally). But at the end of the day you cannot use the designation 'poet' without introducing the highly undemocratic idea of Natural Talent. Poets are people with an unusual gift for the composition of verses. End of definition. Our disagreement, of course, is over what constitutes good verse.
But if you want true "access" to poetry, you have to do two things. First you have to say who is a poet and who is not. And then you have to simplify the relationship between poet and reader, between whom it should be equal, innocent, responsive and intelligent, where one can educate the other. Wordsworth was not necessarily wrong when he said that every great and original writer must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished; but he should have strengthened that statement. The poet must achieve that alone, with no other apologist or champion but that of her or his own work, through the innocent and direct engagement of simple publication.
As an Indian friend said to me the other day - in this country you spend a lot of time trying to connect things that are already connected. So here's how you achieve 'access': you remove all the mediators. On the one side those self-appointed popularisers, who, by insisting on nothing but dumb sense, have alienated poetry's natural intelligent and literate constituency by infantilising our art; and on the other, those exegetes in whose adolescent, retentive self-interest it is to keep poetry as mysterious as possible, that they might project nothing into it but their own wholly novel and ingenious interpretations.
Ok - assuming we've got them out the way, we close this now smaller gap between poet and reader through publication, a sacred duty and the aim of the poem.
The poem starts as wholly yours and slowly ceases to become so; the process is one of gradual publication, gradual exposure, gradually reading the poem as if it was someone else's, because your aim is to make it someone else's. It starts as inspiration, in the warm, wet, red dark of the brain, and its journey is one of slow separation from its creator, through the stations of, first, its realisation on the page (which is why we so often give them waterbirths, write them in dark corners in pencil or on wee laptops, so they're not shocked by the unfamiliar element...I always tend to think of poems as marsupials), through its redaction, its framing, its drafting, where you slowly cease to write the poem you wanted to and write the one it wants to be. At that stage the poet is switching between a red, wild, creative eye and blue, cold, editorial one - or amongst the more practised, enjoying a kind of weird stereoscopic view of the poem, which they are both simultaneously inside, living - and also wholly detached from. Towards the end, the poem's consummation, the blue cold eye is completing the work unaided, according to the poem's by-then fully realised interior logic, not the poet?s. (All this eye is really saying is - would my poem mean the same to me if it were not my poem?) Then we publish. If the aim is just to finish the poem and not publish it, the poet has configured their relation to it imperfectly from the start. It will never leave their house, never grow up, never speak to another soul, because it never wanted to.
Publication - by which I simply mean 'someone else reading your poem' - directly unites the reader and poet, and to read out a line someone else has written in your own voice is to experience a little transmigration of souls. A glorious example of direct publication is Poems On The Underground. The means is the end. In a radical subversion of the mechanism of corporate advertising - Postmoderns take note - a short good poem is placed in huge type before a person with ten minutes to do nothing else but read it three times, targeting a wide enough audience to find that one-in-six receptive to the high frequency of the art form.
I'd like now to discuss the secret machinery of that relationship. Now this might seem like defining your terms to an insane degree, but when we forget the basics, all discussion of artistic process has a tendency to wander off into self-fascinated irrelevance, particularly in the case of poetry. Poetry is the work of men and women. Men and women are carbon-based, time-based, self-aborting finite projects; they are upright, hairless creatures of the Earth, complicated by the highly equivocal gift of consciousness; by this gift the more awake among them tend to be riven, and at the heart of its paradox must learn to reside - and to think of their consciousness as other than that which their instinct often tells them, which is to say a crime against nature. It has, surely, as Daniel Dennett says, merely evolved. However, our historically unwise decision to stand up on two feet has bequeathed us an increasingly terrible prospect: that of ourselves simultaneously within nature and outside it. Art serves to unite us with what is not us, or rather what we had forgotten was us; it allows us to know ourselves as an expression of the universe, a word of its living speech - not a book it once wrote and discarded. (In the same way it is important for poets to see that poetry and its tools - rhyme, lyric, metre, metaphor - naturally arise from the language; they are all natural tendencies in speech; verse merely magnetises them to an abstract pattern, to a greater or lesser degree. Poetry is a function of language.)
It's important to remember that our first perception of the world, even one still free from the hysterical labeling machine of language, is already a kind of misrepresentation. Incarnated souls all get off to variations on much the same bad start (especially boys, those vessels of karma, whose first act is to penetrate their mother...) and are given only the perceptual equivalent of a pinhole camera through which they are supposed to experience the universe. Through this narrow aperture they perceive a world as only a tiny part of what it is, and even that part, often, as hopelessly subjective and unverifiable. We are born, then, into a condition of metaphor, a metaphor really being a contextual restriction of sense. We are attuned only to a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the universe our senses conjure up for us is not the universe. As Rilke says
Our senses cannot fathom this night, so
be the meaning of their strange encounter;
at their crossing, be the radiant centre.
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Our instruments have long proven this fact - but even on earth we know that the ears of the bat, the eyes of the bee, the nose of the dog, the sensitivity of the bird to magnetic field (to say nothing of the bird's infinite angles of approach to what it beholds, unlike the three ways we have to walk home) shape a perception of the world wholly different from our own, yet no more or less true. We also have the distortions of scale - everything is perceived as either smaller or larger, lighter or heavier, than ourselves; and of time - the perception of the speed of time's unfolding governed by the norm of our own life-span (and accelerated by our conscious perception of its finitude.) My point here is that even our prelapsarian, preverbal state is not already without its own huge distortions.
Having fallen into a mammalian dream of the universe, we fall slowly into a much deeper and human dream. The human dream is one of all things first recognised, and then named, in accordance with their human utility, translated and metaphorised into the human realm. This dream is almost wholly pervasive, so much so we do not call it a dream at all; we even fall asleep and keep on dreaming inside it. The fact that we corroborate and reenforce the dream-rules in all our human intercourse gives it, of course, the appearance of reality. It is just as flimsy a consensual reality as money. It is a dream.
I'm an admirer of the Post-Freudian theorist Ignacio Matte Blanco, and a travesty of his position is this: when we were born, everything was pretty much everything else. The breast was you, your mother the sky, the back garden your mother - the world was an absolute and indivisible unity. There was nothing to tell you otherwise. This perception is atemporal, since the perception of the passing and measurement of time, as opposed to the experience of time itself, is dependent first on the perception of difference, of an asymmetrical and consecutive series of events, of which we were not then in possession.
Our perception of things and their relations to one another as wholly symmetrical - less part of a unity than just the unity itself - was gradually overlayed with the perception of linear, discrete, causally successive and asymmetrical things and events. With the acquisition of language, this goes into overdrive. Now here's the important part; this perception is not a refutation of the observations of the first, but a necessary accommodation of the fact of our consciousness. That is to say - in the fall into language, asymmetry, the observation that we are other than the breast, the mother and the back garden, the moon, the sea - does not occur at the expense of that first knowledge, of everything as everything else, of a unity; this continues running, mostly under the limen of our consciousness, as a kind of spiritual DOS programme. Why? Because it was true.
This is easy enough to verify. We know what nonsense we can make of a word when we repeat it over and over and strip it of its meaning, that is to say: strip it of our meaning. We can do the same with objects - stripped of their human presence / utility, we can see in the cup, the bath, the shoe, the bicycle, how many strange, lonely and often ugly things we make for the world. But their sensible human utility apart, the category-instability of the thing is soon apparent: a chair suddenly looks like firewood when it gets cold enough. If a chair were in an art exhibit, you would be disinclined to sit on it; if it were persistently referred to as a bed it will start to look like something to sleep in. To a man with terrible piles, certain chairs will look like a reproach, and to an alien with no arse it would be an incomprehensible object.
Such meditations also point up a stark difference between the integrity-status of the manmade and the natural. The former has a habit of looking detached and lonely; the latter part of an integrated expression, having won its form and function through the complex and reciprocal pressures of self and environment, and their mutual rhythmic agitation, in a far, far broader and more integrated economy than our own. (The part we have played as a nonintegrated part of that natural economy in its decimation hardly needs comment.)
I've always felt that every morning the poet should stand at the window and remember that nothing that they see, not a bird or stone, has in its possession the name they give it. That seems a reasonably humble starting point. It also might have serious consequences - something very important for a mammal within and without it - for our orientation in addressing the world, our prepositional stance.
Whether you take this seriously or not - all this, for the poet, is much more than a little perceptual game. When we allow silence to reclaim those objects and things of the world, when we allow the words to fall away from them - they reassume their own genius, and repossess something of their mystery, their infinite possibility. Then the we awaken a little to the realm of the symmetries again, and of no-time, eternity. The poet's specific talent: when the things of the world (in which we should very much include our own feelings, ideas, and relations with one other) that we have contemplated in this wordless and thoughtless silence reenter the world of asymmetrical concept, of discrete definition, of speech and language - they return as strangers; and then they declare wholly unexpected allegiances, reveal wholly unsuspected valencies. We see the nerve in the bare tree, we hear the applause in the rain. These things are, in other words, redreamt, they are reimagined, they are remade. This I think is the deepest meaning of our etymology as maker. One more point: the poem having been translated from the silence, as my friend Charles Simic puts it, it has briefly kept the company of everything, of all natural things, and its desire to then declare a kinship with those things - to become a beautiful manmade natural object, with the integrity, symmetry and rhythm of the natural - should be no surprise.
So the first thing the poet in the act of composition should always observe is silence. Observe, almost in the religious sense: it's a matter of honouring the silence - of which the white page is both a symbol and a means of practical invocation - in which the poem can ultimately reverberate to its deepest reach. (Space sings: this is why the secret guild of guitarists used to place a horse's skull in the corner of the room, as a sympathetic resonator.) We do this by balancing that unity of silence by a reciprocal unity of utterance; the latter actually has the effect of invoking the former. Poetry is the art of saying things once. After all your other skills are in place, our only task is to avoid understatement and overstatement. It sounds an easy matter, but it's a lifetime's study.
(Incidentally there are no five-fingered exercises in poetry. Do no exercises - they're totally pernicious. Technique can only be studied in the context of real process, of writing the very best poem you can. This is what I mean by the academic lie: the rules of a sonnet teach you nothing about a poet's sonnet, the one we know from the inside, its crystalline internal pressures, the distribution of semantic weight according to the mysterious pattern of its silences.)
It is our riven condition, though - which Rilke refers to as the double realm (that of a living creature with foreknowledge of its own death, part-ghost) that makes us creatures that continually connect between the two worlds, are in fact driven to connect; and I believe poetry is the highest form of that negotiation, from the tiny narrow aperture of the Adamite back to the wide-field Edenic. Poetry, then, remystifies, allows the Edenic innocence, the symmetrical and unified view, to be made briefly conscious and re-entered via the most perverse (but perhaps only) tool for the job: language. Poetry is the paradox of language turned against its own declared purpose, that of nailing down the human dream. It uses new metaphors against the dead ones that form our speech. It attempts to conjure up, invoke, those states and those deep connections that have been excluded by the narrowness of the dream, and so cast out of our language. Poets are therefore, paradoxically, experts in the failure of language. Words fail us continually, as we search for them beyond the borders of speech, or drive them to the limit of their meaning and then beyond it. No wonder we need a club.
So what's the nature of this secret language we would need to restore amongst ourselves? Well, it would consist mainly of arcana. Real arcana is interesting only in prospect. These formulae must be very dull, if we are to do our job of alienating the amateur. Arcana are things as small, specific, useful and horrible as the Horseman's Word. Actually the horseman's word - which gives the apprentice ploughman power over horses and women when it's whispered in their ears - is also the secret formula for all poems. It was unwisely published in F. Marian MacNeill's The Silver Bough, so now it's in the public domain you might as well know it. In Scots it's twa-in-yin; two in one.
The object of a poem is to place a new unity in the language (an exploded view, if you like, of a new word) that results from the love affair between two hitherto unconnected terms: two words, two ideas, two phrases, two images, a word and an image, a phrase and a new context for it, so on. One thing is sterile and will result perhaps in some pretty description - but nothing the poet did not know before they started. These are the poems that are made up. If two things don't exist, there will be no discovery in our process, and hence absolutely no surprise for the reader. (I'll give you a more specific formula: the process of the poem is that of a unifying idea being driven through the productive resistance of the form proposed by the marriage of two previously estranged or unrelated things.)
That's how we know we're reading a good poem - an argument or a story has been quietly but insistently proposed in the opening lines. Listen to these of Donaghy?s: 'Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron'; 'Not in the sense that this snapshot, a girl in a garden / is named for its subject, or saves her from aging..'; 'Hair oil, boiled sweets, chalk dust, squid's ink?/Bear with me. I?m trying to conjure my father, aged fourteen / as Caliban...' 'Can I come in? I saw you slip away.' You know instinctively there will be a journey, that the poem possesses a dramatic teleology, and are immediately intrigued. The aim should always be clarity of the highest order because it is in the very nature of this process of making new things to generate difficult or unusual language. We actually strive to do so as little as possible. The additional introduction of further confusion, complexity, deceit - well, that's just inept; and if it's done wilfully - both wholly perverse, and effortlessly easy to achieve.
Now I've been talking for some time in hippie generalities, so I want to turn to a couple of more specific examples of how real poetic technique is different from post hoc academic description. The examples are pretty random - we could have looked at things from the sub-sciences of lyric, metre, transformation, kinetic syntax, or rhetoric - but I thought you might be interested by these. Of course I'm responsibly omitting the real techy stuff that would allow you to go home and blow yourselves up.
Puns and plays-on-words can be tedious in the extreme; all self-conscious effect serves to lift the reader out of the spell of the poem, so they can give the poet a wee round of applause - and then you've lost them. One exception to this is the etymological pun, which, like all our most effective magical techniques, is too quiet for the reader to hear. This is simply when we use a word fully conscious of its ancestry; we play not on its present ambiguity, but on its history. Etymology is a hugely important area of study for us.
Considered alone, as we know, the word sits at a junction between its diachronic history (its etymology and the history of its usage) and the synchronic or internal properties it now consensually possesses. But poets do not consider words alone. They consider what happens when words meet other words. They are students of the word in silence, and of the relations that silence proposes.
Nearly all words still carry some shade or tone of their deepest etymology. They reveal this not through their current dictionary definition - but through those now distant associates that sprang from the same root, but most importantly by the peculiar and specific regard their fellow words have adopted towards them over the centuries. I think poets are like great chessplayers with language; they look less at the next move, or the next ten moves, than at a Gestalt, at a system of relations, and are instinctively sensitive to the whole invisible net of energies, of attraction and repulsion in the poem - and, like the chessplayer, to what constitutes a beautiful move within it.
Your ears are the most important guide; but etymology can also be a great aid to determining that beautiful move. From it we learn both a word's ancestors and its now distant cousins. From the Indo European root Kerd, for example, meaning 'heart' - we derive 'cardiac'; also 'core', 'cordial'; 'courageous' is Germanic for heartful; 'concord' - two hearts as one; 'record' - on the tablet of the heart; 'accord' and then 'accordion'; 'quarry' - the heart of the beast being given to the hounds; we get the latin cardo meaning hinge, the heart of an arrangement; from which we get the cardinal virtues, upon which the whole of human nature was supposed to hinge ... and so on.
The deeper our understanding of its etymology, the longer and stranger the shadow the word casts, and the more complex the patterns of overlapping shadows become. Its study increases our sensitivity. Again this is an irrelevance to the reader; but they can feel the difference in the vastly improved lock and fit of our words. This natural sense of word-history is one of the main reasons Heaney is one of our most acclaimed poets. I think poets should always hear the evening in 'west', see the little man in the centre of the 'pupil', the beardless youth in 'callow', or the terrible star in 'disaster'.
Rhyme, for us, is a verb. This search for natural rhymes is built deeply into the compositional process, so that the rhymes have a sense of their passive or active engagement with the whole poem - that is either having emerged naturally from it, or guided the poem onward through the partial dictation of its sense. Terminal rhymes, incidentally, should be like eyes across a crowded room; they should be hunted in pairs. Inept poets fix one rhyme too early and refuse to give it up, and the resulting pair usually has the pathos of an old bloke who has chosen a Thai bride from a catalogue. It convinces no one, and looks even lonelier than before.
There's a little technique in poetry we call pararhyme. It can also be called consonantal rhyme. The noun, the lie, the 'rule' of pararhyme is: it's when you keep the consonantal signature of the word the same, and are free to change all the vowels. So in 'cat' we hear hard 'k' and 't', and can derive kite, cute, acute, cockatoo, biscuit, Cato...also, from close consonants, words like caddy, gateaux, god, Agadoo. Wilfred Owen used it beautifully in poems like Strange Meeting. In our own time, it is to Paul Muldoon what feedback was to Jimi Hendrix - that's to say an infinitely flexible strategy that allows him to articulate his genius. He's also opened it up for other poets to use, though some have failed to appreciate just how quietly and delicately it must be handled.
Now the weird stuff. In order to find pararhymes, unlike other kinds of rhyme, they have to be sought out much earlier than usual. In fact they can actively prefigure the whole poem. The ear can hear them, but not hunt for them - so the brain must find them out first. Having generated your pararhymes, you can write the poem around them, and use them as strange stations that the argument or the story of the poem must naturally visit. This defines its structure; thus rhyming becomes a wholly structural device.
This is identical to the study of the Torah in Jewish mysticism, in Kabbalah. Predating the creation of the universe itself (you'll remember the word came first: fiat lux predated the lux ) the Torah is printed without vowels, a block of timeless monolithic consonant into which we breathed vowels as it fell, with us, out of Eden and into time. However the standard reading of the Pentateuch is not the only way you can envowel it; the kabbalistic researcher could intuit the secret intentions of the divine by seeking out all the other words he could make with different combinations vowels. (Almost exactly the same technique was used by the Sufis in early versions of the Koran, incidentally, which also appeared without vowels or diacritical marks.) The same line would then be given many different - and far stranger - interpretations. Thus consonantal rhyme was their main tool in the mystical interrogation of the text.
In our art, pararhyming treats the mind as a sacred book. Once this series of secret cognates has been generated - Kabbalah, cable, quibble, cobble, equable, Keble, cue-ball, likeable, blackball, accapella, copla - they must be made sense of, and connected by the memory and imagination, which they simultaneously interrogate. In this way a hidden and mysterious narrative is revealed. It's a very disturbing way of discovering thing you didn't know you knew, and stories you did not think you had it in you to tell; and finding that everything is already connected. Pararhyme, incidentally, like all technique, is rubbish if you foreground it; it merely distracts. This is one reason Muldoon separates his rhymes by a hundred lines or a hundred pages; an alternative is simply not to use them in the terminal position, and bury them in the text. Who needs to know?
Anyway - I have already said to much. I can see the sisters and brothers of our infernal order at the back of the hall gesturing wildly at their throats, warning of the fate that will befall me should I read any more deeply from our Masonic grimoire... But let me leave you with one thought.
Our defining heresy as poets is that we know that sound and sense are the same thing. Everyone else thinks them merely related. We need not connect what is already joined; to unite things again, we so often have to remove our own clumsy connections, our own redundant mediation. The acoustic and semantic properties of the word are not even interchangeable for us; they are wholly consubstantial. They arose together, and to talk of one is to talk of the other. We allow our ear to think for us.
To embroider a formulation of Hugh Kenner's: like the musical note, the word is an event in time; and like notes, words can be recalled into one another's presence, and connected by in their sense and mystery by the careful repetition and arrangement of their sounds. This repetition therefore introduces a real perceptual distortion: it offers a small stay against the passage of time. Just in the way that rhyme not only has the knack of consolidating sense, but finding sense where previously there was none (can you imagine an unrhymed Lear?) - unifying the music of the line is, in good poets, an unconscious default. When we sing something, we make a little more sense of it; and when we want to make the deepest possible sense, we always make a song. Now more than ever we need to keep singing, and singing together.