Message in a Bottle
Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a
single lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room
or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you're wide
awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a
place where silence reigns and the din of the culturethe constant
buzzing noise that surrounds ushas momentarily stopped. These
poems have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Male-branche's
maxim, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." This
maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, quoted by Walter
Benjamin in his magisterial essay on Franz Kafka, can stand as a writer's
credo. It also serves for readers. Paul Celan said:
A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in thenot always
greatly hopefulbelief that somewhere and sometime it could
wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.
Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the other
debristhe seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fishyou
find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and
discover a message inside. This letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to
have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now that
someone turns out to be you. The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam,
destroyed in a Stalinist camp, identified this experience. "Why shouldn't
the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?" he
asked in "On the Addressee." But of course those friends aren't necessarily
the people around him in daily life. They may be the friends he
only hopes exist, or will exist, the ones his words are seeking. Mandelstam
At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the
ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his
fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon
it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and
testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I
have not opened someone else's mail. The message in the bottle
was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become
its secret addressee.
Thus it is for all of us who read poems, who become the secret addressees
of literary texts. I am at home in the middle of the night and
suddenly hear myself being called, as if by name. I go over and take
down the bookthe message in the bottlebecause tonight I am its recipient,
its posterity, its heartland.
To the Reader Setting Out
The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out, setting forth. The
reader is what Wallace Stevens calls "the scholar of one candle." Reading
poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning,
a rebirth of wonder. "Beginning is not only a kind of action,"
Edward Said writes in Beginnings, "it is also a frame of mind, a kind of
work, an attitude, a consciousness." I love the frame of mind, the playful
work and working playfulness, the form of consciousnessthe
dreamy attentivenessthat come with the reading of poetry.
Reading is a point of departure, an inaugural, an initiation. Open the
Deathbed Edition of Leaves of Grass (1891-1892) and you immediately
encounter a series of "Inscriptions," twenty-six poems that Walt Whitman
wrote over a period of three decades to inscribe a beginning, to introduce
and inaugurate his major work, the one book he had been
writing all his life. Beginning my own book on the risks and thralls, the
particular enchantments, of reading poetry, I keep thinking of Whitman's
six-line poem "Beginning My Studies."
Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
I relish the way that Whitman lingers in this one-sentence poem over the
very first step of studying, the mere factthe miracleof consciousness
itself, the joy of encountering "these forms," the empowering sense of
expectation and renewal, the whole world blooming at hand, the awakened
mental state that takes us through our senses from the least insect to the
highest power of love. We can scarcely turn the page, so much do we
linger with pleasure over the ecstatic beginning. We are instructed by
Whitman in the joy of starting out that the deepest spirit of poetry is awe.
Poetry is a way of inscribing that feeling of awe. I don't think we
should underestimate the capacity for tenderness that poetry opens
within us. Another one of the "Inscriptions" is a two-line poem that
Whitman wrote in 1860. Called simply "To You," it consists in its entirety
of two rhetorical questions:
Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me,
why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?
It seems entirely self-evident to Whitman that two strangers who pass
each other on the road ought to be able to loiter and speak, to connect.
Strangers who communicate might well become friends. Whitman refuses
to be bound, to be circumscribed, by any hierarchical or class distinctions.
One notices how naturally he addresses the poem not to the
people around him, whom he already knows, but to the "stranger," to
the future reader, to you and me, to each of us who would pause with
him in the open air. Let there be an easy flowan affectionate
Here is one last "Inscription," the very next poem in Leaves of
Grass. It's called "Thou Reader" and was written twenty-one years after "To
Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I,
Therefore for thee the following chants.
I am completely taken by the way that Whitman always addresses the
reader as an equal, as one who has the same strange throb of life he has,
the same pulsing emotions. There's a desperate American friendliness to
the way he repeatedly dedicates his poems to strangers, to readers and
poets to come, to outsiders everywhere. Whoever you are, he would
embrace you. I love the deep affection and even need with which Whitman
dedicates and sends forth his poems to the individual reader. He
leaves each of us a gift. To you, he says, the following chants.