Welcome to On Beauty, a series of interviews with poets about their relationships to beauty. For an introduction to the project, click here. This month Amanda Jernigan shares her thoughts on beauty. I’ve asked Jernigan the same three questions I’ve asked of the other poets, and have as usual added a fourth question that addresses some aspect of her response.
Among other things I admire about Jernigan’s approach is her willingness to look to her experiences in attempting to make sense of abstract notions. I also appreciate her deft interweaving of other voices into her own work as thinker & feeler.
To the left is a wood engraving by Jernigan’s husband, John Haney. This is the frontispiece of the first section of her new collection, All The Daylight Hours, from Cormorant Books.
Can you point me toward a poem you find beautiful? In what way do you think of or experience this poem as beautiful?
The poem that comes first to my mind — perhaps because I quoted it recently, to H. L. Hix, in response to a question from him about ‘deep time’ — is Richard Wilbur’s ‘To the Etruscan Poets’ (link to the interview: InQuire). This is one of those poems that bypassed rote, for me, and went straight into memory, its syllables part of me even before I realized I could recite them: an irony, this, as the poem is about the ephemerality of language:
Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mothers’ milk the mother tongue,
In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind
Like a fresh track across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.
What makes this poem beautiful? Its memorizability gives it the sense of something given: land, or sea. It is. It is sensually pleasing: all those ‘l’ and ‘m’ sounds, as natural to us as milk, sounds made by touching lips, palette and tongue. Then those perfect rhymes: simple rhymes, almost childlike rhymes. The beauty of the familiar. Then the syncopation: the beauty of pattern and variation, caesuras played off against line endings, in one long, perfectly modulated sentence, that’s just a little too long for one breath. And then, finally, the beauty of surprise: because what those familiar sounds lead to is the old familiar mystery. All melts and goes. A terrible beauty, that one. Perhaps it is the beauty of truth.
Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in your work as a poet? Why or why not?
Yes: hope for, look toward, seek out … all those things, though the verb phrase that seems to me most apt is “study to see …”. (Though, as Warren Heiti points out in a recent essay in The New Quarterly — issue 125 — study will only get one so far, where beauty is concerned.)
And why? Because beauty, perceived, is consoling. It allows us to participate, for a moment, in that which is other: to be part of (in the sense of a participant in, even while we are also a fragment of) the world that outlives us.
In an interview with Beth Follett, Heiti writes:
Meaning is not primarily linguistic, but rhythmic, and it is shared by the motions of the earth and the oceans, the mountains and the rivers. Words can be meaningful, but only insofar as they acknowledge and participate in these larger, worldly rhythms.
What he says of meaning, I might say of beauty: words can be beautiful, but only insofar as they acknowledge and participate in those larger, worldly rhythms.
Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in other aspects of your life?
I was contemplating this question the other day as I was walking in the Art Gallery of Ontario, my nine-month old son sleeping on my chest in a cloth carrier. I do not always experience beauty in art museums, but on this day, I did: first, in the moody, dark-cased photographs of the Czech photographer Josef Sudek; and then in the studied part-singing of the American chamber choir Lionheart, which was performing in an adjoining room. Drawn from the photo exhibition by those harmonizing voices, I followed them, and stood for a long time in the cloisters of the atrium, listening. The music was from a hymnbook 700 years old; 200 years ago, that book was disassembled, its leaves scattered among collectors. What we, in that art-museum audience, were witnessing was a secular resurrection: Donne’s library in which ‘all our scattered leaves’ are bound up again, Dionysus put back together after his dismemberment, Wolverine reassembled from the score of his backbone … this sequence of hymns reassembled, transcribed, and brought to voice, for the first time in 200 years.
But I didn’t know all of that when I was listening to the concert: didn’t know what I was hearing, or why. I was hugely moved by it, all the same: the sense was exactly that of being taken up into something larger than myself.
There is hope, wrote Kafka; but not for us. In moments of beauty, however, I think we become something other than us, something … hopeful. I am not a theist. For me such moments are elusive and, when they happen, largely inarticulable. But yes, I do hope for them; when they happen, I look toward them, for as long as I can; and as best I can, I seek them out. But I think again of Heiti’s essay in The New Quarterly: love, he writes, is beauty’s perception; but it is “untameable, inscrutable, brutal as luck.”
I have said nothing of the child sleeping on my chest, as I watched and listened, in the museum that day: a third, deeper, and less describable experience of beauty, that one.
Words in poetry mean less by definition than they do by accumulation and concatenation of usage. “Beauty crowds me till I die,” writes Emily Dickinson. And Richard Wilbur, “the beautiful changes.” Then there is Keats’s terse, canonical, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty …” Or Yeats’s “a terrible beauty is born.” And centrally, for me, Wallace Stevens: “Beauty is momentary in the mind — / The fitful tracing of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal.”
I think, too, of the hymn, dear to me from childhood less for its words than for the sequence of notes that carried them: “All things bright and beautiful, / All creatures great and small …”
In my own poems, the word beauty appears three times, twice in the context of allusion to other poets’ use of the word (Wilbur, Keats). The remaining occurrence is in my poem “Adam’s Prayer”:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread:
you put this rather beautifully,
and gave me leave to sing my work
until my work became the song….
Your question was about beauty in other aspects of my life — i.e., other than my work as a poet. But I’ve come back to talking about my work as a poet, and I think that is because my work as a poet is, in no small measure, a way of hoping for, looking towards, seeking out beauty in other aspects of my life.
(Amanda Jernigan, March/April 2013)
On Beauty: A Postscript
Follow-up Question: I would love to hear more about “study to see.” Why ‘study’? And how study–what shape(s) does the study take?
I suppose the phrase ‘study to see’ is evocative to me because it gets at the tricky thing about beauty, which is that it seems to inhere both in the eye of the beholder and in that which is beheld. Its perception involves some sort of interchange. And also a gap: we study to see, yet study itself never quite sees, and seeing leaves study behind. Occasionally, one gives on the other.
There are times, of course, when we see without study, times when we are simply ‘in the zone’, as the overused phrase has it. I love Richard Outram’s jarring, perfect coinage, describing this state, in his poem ‘Hiram with Banjo’: ‘He admires to see …’ (emphasis mine).
It seems to me to be both a gift of art, and a problem with art, that it studies to see beauty in all things. In her essay ‘On “God” and “Good”’, Iris Murdoch writes: ‘The great artist sees his objects (and this is true whether they are sad, absurd, repulsive or even evil) in a light of justice and mercy.’ She is wrestling with the connection between the beautiful and the good, about which the poetic tradition I’ve been discussing (beauty is truth, truth beauty …) is suspiciously silent.
In our correspondence around this interview you said, ‘I … have the feeling that there’s something about beauty-qua-light and meaning that complements [Heiti’s] rhythm thought. Haven’t figured it out yet.’
I haven’t figured it out yet, either, but I find myself, once again, trying to construct meaning out of accumulated usage: Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Love is the perception of beauty. Love (as Simone Weil says) is light.
Amid all these assertions of identity, the sense of a gap remains. I am reminded of Peter Sanger’s haunting conclusion to the second edition of his book on Richard Outram:
Prophecy and poetry can do little more than repeat the truthful tautologies of ecstatic metaphor in a circumfluent, immortal world which could not exist but for death, a world in which essence and existence are one undivided, recollected origin, image and word, a world of true Troy weight, embers of Ilium, kindled shadow, darkling flight. If I am I and you are you, we become as we are, beholding.
There is a place at the end of certain works of art where the gap (between truth and beauty, love and light, & c. & c.) seems about to disappear. Often, this is figured through the imagery of water: I’m thinking of the end of Revelations, or Finnegans Wake — or Sanger’s book White Salt Mountain, or Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Life. In Genesis, the Word divides the water from the water. In life, the distinctions of language follow and to some extent displace the amniotic unities of womb-warmth, mother’s milk. There does seem to be this impulse, in language, to go the other way, to give up its distinctions in the face of beauty — and yet, for a certain kind of mind, this point of giving up seems only reachable through language, through the study of its beautiful distinctions.
(Amanda Jernigan, May 2013)
Amanda Jernigan has worked as a writer, scholar, editor and teacher. Her first book of poems, Groundwork, was published by Biblioasis in 2011, and her second collection, All the Daylight Hours, was published this year by Cormorant Books. Jernigan lives in Hamilton, ON.