Instress, part 3

I am/immortal diamond

Portraits of Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, Walter Scott, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. English Romantic Shelley is, in many ways historical and poetics-centered, out of place among this crew, including among them a more serious interest in the occult’s manifestation in poetry.

“Poetry … transmutes all that it touches,” wrote Percy Bysse Shelley in “A Defence of Poetry” (698). In 2022, when I’m grasping for really any concrete manner of hoping to influence the courses of destruction human capitalism/patriarchy/genocide has put the world on, I am, maybe paradoxically, drawn to poetic treatises like Shelley’s. He really thought, or at least said, that poetry can create change. We all probably know that he called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (as if we want to be related to politicians), but he also said that poetry is the “most unfailing herald, companion and follower … to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution,” that poets “are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration,” mirrors of the world that is or could be (700–701). Shelley gives me a version of poetry that effects, poetry that does work and does magic. The imagination is the great instrument of moral good, and poetry is the actor on the imagination (682). Whether you care for Shelley or not, this is a hopeful declaration for poetry’s place in the world. Among poetry’s many talents for change is the metaphor. Shelley heralds the “vitally metaphorical” as that which, for humans, marks the relations of things — meaning placed into relation among signifiers (676). “Poetry is a sword of lightning ever unsheathed,” he declares!  (685)

Gerard Manley Hopkins allowed instress to harness “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” through the vital metaphor to arrive at revelation and transformation. This is one of Peter O’Leary’s favorite Hopkins poems for good reason (Earth is Best,86). Hopkins’s clouds are positively explosions of sound, “torn tufts, tossed pillows” on “an air-built thoroughfare: heaven roysterers, in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches” (Hopkins, 9). Gathered, the clouds then march through “yestertempest’s creases” to nature’s bonfire, “an enormous dark” — “manshape” (Hopkins 10). The human bonfire, human error or maybe “sin—” to borrow more theological language that Hopkins might have considered — is where the glories of nature and cloud dissipate. We might call this the Bardo of the poem, and here the sounds rip — “a heart’s-clarion!” “Enough!” cries the poem — “Enough!” cries Hopkins through the poem, barreling towards a Resurrection, as he calls it (now tune back in past the noise of religiosity’s whine), and he writes:

A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond. (10)

The sympathetic metaphor is the central magical device at the end of this poem. The metaphor transfigures this “Jack” (notice the sound alchemy here, Jack to joke, follow the “o” to poor, percussive patch to match on wood, breaking entirely) to “immortal diamond.” Diamond, the hardest mineral substance, eternally (immortally!) valuable, is the end state of “I” and, significantly, also Christ, the divine. Christ was what I am, therefore, now I am what he is: immortal diamond. “Yahweh,” one Hebrew name for God (of the many names of God in Hebrew spells!) is often translated as “who is” or “who brings into being.” God is presence, essence, being. To define God, God is. And the name of God that calls God into existence is instress itself. That’s one of the most beautiful spiritual concepts there is, in my opinion. The very name of God is god-ness and calls the divine into being. The name of God is a spell.

The diamond is immortal beingness and divinity. (Remember, for Hopkins, Christ is pure instress.) In Hopkins’s poem, sound carries the reader and the voice of the poem from heaven in the clouds, to earth on-fire-and-dejected, to an immortal leap back to substance — but to immortal substance: the alchemized diamond, Hopkins’s Philosopher’s Stone. The invoker of this poem is, by the end of this poem, and is diamond, making this a plea, a prayer, a spell, a read-it-aloud-yourself.

The declarative “I am” in this poem gets all of its energy from the sonic play before it. The metaphor, in its declaration, stands alone and at the end. The sound moving the reader towards that end, barreling forward (but how beautifully), is the vector of the magic and is the matrix of meaning. I think Hopkins successfully disrupts meaning up to the end through sonic wordplay. Clouds aren’t “clouds” beyond the first sentence. Instead, they’re playful noises.

Really, read this poem aloud.

Why is a metaphorical disruption of linguistic meaning so successful? Why does the metaphor have the capacity to rewire our thinking, if only briefly, just like sympathetic magic? You could tell me that a lamp is an eye, but if you show me in a poetic metaphor, you can allow me to see it. O’Leary ponders (lingers a bit on, perhaps) why Hopkins would not have adopted or at least mentioned Luke Howard’s 1802 meteorological quintet of Latinate words for clouds that includes cirrus, altus, and cumulus; O’Leary arrives at, “I suspect that instress and its uplift are experienced in a unison so complete, only a language of experience suffices, and not an adopted language of observation” (89).

I could sit with this sentence for a minute with you.

Uplift, “activation” as O’Leary puts it, is a soulful perception or recognition of instress and essence (Earth is Best, 85). Maybe we could break this experience down mathematically and claim that instress + uplift + energy = sublime, in which energy can be filled by the vector of the poem (sound, maybe). Remember the little squiggly line in chemistry class meant to represent “sunlight”? There was never a quantity to sunlight, and it was so vague as to be ridiculous compared to the rest of the scientific mess that was high school chemistry. Sunlight was an unknown catalyst, necessary for the reaction, but unquantifiable and also immediate, in a sense. The light was there, or it was not. The poem is the energetic field for the instress and uplift equation. Language provides the energy, the squiggle. Maybe sonic energy is that vector. I digress.

A “language of experience” is subjective — observation, objective, in the same limited sense. The lamp is an eye because I say it is and I saw it is, not because “it is.” (Again, we must examine the role of the poet’s will in magical poesis.) The lamp isn’t literally an eye, but metaphorically, and the metaphor is a subjective vantage that allows for a vector of insight, an energetic projection. The magic is in seeing from that perspective, for a limited time. Hopkins needed to use “cloud-puffball” initially to grab your attention with the word “cloud,” to ground your attention in an image and then, as soon as possible, speed-of-light away from that image. The cloud was vaporized by the uplift of the poem; that vapor became a sea of instress, essences, possibilities.

You did come back to the page, didn’t you?

I can tell these ideas are matching my own poetic frequencies because of the speed with which I wrote this post and wrote it too much, making associations like lightning (unsheathed!) rather than “checking myself” to make sure I’m right. My homework will be to write a poem using this thinking, and I’d encourage you to do this, too. Write the metaphor that synthesizes or sublimates two disparate concepts or entities. In the moment that the mind is making the leap of the metaphor, you are making the sublime leap through the Bardo. Have you revisited that feeling, from a poem you cherished reading for the first time? You won’t likely be able to feel the same exact way every time, but revisit that poem anyway. Practice the brain leaping. Like Italo Calvino’s concept of “lightness” and the jump over the grave (leaving earth/to the divine or immortal/returning to earth), you can practice manifesting this magic for yourself. That might make us all better poets and better readers. Better people, if we believe Percy Shelley. Think magically, meaning metaphorically. Return! Come back to the dirt. There’s no sublime without return. There’s essential meaning out there, but it does not exist until there are words for it. So you have to make the words, and maybe those words are the metaphor, the vehicle, that drives your poem. Poems are energy constructs (thanks, Olson) that take us! Take us with, take us there. And then the book shuts, and we’ve gone, and returned, or, there and back again. Now what?

— Eric