Over the Water I Walk, by Pia Tafdrup (1)

I

My poetry comes into being between two poles: between hunger for life and fear of death, between excitement and thought, language and silence. The process is never the same, but – stretched quivering between extreme points – it contains a compelling necessity which seldom allows itself to be explained in any other way than: I can do nothing else, so I must do it.

*

Before the poem, a restlessness arises: spontaneous, unreflected and completely irrational phases, in which unknown energies are at work. Sleepless nights and convulsions, momentary irritation, melancholy, aggression and other conflict-ridden states. Seldom is it a harmonious situation that releases the poem. Very important, before the restlessness, a position of waiting, and endless patience. This period may last a long time, but may also be decisive in its invisibility. Associated with the patience is a humility, which is perhaps the real beginning?

*

The phase of pre-articulation with its different stages may easily be undervalued or quite simply overlooked, but what happens here is crucial as to whether the amorphous state will be released in a poem. Or: there are seldom poems without this phase, for what is involved is a degree of attention that is almost intolerable. It may be short or long, be scarcely perceptible, but it is here that there is an openness for anything that wants to find its way under an irritable layer of skin, here that sudden plunges under the surface of thought take place. Only afterwards does it become clear that the restlessness was the beginning of something new that was on its way. The state of pre-articulation may have so strong a grip that when I do eventually write, I no longer have any sense that it is me. Like an anaesthesia, an intoxication. Someone else or someone else in me, something else or something else in me acts, while I look on. Something that is more than me, or something that also exists in me,writes. What happens cannot be explained – thence the dizziness, but it is a question of reaching that point in the process where one forgets one’s own personality and is able to eliminate the private.

Inspired by French symbolism, Paul la Cour called this phenomenon depersonalisation: ‘In all great poetry there is an element of depersonalisation. It will not master you with individual soulfulness, but will shine into you with impersonal spirit.’ Inger Christensen has called the phenomenon derealisation. Both definitions aim at the same thing, they touch on a fundamental relation in all poetic creation: a generalisation of the subjective. In Mallarmé’s sense the depersonalisation is an aesthetic and metaphysical dimension in which the intellect leaves the space in the poem in order to let its own universe emerge – or as Rimbaud says of the poem’s subject:

Car je est un autre. Si le cuivre
s’éveille clairon, il n’y a rien de sa faute. Cela
m’est évident: j’assiste à l’éclosion de ma
pensée: je la regarde, je l’écoute: je lance un
coup d’archet: la symphonie fait son
remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d’un
bon sur la scène.

And elsewhere:

C’est faux de dire: Je pense:
on devrait dire: On me pense.

An attempt to take the direct route to the representative will only lead to poems that are vague. Only when the personal sets itself out over the private can the general emerge. It is not our emotions but the patterns we create from our emotions that are the essential thing, as T.S. Eliot pointed out.

I say: the angel dwells on the other side of subjectivity.

*

A man once said to me at an exhibition, where we were looking at paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘Your body is so classical. As I look at these pictures, I can recognize it everywhere.’ What he meant by this inverted declaration of love was: these studies of the body contain all human beings – or at least a half of mankind, all women. An artistic representation of the body is more than the individual body, it’s an expression of the body’s essence.

The poem must likewise be more than the writing subject. It is the movement inwards that leads past the subjective and towards the universal, like Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious. There exists an expectation of the general place that poetry must reach, but at the same time the poem exists by virtue of its specific character. If it doesn’t smell of skin, what use is it?

*

There can never be talk of art unless the private material is worked over and even the darkest events or most shocking experiences transformed into light. The poem has no value of its own until I leave it. It must be possible for it to be read independently of my individuality, which means that I must not be present as a private person. The partial must not oppress the universal. The poem only becomes real to the reader when it is possible for the reader to enter into a relationship with it.

The fact that I must never lock the poem does not mean that it is only valid if it has breadth: it’s better to reach a few people and affect them deeply than to reach many only superficially. Universality and breadth are two categories that are qualitatively different.

*

Inspiration is an invasion of forces that reach far beyond what is generally known, both physically and mentally. I have seen violent, almost superhuman energies manifest themselves in people shortly before they died. Although those people were ill and drained of strength, they were suddenly able to perform huge physical tasks such as the moving of objects that are normally immovable. In its own way, inspiration is likewise an overwhelming physical transformation. It can also have certain points of equivalence with the most searing love, with sorrow or fear, but unlike these instances, the energy is channelled into something else.

Whether the forces that break forth arise from within or from outside cannot be ascertained. Sometimes the possession lasts a few seconds, at other times it’s a question of long intervals. Something wants out, but why through me? And why do I want this something out? Sometimes what I try to summon fails to turn up. Instead something unexpected arrives. The process always contains an element of the miraculous. I am not an instrument for something, but the place where this something can grow. In that state I may have the experience of the poems writing me.

In the moment of inspiration I don’t only see further and more clearly than usual, but also differently and LIGHT-awake. This state exposes the microscopically small extent of what is normally seen and perceived. But to open the mind in the dimension that is part of inspiration is something that can only be done for a short space of time.

*

The Romantics and their successors maintained that inspiration is the making visible of a whole. I would say: if not a whole, then at least a glimpsed connection between things that normally appear to be separate. The Romantics were able to set their sights on an order that was already given. The task today is, for a moment, to create order in chaos, for no whole is any longer apparent.

*

It is almost becoming a dogma that art must arise from within. In certain cases, though, there is a freedom in allowing oneself to be bound by an idea that comes from outside. Someone wants something of me, and this expectation can sometimes take me further than I myself would have dared. There needs to be a dialectic involved: I must be able to illuminate the idea. Thus in a way to work outwards from inner stimuli…

*

I can adopt a seeking stance, or try to summon something forth, which is the same thing. If inspiration is to be present, what is involved is a sharpened attention, a special way of living. I write because I cannot help it. Either through fate or unwittingly, I have spent my whole life preparing for this. I am seen. So there is no way back.

*

Either I go out of myself and let myself be swallowed up by the alien other, or I receive the alien other into myself. The first movement dominates mostly in childhood and youth, the second in adult life. The ideal is to be able to do both, and what is involved is of course only a spiritual dimension. To devote oneself to the world is a precondition for being able to create a world. I receive the world into me at the same time as I exist in the world, and I produce a world at the same time as I exist in the midst of the world.

*

Without a beating heart, no poetry. Even the poems that express absence or emptiness are like the moment of falling in love — if not an expression of the imparting of meaning, then at least an attempt to keep meaninglessness at bay. For falling in love and the situation of writing contain something inside them…

*

In all talk of aesthetics, the birth of the poem is a principal consideration. Writing about how a poem announces itself is very different from what happens when a poem appears. In addition, each poem has its own subtle history, which complicates the whole matter further. It is only afterwards that the reflections are of interest. Why did I do this and not that? Only by standing outside the process can it be described.

On the one hand I may have the sense that the whole thing – or at any rate part of it – was already there before the poem itself came into being, it was just that I couldn’ t see it. As though the words were simply waiting to be brought forth. On the other hand, I was the person who put these words together, who gained mastery of new images which I will understand only later, or will never really know where they came from, for that happens too. I have written poems I actually did not understand, or where the process of their becoming visible was unexplained: the sense that something had suddenly been given, something I had to continue on my own.

As a prelude to one of the sequences in my collection Intetfang (Noembrace), I quote Rilke. He described the gaining of mastery as a process that begins before one is aware of it, in a phase in which sense-impressions invade the mind before concentration takes place, and when thoughts and expressions come shooting forth:

Werk des Gesichts ist getan,
tue nun Herz-Werk
an den Bildern in dir, jenen gefangenen; denn du
überwältigtest sie: aber nun kennst du sie nicht.

These lines could be about any of the poems I’ve written since the angel broke its silence. For it was in that first book of mine that I discovered poems need not refer directly to something that is already familiar. One of the paths in that first volume is built of poems which are based on familiar material, but as poems they’re not interesting, because the aesthetic manoeuvring in them usually blocks new perception. The other path is the one I subsequently followed and took as my starting-point in many directions — the one that involves a surprise, the momentary quiver of something that hasn’t been seen before: why did I suddenly write this, and where did it come from? It’s about trying to do more than what one thinks is possible, about hurling oneself out into the most challenging places. It’s in those places that one has the sense of fear and being overwhelmed, the sense that anything may happen, but it sometimes happens in a region where one almost cannot bear to be.

*

I don’t know who whispers the words, and I don’t always know what is being whispered, only that the words announce themselves in order to be written down. I write without inquiring. It is always too late to turn round. There is nothing to hold on to except what already exists in myself, and what is thrown over me in waves as I write.

*

The poet’s work is linked with an ability to lose himself, to temporarily set himself outside society and history. The writing of poems is a matter of authenticity, of forgetting about other things and other people. And of being oneself, with all that this requires.

*

There are situations where for a moment the material takes control of the writer. And if the control is not won back, one goes insane. Or worse: risks death.

*

The sensuous and the emotional are not enough to create a poem. At most a diary. It was only when I read Edgar Allan Poe that I realized the degree to which self-restraint and a methodical approach are involved in the poetic principle. The fire must be met with cold.

In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe comments on the birth of his great poem, “The Raven”: ‘It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition – that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’

These lines express a modern approach that jettisons quite a few myths, as there is a widespread belief that poems only come into being in a state of intoxication, madness or headlong ecstasy. I’m especially familiar with the enabling energy that is a first step in the process, but at some point self-oblivion and direct outreach must be replaced by a very high level of self-awareness.

Poe’s method is to set certain goals for himself in advance. That is why there is so little mention of intuition in his writings. I doubt that he is right in what he says about spontaneity. At any rate, I don’t have an explanation for every device I have used. Although I like the idea that an essential part of the process is a dispassionate overview, not everything in the process can be explained.

The birth of the poem is not only determined by expressive impulses, but also consists of contemplative states. Emily Dickinson encapsulated this type of inspiration in the following image:

On my volcano grows the Grass
A meditative spot

*

Strictness and wildness are irreconcilable dimensions that must be reconciled in the process of writing.

*

The precondition for writing poems is to be able to rise, let the dream move one’s body. My best writing times have always been accompanied by dreams of flying, in countless variations. I can stay in the air for ages, and can travel in this foreign element without any trouble at all.

*

Writing is a longing for the present, a longing to be allowed to exist. It is about being captured, daring to devote oneself to opposites. Pleasure and pain mingle together, and there is no more damming-up of the words that flow out ineluctably. Writing poems is above all being in the present tense, while also simultaneously being aware of other times and tenses.

*

At times when the moon and the stars are especially favourable, everything points to what is being written. The work on a book is not very different from falling in love. I am sensitive and receptive in a new way. Things that are apparently indifferent can’t avoid having significance asctibed to them, and coincidences arise between the strangest phenomena. Words are – at least temporarily – in chaos. What before were chance events now become signs.

*

In absorption things change. Most often it is a slow process, in which only small details alter. At other times there is an overwhelming vitality, and suddenly something shockingly new and unexpected is on the paper, something that now and then anticipates what I will develop years later.

*

What forms the beginning of a poem often ends up being deleted, either because the poem grows, and overshadows the beginning, or because the starting-point is possibly too private. Only when whatever it was that gave rise to the poem has been crossed out does something that is worthwhile begin.

*

The process of the poem belongs to the moments when I think: that is why I am alive… On the other hand I also know the dread of beginning, because there are periods of writing when I must enter places that are full of dread.

*

The poem is brought into the world and is thereafter, in principle, accessible an infinite number of times, while I become aware of my own mortality, but also of the fact that with each poem I am left with a remnant, that after the poem I am also confronted with something that could not be written into it. The poem stands there shining, and every time I will be whirled into places from which I must drag myself, empty and exhausted, back to the same darkness, the same inarticulate sphere. Once the poem begins, there is only one thing for it: to give up everything else and hurl oneself into what is taking place, without compromise. A process has begun. It can go only one way, and that is forward. Neither life nor poem nor society permit any slowing down.

*

It is essential to be able to endure prolonged uncertainty and doubt, as a poem will never allow itself to be forced.

*

Creation is not the possession of all the wisdom in the world, but the ability to be constantly born. ‘I am not yet born, but bearing am redeemed,’ Sophus Claussen says.

*

Sometimes I cannot gain access to the receptive space where I can forget everything, and the poem can be given birth, where I can form a shell around myself and be at peace. I may try to do so from many angles, but I will not succeed in finding the entrance to the room I know is there.

*

The process of the poem is a being-alone-with-oneself.

*

The poem sometimes begins in a dream-moment, of its own accord, or when two words collide and instantly set off a larger movement:

Between always and never
it is that things happen
in a breathless second
when one least expects it
the world changes.

Something that was not there before and contains a new being in itself, appears. Or the process may begin almost imperceptibly with a sound, a rhythm, a musical motif, a fragment of something almost forgotten or a misreading. Even the experience of absence may set language in motion.

A modern physicist would say that atoms have always existed, that something has always been given. Something is there, but whatever it is, it can be extremely diffuse. There exists a material, an amorphous structure, which by means of transformation is brought to take on a number of forms, but most importantly: poems are not created from nothing. Something is. Just as at birth we have the impressions of nine months already behind us.

The thing that was the poem’s original starting-point, and is often discarded, exists nonetheless as an invisible place, and has its special function in the poem.

*

Poems occupy themselves with the impossible, with the writing down that of which one cannot speak. The opposite to Wittgenstein’s Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. But this is precisely the barrier that poetry seeks to cross, by writing out new universes. All that about which nothing final can be said, and which reveals new, unspoken aspects each time something is formulated. Poems set words free. They constantly move the limits of language, and yet are never able to say everything…

*

While the draft of the poem is coming into being, I feel that I have been put outside of time, although that phase has its beginning and its end. The place I am in is forgotten, as is my identity. A state of seeking, almost weightless. Like a pure floating.

*

“Storm and stress” is often considered a virtue, but stands in contrast to meditation or absorption. If I am absorbed by the outside world all creation is rendered impossible, because in that case it is the world that uses me to act. In the process of the poem precisely the opposite becomes true: it is I who am the agent. A bombardment of impressions may be sometimes be of importance, but in the phase of writing the direction goes from inside to out.

*

All the handwritten revisions, the basic sensuous experience of moving a pencil or pen across the paper are incredibly important, as are the subsequent fair copies, because they have the character of being finished, and therefore call for corrections and improvements in a way that is different from the first hasty sketches. A rationalization of the process would not produce more good poems — at most, it would give rise to a great many bad ones.

Between the individual sketches hours, days or weeks, sometimes months may lie. One can’t bully a poem, or it locks up and will not obey. Where a poem is concerned, it is not the writing down that takes time. On the other hand, the intervals between the productive phases can be of long duration. But during the time that the poem is resting, something happens. Or I am given new eyes to see with.

*

The material or the emotions may pile up, ideas and images grow out of proportion, the potential may assume dimensions which cannot possibly be of any benefit. There is nothing to be done except to overcome one’s resistance and carry on. Poems demand will, a fact that conflicts, perhaps, with many an old myth, but the poem does not come into being with the wave of a magic wand. In a society, the will is one of the most invisible things – there it is always the finished result that counts, or the final product that is presented. But will, which is not to be confused with mechanical toil, apparently exists on a perfectly equal footing with other instincts, and should not be undervalued. Will and endurance may go very far in determining my fate, but they are not sufficient to create art. At most, these forces are a forward operating base.

Lastly, the exertion must not be detectable in the finished work. ‘It’s from diamonds like yours that I know the sweat they are silent about!’ Per Højholt writes in The Moon’s Gesture. A Sophus Claussen Identification.

Anyone can experience inspiration, but few have the courage and discipline to go further. It is above all here that the artist stands out from others, who let happy ideas evaporate the instant they are born. It is the stubbornness that is enigmatic, like the will to life. Where does the strength to go on have its source?

*
At the times when I am preoccupied with a poem, I cannot be the person I would like to be. I wound and offend, I demand the impossible, or do things I later regret. I can see what I am doing, but cannot act differently. All my strength moves in one direction: towards the poem. All my passion is gathered in one single point.

*

Perhaps the poem needs me?

*

The poem ‘Meditation Fountain’ in Bridge of Seconds speaks of two forces that are present at every birth, a gathering and a spreading. Creation and destruction are aspects of the same process, and so destruction is an important element in art. Nothing comes into being without something else simultaneously being destroyed. Rejection and precision are deeply interconnected.

There is a paradox in the sense of being enriched after deleting, word by word, the thing that at one stage one tried to persuade oneself was a poem. It’s a happy experience to have written a good poem, but at least as happy a one to have avoided writing a bad poem..

*

‘Poetry can be defined as a series of encounters which have chance as their fundamental law’, Per Højholt writes in Cézanne’s Method. The degree to which it is chance that determines the encounter can be debated. Is an external compulsion involved, or is it an inner necessity? Is it I who grasp chance – or does chance draw attention to itself? It is sometimes hard to decide where the borderline is between two such contradictory quantities as miracle and chance. Our birth may, for example, be said to be determined by a very predictable encounter, but why that particular ovum and that particular sperm cell and not one of the other millions of possible ones, and why that particular lovemaking that day between just those two people… Does the poem approach me or do I approach it, that is the question. Of course the process goes both ways, and it is a matter of indifference whether as a writer I am fertilized by Providence or chance. Holy ghost or ovulation – what does it matter, as long as a poem comes out of it…

*

Where does the poem open? It opens where the unknown starts. If I only write about familiar material, I limit myself and present an obstacle to all the things that could be written meanwhile. New perceptions must always be able to come up behind me, impulses that bring me to an unpredictable place.

*

A poem must close. It has its own end built in to it, but must at the same time point beyond itself. It is only when the definitive move is made that the ending becomes visible. In what the definitive consists cannot be said, as each poem has its own move, which points towards closing.

While it is far from invariably possible to explain what started a poem, the decisive move can as a rule be made clear during or immediately after the work. Later it is probably forgotten, but the fact remains that beginning and the end must be in a supple relation to each other. A poem can be so short that it does not manage to develop, but can on the other hand run the risk of being so long that it loses precision or becomes diffuse.

A poem must stop in a convincing way, so that it can start in the reader.

*

The title of a poem functions as an orientation point. I don’t remember numbers, they don’t tell me anything. Number-blind, I stumble about in the dark. But a title is important, because the poem is recalled by it. On the other hand, titles should not signal too much. They should be more in the way of hints than titles which make the poem top-heavy. It’s a relief when a title gives itself, for usually it is the title that causes the greatest difficulties. This is especially true of book titles, which ought to be a miniature of the whole work. The strange thing about book titles is that they converse with one another. The title I gave my first book has had direct consequences for the others. Like names in a group of brothers and sisters.

*

Visible or invisible poles exist in my poems, but the number three is the magic one. It hides everywhere in their composition, and in the books’ inner conversation.

Springtide and White Fever constitute two poles, while Bridge of Seconds became the third quantity, which could not have been devised without the preceding ones. Viewed like this, the three works are related to one another as thesis – antithesis – synthesis. The poem ‘Moving sculpture’ in Bridge of Seconds is a hidden poetics for the three books mentioned here: King, Queen and dauphin. The dauphin is an unexpected result, which again must mark off a new figure which lies outside the material that is given. A continuous dynamic praxis.

The figure three also plays on another motif. The poems do not merely articulate an I-you relation, a poet-reader relation: a third instance is present between the two.

*

In the poem the limits of the unsayable are investigated. Not everything must be made visible, for when the mystery vanishes, obviousness and the one-dimensional begin. A poem’s mystery should not be exchanged for a hard shell of something unapproachable, nor with unnecessary mysticism or chronic sentimentality. The hermetic, which alone shuts the poet in and keeps the reader out, is not desirable, but on one level poetry is always an oracular monologic discourse: the possible transformations of expression, all the many layers and structures that demand repeated readings. A good poem has an inborn character that calls for movement and continually steers towards greater understanding.

*

Where art is concerned I do not doubt for a moment that fidelity is a necessity. It is not imposed on me. I choose it myself as the only valid way of relating to poetry. It is a precondition in all seeking for a true artistic language, it is the condition for creation that steps beyond itself. Fidelity is an openness that obliges, but also a risk, for with it I stake everything.

*

After the poem: a violent exhaustion, but also an inexpressible relief that this something has found its way out. For a time, a great happiness… Or a hibernation-like state sets in, a physical condition in which all sense-impressions glance off or are neglected. If there was an element of something that growled like a beast of prey in the pre-articulation phase, now the beast scratches behind its ear again.

*

The condensed energy or trembling nervous state that exists before the words appear returns again for a time after the poem. I find myself indeed in a place of whose existence I could not possibly have had any idea before the poem, but am again hurled into fear and darkness, once again alone with what is greatest.

*

The insightful poet must be able to parody himself.

*

What decides if the poem is a successful poem? Time.

translation © David McDuff 2011

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2 comments on “Over the Water I Walk, by Pia Tafdrup (1)

  1. ithacanancy says:

    I hosted Pia during a cross country trip in the States back in the late 80’s. I didn’t know her work, but found her to be a wonderful guest. It is lovely to read her words here and get more insight into the process as she understands it. Thanks for this opportunity to know her better.

  2. David McDuff says:

    You’re most welcome. This very makeshift method of making the text of the translation available is the best I can manage at the moment, but I hope that eventually the whole of the book will appear from UK publishers Bloodaxe Books, who have already published three of Pia’s collections in my translation (The Tarkovsky’s Horses volume also contains The Whales in Paris).

    http://bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852245670

    http://bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852248378

    I will post some more of the text soon.

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