I wanted to think more about lyric wishing so this is something more like a question than a thought. I was thinking about the wishing in Sofia Drew's "Excavation," a poem that begins with a seven year old wish to grow up to be a marine biologist, that includes the wish (or the liking) to believe "that the pōhutukawa leaves that had jumped / and fallen face-first / onto setting concrete / were fossils," and ends with each square of skin of the blurred overexposed future fossil self likened to "pōhutukawa leaves / blown into the wind without a wish." Here is all the movement between past and future and present moment that I was thinking about when I wrote yesterday's post, and here too are a series of wishes including the absence of the wish of the pōhutukawa leaves blown into the wind. As a way of thinking about time now lost to us, wishing is a lost grammatical tense, a lost grammatical marker that is like the subjunctive tense (also not often used) in that it refers not to what is, but what might be - but the wishing tense, or optative tense, expresses not so much doubt, imprecision and uncertainty but an ideal, a sense of potential, what might, could, should happen, should we wish for it. I was reading about it in Jhumpa Lahiri's wonderful book Translating Myself and Others, in which she quotes Aristotle's distinction between poetry and history: "the poet's function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not be writing in verse or in prose..The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen." For this phrase, he uses the optative tense, the marker of a wish, and later he uses a phrase translated variously as "ought to happen" or "ought to be." Poetry isn't about wishing in any ordinary way (except for when it can be, when the poet wishes it to be) and to try and think of every poem as a kind of disguised or declared wish of the poet would be even more limiting than thinking of every dream as wish-fulfilment, which led Freud to come up with some unlikely interpretations and eventually to read everything in terms of a death-drive. But poetry is radically conditional. The way a poem is always somehow - if it works - about more than it is about, the way a poem is always both autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time, whether or not it draws on real-life autobiographical details, the way a poem is always about what might be, or would be, or needs to be for the poem to work itself out right, with all the elements in the relation to each other that will give rise to resonance: is this a way of thinking about the optative mode as the mode of poetry? And if so, is it a way of opening up a kind of psychological grammar that we need to think about the future creatively, and to manage to think intellectually and strategically about the crises we are in without limits, without defenses, without paralysis, but in a spirit of optative play and possibility?
The work of building community is one answer to what poetry offers us in a time of crisis - or a time of crises, global and local, political and ecological. But there are other ways of community building that might seem a more direct response, such as the sort of climate action group I'm also taking part in (even if that ends up with a bit more of a focus on the poetics of submission writing than might be strictly justified - how happy we were to get "woefully" into our submission on the climate emissions budget!). What lyric poetry offers is one very particular and very strange answer to the problem of scale that has been identified by many scholars and activists as crucial to the global crises facing us and the climate change crisis in particular. Climate change is speeding up so fast it no longer seems quite so much a problem of imagining the closeness of a crisis a hundred years, fifty, into the future but still the effects of any individual action are so removed from the moment in which it takes place and we are experiencing now the effects of actions taken fifty, a hundred years ago, while government set targets for changes to be made by 2030, 2040, 2050, doing little even towards reaching these goals in their own term in power. And the actions that need to be taken are so large-scale and so systematic that any individual is largely helpless to effect any meaningful change, recycle our plastics though we do. While we plant a dozen trees in the local reserve, acres of ancient forests are burning across the globe. So we have a crisis of scale in terms of time and in terms of human reach, the numbers of people involved. And this is exactly what distinguishes lyric poetry, its strange and paradoxical valency of address, its strange and paradoxical command of scale, in terms of both time and human reach. A lyric poem - charged with feeling, structured around address - offers the most intimate, minute form of communication, more intimate even than one person speaking to another person in a room. Reading a poem, there is no distance between the writer and the reader - the reader reads as if they had written the poem themselves, and as if the poet is speaking directly to them. At the same time, a poem has infinite reach - anyone can read it anywhere, across the world and across time. Poems written two thousand years ago speak with an immediacy now, poems written now will be read in the present tense of whatever times are ahead of us still. I was talking over these ideas with Robert Sullivan, who was the one who introduced the term valency into the conversation. In chemistry, valency refers to the combining capacity of any one atom or group of atom - it is a term that equates power with the capacity for relationship. I was thinking about all these things when I started reading the latest issue of Starling - the literary journal for writers under the age of 25 created and edited by Francis Cooke and Louise Wallace and an extraordinary example of community building. The first poem in the journal is the beautiful "Excavation" by Sofia Drew, which brings together the different time scales by which we live, opening with her wishes, as a seven year old, for her own future as the adult she imagined herself to be. She describes herself as belonging to "the nostalgic generation" whose looking backwards extends beyond childhood to claim the palaeocene as their favourite time, and she looks ahead beyond her own adulthood to a future "already buried in sediment": in this future, "my favourite fossil is this: / me, moon-face, grainy, grinning / I’m overexposed / left too long in the tungsten glow of / still believing in everything." It is a beautiful example of lyric scale, and lyric wishing - about which I also have more to say, and more to think, perhaps in another post.
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.