A poet scanning clay

RECENTLY I took a course in potting. I learned some things about throwing pots, and sometimes they threw me. But among the sagging rims and potbellied clay blobs, I learned something else that was pure serendipity. As a longtime poet and novice potter, I saw alliances and analogies between the two endeavors that truly surprised me. For instance, there is a certain cooperation between the material and the artist that is fascinating to watch. The clay at times seems to yearn to be a pot, the words to shape themselves into a poem. Both clay and phrases tend to determine by their nature what results are possible. The walls of the pot rise between the guiding hands of the potter, and if he or she is experienced, they do the potter's bidding with a remarkable sense of harmony.

But one can't make square pots on a wheel, nor can one violate the nature and limits of words and make a poem. Words mean only certain things, and send out only certain implications. One has to work with them, not against them -- with their sounds, meanings, radiations, and the way they mesh with other words. But when the poem is spilling out, often all the melding happens effortlessly, as though the words found one another in an eager desire to become a poem.

Similarly, one discovers that much of the virtue of the pot lies in the properties of the materials themselves. This seems especially true when one gets to glazing. What one envisions beforehand is not precisely what one gets, and the results can surprise with their beauty.

The same is true with words, phrases, sounds, rhythms, images, metaphors. In fact, until this analogy became clear to me, I had never fully seen what natural virtue the materials of poems have, and how with such extraordinary materials, the poems that arise from our uses of them have a remarkable amount of help to give, of resources to pour out on the poet. Some words emit auras that seem romantic or fascinating. How could a ``tundra'' be other than bleak, a ``blimp'' other than rounded? An ``eolith,'' or ``dawn stone,'' carries the romance of the very ancient in its being and sound. Does not ``Chattanooga'' invite a song with rhythm, or ``Walla Walla'' sound faintly risible? Putting together images, the poet creates metaphors that bear a sense of meaning never seen before, as when Sylvia Plath says of a newborn child's cry, ``The clear vowels rise like balloons.'' Her contribution to the result is perhaps less than that of the resources ready for her hand, precise as her comparison is.

The wealth of sounds is also there for the poet's use. When Frost began his poem, ``Tree at my window, window tree,'' he set a music going in his readers through the repetition and variation of the particular sounds he used. We have a feel about the poem before we are well into it -- and this is possible because of the virtue of the sounds and rhythms themselves. Repeating the phrase in inversion not only gives us the double meaning of identifying the tree and describing it as a place of symbolic insight. It also juxtaposes sounds, bright and dark, stopped and drawn out. While the poet uses these skillfully, still they were awaiting his use, and his poem is made from what was ready for him.

Of course there are limits. In potting, if one asks the clay to do things it is incapable of doing, it revenges itself by collapsing. In poetry, one cannot transgress what words are capable of, nor can poets ever really assure themselves that their meanings are either lucid to everyone or as evocative as they would like them to be.

Roger, my ceramics instructor, remarked when I explained that I had accomplished something by doing it in a way I wasn't supposed to: ``You can't cheat.'' If it works, you haven't. If you try something that doesn't work, you obviously don't get away with it. In poetry, if your rime words dominate their lines, you have tried to complete a poem without real care or effort. The result collapses like a top-heavy pot.

Machines can make ceramic pieces more regularly than the human hand. But as a sign in the studio reads, ``A perfectly centered pot is a dead pot.'' The subtle variations that give ceramic pieces their individuality also give them interest and bring us delight. So, too, a perfectly regular poem in traditional form is generally a dull one, and the interplay between expectations and actualities imparts beauty and meaning to the result. For example, Poe, who is not known for metrical irregularities, opens his poem ``To Helen'' with the following stanza: Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nic"ean barks of yore That gently, o'er a perfumed sea, The weary, way-worn wanderer bore To his own native shore.

Basically iambic, the meter is varied by an inverted first foot and significant departures in the fourth line, including a spondee and an extra unaccented syllable. In addition, the pauses in Lines 3 and 4, themselves of different length, impart variety and interest to the stanza. Yet we recognize it as basically regular.

Like pots, poems sometimes absolutely demand to be left alone, even when the poet would like to continue polishing them. Pots of much beauty will collapse under such improvements. So do poems. Both seem to delight in their own individualities.

Up to a point, that is. My own best potting effort, a green jar with a lid, sits on my mantel, leaning very slightly. I have turned it so the viewer can see the lean. It seems only honest. Still, I wonder. I have written some poems that lean, and in which the angularity seemed a virtue. But I knew I was doing it. As to the pot, I am less sure. I think I imparted the lean to it in separating it from the wheel. It seems faintly amusing. Roger raised an eyebrow at it -- only slightly, as is his habit. I think he meant I was more of a poet than a potter. That is no doubt true. My final notion is that poems, like pots, should not lean by mistake but by intent or serendipity.

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