“Every poem can be considered in two ways—as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exist to produce a particular kind of patterned experience in the readers.”
C. S. Lewis was the author of those sentences, and he happened to include them in a book he wrote about John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. I like his remark and am pleased to have to discovered it. But even though I, too, have published a book about Paradise Lost, I didn’t come across Lewis’s book until last week. In fact, I had no idea he’d ever written about the poem.
Many, many people have written about Paradise Lost, and I am probably the most ignorant of the bunch. I have read almost no Milton scholarship. You might wonder how I had the gall to write a book about Paradise Lost without paying any attention to what the experts had to say about it. But my purposeful avoidance wasn’t an offshoot of either laziness or arrogance. Rather, it was a way to circumvent my tongue-tied humility.
How does a not very religious American woman who lives in the woods and writes poems talk to a seventeenth-century urban Puritan firebrand and canonized epic poet? My initial reaction was to avoid talking to him at all. I had never really liked Paradise Lost, and I had no confidence in my ability to interact with it. Yet at the same time I was in need of a challenge. I wanted to expand myself as a poet. I wanted to learn from difficult work, from poems that made me uncomfortable, even angry.
Timidly I decided to copy out a few pages of the poem. As I discuss in the introduction to this book, copying out poems is the best way I know to get inside the head of another poet, to undergo word for word, comma by comma, what the poet experienced as he worked on the poem. But in this case my little copying experiment snowballed, and I ended up transcribing every single word of Paradise Lost. In the afterword of my memoir of that project, I talk about the strange, absorbing, unexpected task:
In early December 2007 I finished copying out the final lines of Paradise Lost. Accomplishing the job had occupied me for more than two years. Some weeks I copied out page after page. Some weeks I managed only a few lines. Some hours my fingers chased each other fluidly over the keyboard like Rogers and Astaire sparkling in easy tandem across a spotlit stage. Some hours I mangled every word, stuttering through typos and flawd punctuation, misunderstood verbs and unanticipated line breaks—an epic chore narrowed to “backspace and try again, backspace and try again.”
Copying was a hard job, and not just because typing is dull and Milton is a mountain. Living with myself as copyist was equivalently hard. When I undertook the task, I thought of myself as a poet, not a memoirist. But I was anxious about my worth as a poet: I needed to do something important, something improving. Transcribing Milton’s masterpiece seemed to be a quick solution and a weighty preoccupation, yet I couldn’t define why it might be improving or important. Even though I saw the job as special, even glamorous, I couldn’t take myself seriously. That I may have been the only person on the planet who imagined copying out all of Paradise Lost to be glamorous increased both my absurdity and my conceit. And once I began to write about the project, my sense of inadequacy grew. As hard as I pressed myself intellectually, I could not, in the end, truly understand Paradise Lost. The poem was too large for me.
Although I say “the poem was too large for me,” I don’t mean that I gained nothing from the experience. The most important lesson was how vital it can be to build an unmediated relationship with a work of art. My discoveries about Paradise Lost may have been pedestrian, but they were my discoveries. I had only myself to depend on as I made my way through this immense and thorny poem. The undertaking was vast and daunting, but I learned to think, to question, to argue, to weigh my opinions, to change my mind. There are times when research and scholarly analysis are necessary ingredients of art and the study of art. But there are also times when the exercise of one’s own mind is the stimulant.
[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]