Staring into the Soundless Dark: On the Trouble Lurking in Poets’ Bedrooms

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One of the most celebrated and terrifying poems of the second half of the 20th century — and one of poetry’s great treatments of insomnia — is Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” The 1977 poem describes an experience all of us have at some point, that of waking up much earlier than we’d intended and, unable to get back to sleep, lying in a hazy torment in which all our life’s anxieties are amplified tenfold. The anxiety that hounds Larkin turns out to be the prospect of his own death:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

Larkin wants us to see that these states prefigure death itself: death too will be an affair of “soundless dark” in which “all thought [is] impossible” and the individual — supine, rigid, gaping at nothing in particular — is quite alone. We are all speeding toward the endless acreage of death, and it’s a paradox of life that we only fully glimpse that fact against the clarifying backdrop of night and darkness. Insomniac poets glimpse it with particular sharpness, and often seem proud of this: afflicted by a crippling illness, they yet occupy a place of lonely, privileged insight, gazing out from an observatory of solitude and sleeplessness at a misguided humanity, lost in a hypnosis of daily tasks that divert it from its destiny.

If the rest of his oeuvre is any indication, Larkin had a devilish time with sleep. Poems like “Sad Steps” (which begins, “Groping back to bed after a piss”) testify to the woes he encountered falling and remaining asleep; another, “Love Again,” which starts off, “Wanking at ten past three,” provides a glimpse into one of his time-tested remedies. But in this he is hardly an anomaly: poets are notoriously wretched sleepers, hopeless insomniacs who’ve developed bizarre rituals around bedtime and sleep. The Internet loves a good story about the sleeping habits of geniuses, particularly great writers — witness the BrainPickings article, “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized,” which probably wafted across your Facebook feed back in 2013 when it was published. Of the 37 writers featured in that piece, though, only around three were poets.

And yet poets occupy the most special relationship to sleep. Partly this is because poetry is itself a form of sleep: it beckons readers — aloud into altered breathing patterns, and its rhythms, as W.B. Yeats once observed, serve “to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” In other words, poetry’s repeated beats can exert a narcoleptic force that seduces the mind into a state of heightened receptivity, an openness to the dreamlike succession of images the poem initiates.

But it’s also because poets have historically developed so many sleep-related idiosyncrasies, so many WTF-caliber bedtime tics, that one begins to wonder whether nighttime anxieties are part and parcel with the trade. Take Lord Byron, who went to bed at dawn and rose at 2 p.m. Prior to sleep, Byron punctually swallowed a single egg yolk whole while standing, then retired to his chambers, where he slept with two loaded pistols at his bedside and a dagger under his pillow. The weaponry served two purposes: to arm him against cuckolded husbands who might invade his bedroom in search of revenge (we’re talking about someone who, during his first two years living in Venice, slept with around 200 women, to say nothing of men and boys); and to offer him a shortcut to oblivion in case he decided to off himself while in bed. An aggressive teeth-grinder during sleep, Byron habitually awoke from nightmares that left him awash in suicidal gloom. “I awoke from a dream!” he recorded in his journal in November 1813, “but she” — his dead mother, we think — “did not overtake me. I wish the dead would rest, however. Ugh! how my blood chilled,–and I could not wake—and—and—heigho!” An animal-lover and vegetarian, Byron also kept a pet bear, Bruin, while a student at Cambridge, and according to some accounts the bear lived with him in his lodgings, a sentry while he slept.

Vita Sackville-West — a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and a poet herself — combated her insomnia by collecting as many dogs as possible and inviting them into bed with her. Amy Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, would check into a hotel and rent out her own room as well as those above, below, and on either side of it. William Wordsworth had younger sister Dorothy read aloud to him; Dante Alighieri, his contemporary Giovanni Boccaccio tells us, kept “vigils” late into the night, frustrating for his wife and children, during which he read, and may have suffered from narcolepsy. Sylvia Plath, during the febrile, end-of-life stretch of creativity that yielded the poems in Ariel (including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”), began her nightly routine by swallowing one sleeping pill after another, lying back and waiting for them to take hold. Then, “Every morning, when my sleeping pills wear off,” she wrote her mother, “I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad — have managed a poem a day before breakfast.”

Other poets have turned to nocturnal walking: Emily Brontë walked around and around her dining room table for hours until sleepiness overtook her; Walt Whitman, in “Hours Continuing Long,” tells of a sickening unrequited love that brings him “Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries.”

Still others have used drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend and collaborator, suffered nightmares as a child so frightful and overmastering he woke entire households with his screaming. He attempted to stave these off by repeating a rhyming prayer before sleep: “Four Angels round me spread, Two at my foot & two at my head.” As an adult, notoriously, he used opium, initially to ease the pain from various physical ailments, and later simply as a nighttime relaxant. This fueled additional nightmares that still have the power to harrow, certain of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Byron’s nightmare mentioned above. His notebooks relate one of these, which reads today like a thinly veiled drama of castration anxiety: “A most frightful Dream of a Woman whose features were blended with darkness catching hold of my right eye & attempting to pull it out — I caught hold of her arm fast — a horrid feel — Wordsworth cried out aloud to me hearing my scream — [ . . . ] When I awoke, my right eyelid swelled.”

Whatever the nature of their sleep hang-ups, their poems have furnished these writers with spaces in which to record their nocturnal trials. Quite literally: stanza is Italian for room, station, stopping-place — and many of the most formally masterful poems possess the structural elegance of floor plans. “Language,” wrote the modernist poet Hart Crane, “has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.” He might’ve added that it builds houses, too, complete with rooms we readers traverse, stanzaic stations we might think of as thought-progressions, sequences of emotion, attics of memories, spatially realized. We dwell for a time in this stanza and then that, breathing the air it stores through its particular respiratory patterns, thinking and feeling in time with the poet.

Poets plot paths through these dwelling spaces, and the paths often lead us to, or at least through, bedrooms. John Donne’s 1633 poem “The Sun Rising,” spoken from within a bedroom, indeed under the covers, is an extended complaint addressed to the sun, which Donne chides for interrupting his all-night lovemaking with its intrusive beams. In the end he brags to the sun that its journey round the earth is redundant, since his own bedroom, rightly seen, is a microcosm in which all the truth and goodness and riches in the world are concentrated: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.” Our love nest, he insists, is the real sun, that other one the merest satellite in its orbit.

In “The Canonization,” Donne explicitly plays on the conceit of stanzas as rooms, imagining his own poetry as a verbal mausoleum replete with chambers that house — immortalize — the memories of his relationship with his lover. “And if unfit for chronicle we prove,” he writes — he and his love are no conventional saints, after all, and so aren’t fit for hagiography — “we’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” These are the chambers through which we wander as readers, marveling at relics of a love shared by two people long since claimed by death and granting them, in reading the poem aloud, a secular sainthood: through their bedroom ecstasies they’ve martyred themselves to Eros.

Over the top? Absolutely. But then, a penchant for the dramatic gesture does come with the poetic territory. Thomas Hardy, who wrote novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles but considered himself foremost a poet, lost his long-estranged wife to heart failure and impacted gallstones in 1912, and had her body placed in a coffin at the foot of his bed for the three days and nights leading up to the funeral. “I shall traverse old love’s domain / Never again,” he vowed in “At Castle Boterel” some months later. (He remarried the following year.) Hardy’s work may be the quintessential example of poetry as an architectural construct. A trained architect, Hardy brought a formal rigor to poetic making that drew heavily on the Gothic aesthetic he’d been taught as an apprentice draftsman. In the hewn angularity and symmetry of his stanzas one sees the imprint of an obsessive designer; here are verse-rooms adorned with complexly irregular stress patterns that embellish like molding, tracery, or cornice — meticulous masonry.

Hardy’s morbid, beyond-emo vigils with his wife’s freshly coffined body reinforce how, again and again, poets’ imaginations return to a vision of the bedroom as a sepulcher, a prefiguration of endings — and of sleep as a forerunner of that vaster slumber toward which we’re all hurtling. Larkin lying in bed at 4 a.m. broods on eternity; Mark Strand writes in Dark Harbor, “The end / Is enacted again and again. And we feel it / In the temptations of sleep”; Edgar Allan Poe is said to have remarked, “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I abhor them.” Poe’s comment makes explicit a darkly fascinating possibility: that the desperate, thwarted desire of insomniacs to fall asleep is really a cover for a deep-down fear of sleep, itself at bottom a fear of death. “Perhaps my insomnia only conceals a great fear of death,” Franz Kafka (not a poet but a kindred spirit to these other writers) once speculated. “Perhaps I am afraid that the soul — which in sleep leaves me — will never return.”

Insomniacs, in other words, may harbor a fear of sleep that amounts to a fear of self-loss and an abandonment of control — a resistance against self-unraveling, both the one that will eventually happen for keeps, and the one that nightly happens and asks each of us at bedtime to do a dry run for death. What if you aren’t quite the same when you wake? And to what alien terrains, what modes of being and desiring that run counter to whoever you thought you were, will sleep waft you? Resisting such self-dissolution, such loss of control, the insomniac hangs on, clinging to consciousness that is the binding agent of identity and our way of retaining our hold on the world.

It may be true that, as Greg Johnson has suggested, this holding fast to consciousness — a clutching at cognizance that fends off self-loss — is most pronounced in writers. Insomnia for Johnson is the very symbol of the writer’s condition, the “image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes.” Johnson points to Emily Dickinson as his prime example of an insomniac poet whose stoical resistance to sleep stemmed from her unwillingness to relinquish consciousness. In one poem Johnson spotlights, Dickinson muses on a gift “given to me by the Gods” — her poetic genius — and remarks that she refuses even to sleep “for fear it would be gone.” So she stayed awake (“I would not stop for night,” she boasts in one poem) writing late into the night, the very icon, with Kafka maybe, of nocturnal industry among writers, in a bedroom where she lived a sort of death-in-life — she seldom left it — and a burial place where she interred her (largely unpublished) poems, her sole progeny: here, after her death, Dickinson’s family discovered some 1,800 poems written on the backs of envelopes and edges of newspapers, and collected in hand-sewn books she herself had made.

What insomniac poets like Dickinson have held onto, though, isn’t just a vigilant watch over reality but a coherence of self. They’ve jealously safeguarded the intactness of their identities — and in this they are proxies for the rest of us abysmal sleepers. I suspect it’s not coincidental that Coleridge — that great romantic evangelist of the imagination who defined poetry — writing as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” — had such a horrendous time with sleep. During creativity, Coleridge thought, the poet ascends to godlike stature, refashioning reality so that it accords with his own unique vision — a brash imposition of ego onto the surrounding world that mimics God’s creation of the cosmos in Genesis. But proximity to sleep carries us to the brink of our own psychic disintegration, and, contrary to Coleridge’s formulation, forces us to look forward to a moment in the future when we aren’t.

Of course, beds aren’t simply sites of sleep; they’re sites of sex. That numerous poets have approached the business of sex with a trepidation to match their fear of sleep is practically proverbial. John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic who doubled as a poet during his youth and struggled with insomnia, legendarily refused to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because, as she wrote in a letter, “he was disgusted with my person” — a comment historians have interpreted to mean that she had body odor, or was menstruating, or, most interestingly, that he was scandalized to discover she had pubic hair. Yeats and T.S. Eliot remained virgins till 30 and 26, respectively; Christina Rossetti, gorgeous and much sought-after as a young woman, never married, and in Goblin Market imagines fleshly pleasure as an addictive, otherworldly fruit capable of depleting and devouring the soul.

It’s hard not to speculate that the two anxieties are intertwined. Sleep is an occasion for self-loss, but so is sex. It’s well known that during the Renaissance people began referring to orgasm as a “death” of sorts; to ejaculate was to “expen[d]” a portion of one’s “spirit,” as William Shakespeare memorably phrases it in his Sonnet 129 — a figure that elegantly gets at the notion of sexual climax as self-departure, an instant in which some of the pith of one’s inner being flees one. To reach bodily bliss was to “expire,” according to one way of reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73; orgasm was “death’s second self,” an interval of perfect oblivion wherein pleasure eclipsed the exigencies of the here and now, blotted out self and world.

Here then is the crux of the matter: beds drive home an abstract coupling — of which many of us are at least dimly aware, whether we can articulate it or not — of death and sex. Beds are where we go to lose ourselves. Most of us will die in a bed — the phase just prior to dying is, of course, called one’s deathbed — and sleep, as so many poets have recognized, is a nightly rehearsal for death. But sex too entails a kind of dying: as one of the surest ways to break the boundaries that normally delineate you, sex like sleep can bring out anti-selves, identities, and impulses you may not have known you harbored. And it can lead to intervals of self-annihilation and a communing with otherness that few other pastimes can.

But this might be a thing to embrace rather than fear. The capacity of sleep and sex both to catalyze a death-like self-abandonment has been, historically, what certain poets have most cherished about these phenomena. “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die,” said Mahatma Gandhi, himself an unsung poet. “And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” Sleep for Gandhi represented a welcome interment from which he might rise at daylight, transfigured if only slightly. For John Keats, meanwhile, the bedroom came to seem, as it had for Larkin and Hardy, a “sepulchre” into which he retired each evening — yet it was precisely the sepulchral aspect of the bedroom and the deathlike dimension of what happened there that Keats excitedly seized on. “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks,” he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne, “your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Keats dreamed of a concentrated instant that joined mortality and sexual activity, the twin components of human experience that promised to liberate one from the constraints of individual identity.

The perspective of Keats and Gandhi — which looks enthusiastically on the nightly metamorphoses of self that happen under the covers — may be an altogether healthier one than dread. It may be, too, a perspective consistent with recent advances in microbiology. That is, those who dread self-loss would do well to ask themselves what it is they are holding onto, and whether their endeavor to retain it might not have been doomed from the get-go. We now know, as microbiologist Ed Yong has shown in his gripping I Contain Multitudes, that our bodies play host to trillions of immigrant microbes and quadrillions of viruses that momently multiply on our faces, hands, and in our guts, making up roughly half our being and forcing us to reconsider what we even think of as a self. For that matter, the majority of our own bodies’ cells have a lifespan of just seven to 10 years, and though you might like to think of yours as a permanent construct, the better part of it exists in a state of constant flux. Most of what you think of as “you” gets completely renewed as often as your passport.

Yet insomniac writers have been grappling with how to make sense of this fact since at least the Victorian era. Walter Pater, like Ruskin a Victorian essayist who wrote poetry as a young man — and, when struggling to write, suffered “grey hours of lassitude and insomnia” — brooded over the prospect that human beings were merely confluences of particles in time and space, continuously in motion. “Such thoughts,” wrote Pater, “seem desolate at first; at times all the bitterness of life seems concentrated in them. They bring the image of one washed out beyond the bar in a sea at an ebb, losing even his personality, as the elements of which he is composed pass into new combinations. Struggling, as he must, to save himself, it is himself that he loses at every moment.”

If for Pater this thought was desolate at first, in the most famous paragraphs he wrote — the “Conclusion” to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance — he imagined a new perspective, one that likewise looked on life as a billion discrete instants in which the physical world and human identity itself were in ceaseless unrest; where individuals were subject to a “strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” — but saw this condition as liberating and galvanizing. Only by recognizing the uniqueness and immediate decay of each moment could we position ourselves to relish it, make it gravid with effort and enjoyment, and so attain “a quickened sense of life.”

Death is a moment-to-moment phenomenon; the self shivers with all the ephemerality of a drop of dew, shifting and altering with each instant. Lying awake at night and contemplating our eventual demise, we fret over an event that is already behind us, that has played out unendingly since we came into being and will repeat itself innumerable times in the future. Accepting this, we might more cheerfully brave the windows of self-loss that lie in wait for us in bedrooms: the manifold deaths, the transfigurations these make possible.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Conspiring with the Dead: On the Power of Reading Poetry Aloud

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Over the last few years, my lit geek friends and I have enacted a tradition wherein we gather for an evening at someone’s house, often mine, and read poetry aloud until late into the night. For those who didn’t know better, such a description might conjure images of Robin Williams circa 1989 — middle part, expression of rapt sincerity — crouched in a New England shrubbery with a pubescent Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, solemnly intoning from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and whoever the hell wrote “Invictus,” contemplating with awful shudders the brevity of life and the perils of conformity. Ours, though, is no dead poets society; we’re adult people who’ve cracked 30 and are largely locked into our life paths, academics adrift in a digital age yet still aware of a need for rhythmic communal chant.

Typically my friends show up at around eight p.m., toting bags swollen with John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and bottles of Trader Joe’s vaunted $2.99 vintage; I fire up my waffle maker (I like fancying I’ve invented nighttime waffles); and we sit in a circle taking turns reading, sometimes going as late as one or two. We’re English academics by training, but we deliberately avoid analyzing the poetry. For once, we’re just going to enjoy, to muzzle the close readers within us and indulge an appetite as elemental — as bodily — as that for waffles, gleaning pleasure from syllables that take shape along the lips and vibrate in the viscera. For once, we’ll merely be moved. (At a gathering last year, one attendee performed Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” and the poem’s mysterious last stanza prompted another guest to begin dissecting it instinctively, only to be cut off by a third guest with a scornful “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!”)

Why do we crave this ritual? Clearly it satisfies some fundamental need: My friends spontaneously clamor for it, texting me with some variant of “OMFG need poetry in my lyfe, plz accommodate.” And it’s common for one or more of them to write me the day after the event to the effect that they feel lighter, physically and spiritually replenished, that their limbs are more lissome. It’s tempting to reach for an explanation of the numinous sort. Algernon Swinburne, the Victorian poet, had a theory that the rhythms of the best poetry were in mystic synchrony with the cadences of the cosmos; chanting these poems, he thought, we can feel ourselves momentarily aligned with the beating of waves, the earth’s punctual tiltings, the patterns of tides as the world’s waters yearn for the moon then dutifully recede.

But the answer is at least as likely to be a mundane one: These evenings promise oases of togetherness that, harkening back to a direct oral tradition largely vanished into the past, relieve the aridity of lives dominated by social media. Across the Western world there has lately been a resurgence of interest in reading out loud. In a 2013 Guardian story, Elizabeth Day tells of a popular book club she organized at a London art gallery, a ritual she conceived as a pointed riposte to the alienation of postmodern life. Day describes experiences of shared, unconcealed intimacy — of listeners crying; finding temporary relief from chronic pain during the readings; approaching her afterward to say, for example, that a particular novel’s protagonist appeared to be suffering from PTSD, and that they’d felt a kinship with him in this regard. In a historical moment obsessed with “awkwardness,” when young people, donning irony like a breastplate, studiously avoid being moved, pastimes like Day’s reading club promise windows of vulnerability in the company of others.

But our gatherings center on poetry, specifically, which imparts to them a quasi-liturgical dimension that I suspect gets to the core of why we keep coming together. So many of us stodgy, skeptical academics find ourselves living in a post-religious shell, incapable of entertaining the promises of scripture but thirsting, no less, for whatever remains of church-going when we’ve drained it of the dogma. Mind and body still long for incantation, still look to rhythmic utterance to fasten social bonds, still find in poetry’s pulses and open-mouthed vowels the grammar of praise.

Praise isn’t a thing we literary academics tend to excel at. Weaned on the likes of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, our critical minds are wired to “problematize” not praise. Here, we are trained to say, is how this particular text is complicit in this or that insidious ideology — or, somewhat more positively, how it helps us critique an ideology, or a form of oppression or inequality. And who can blame us? We live in a country where the less affluent 50 percent of the population now possesses around 1 percent of its wealth, and each successive week seems to bring a new instance of racialized violence. Not to critique these ills, as they become visible in literary texts, would amount to self-delusion.

Yet we are left, many of us critics, with a deep-down impulse to praise, and the above formula does little to sate this need. If we are only going to “interrogate” literature (that favorite word!), why read at all, much less devote our careers to these works in spite of all the pressures, monetary and otherwise, that scream at us to stop and turn around? Critique is a fundamentally negative gesture, and as one’s default readerly mode it leads to a kind of attrition. At the end of the day we all need to eat — and praise may be the first step toward attaining sustenance, the utterance of thanksgiving before the feast. A world transfigured by praise is one worth living in — and, crucially, one worth renovating, endeavoring to reform. Praising it, we impose on ourselves a degree of humility and receptivity to others and their gifts, to nature with its superabundance of beauty and wonder that cries out to be cataloged and shared. We remind ourselves that humans can be remarkable during a time when being human is so frequently cause for shame.

Our poetry gatherings answer this need in part by allowing us to praise the poetry itself. Having listened to someone read Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” we have that rare freedom to lean back, heroin junkies on the nod, lost in a dream of pleasure. “How could it be so good?” someone will mutter. “Ambiguous undulations,” I’ll say, quoting from the poem’s last lines and shaking my head. “Jesus Christ, dude.”

But they also enable us to use the poetry as a vehicle for praising a world that can seem emphatically undeserving of celebration. One pattern I’ve observed in our readings is the frequency with which guests choose poems that foreground praise. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, has been a recurrent favorite through the years. Few if any of my friends are Catholic, but we find bracing release in belting out Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” We relish its opening hurrah, “Glory be to God for dappled things!”, its breathless effusion of gratitude for the mottled splendor of the created world — a gratitude that finally extends to the force that engendered all this wealth: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.” We may be a pack of Marxist-atheist-Derrideans for whom life itself is a condition of epistemological undecidability, but goddammit, glory be to God for dappled things.

Both within academia and in certain circles outside it, a reflexive tendency toward complaint is often touted as a badge of honor — indeed as the only reasonable response to the atrocities of postmodernity. Yet, in a sense, we are far more insulated from suffering than the legions of the long dead, people who inhabited pre-modern worlds for whom the likes of plague, of every manner of tyranny and cruelty, were commonplaces; for whom childbirth and death were phenomena conjoined more often than not. These are also people who left, in their wake, acres of celebratory poetry and song — the ghazals of the ancient Middle East and India, the exuberant chants of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Josquin. We can, if we like, dismiss these works as mere exercises in escapism, or embarrassing manifestations of lizard brains more robust in people of previous ages. That such praise might instead of have been a heroic, transcendent gesture, that the everyday specter of death might have pummeled these people into praise, pressuring them to seek out footholds of sustaining joy — this seems to me the fresher thesis. Long before Stevens came along to teach us that “death is the mother of beauty,” people who wandered through worlds of affliction saw the luminousness of reality the more glaringly for all the surrounding darkness.

Humans, then, have long looked to poetry as an organ for acclaiming creation. Witness the Psalms (literally “praises”) or, more recently, miniature masterpieces like A.R. Ammons’s “The City Limits” and Denise Levertov’s “O Taste and See” (itself a homage to Psalm 34.8). Poems like these enjoin us to delight in the world, the feast of it all, and are themselves a feast to speak out loud. But they constitute a banquet the wider American public is largely unaware of, though it is starving for lack of it. How do most Americans think of poetry, to the extent they think of it at all? In the same way, maybe, as they do a piece of antique farm equipment — a John Deere steam tractor, or an iron push-plow — left over from an era when eloquence, like husbandry, was a skill the import of which went without saying, an assumed fixture of reality. A curiosity to be dragged out, dusted off, and deployed at weddings, then shunted back into storage again; a thing invariably about love or “nature,” enfolding glib life lessons on the superiority of less-traveled roads.

Worst of all, Americans think of poetry as a “learning device.” I just tried Googling “The World is Too Much with Us,” William Wordsworth’s great sonnet on the spiritual bankruptcy of an early 19th-century Britain enthralled by “getting and spending.” Among the initial batch of 10 results, five were as follows: Sparknotes, a study guide called Shmoop, Gradesaver, Cummings Study Guides, and something called 123helpme. I clicked on Shmoop, the slogan of which is the delightfully pithy and confidence-instilling “We Speak Student,” and which boasts of being the brainchild of “PhD students from Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley.” The site had carved up Wordsworth’s poem into categories like summary, analysis (which consisted of headings including “Tough-O-Meter” and “Sex Rating;” except when he’s ravaging violet bushes, old Billy’s sexiness quotient is generally pretty low, it turns out), and themes. I decided to click on themes, one of which was sadness. “Does our obsession with getting and spending make you sad?” ran one of the study questions. An advertisement for Land Rovers materialized in the side bar.

Poor poetry! Colonized by cheesy pedagogical guides, mined by academics for revolutionary truths, reduced to tepid adages better left to fortune cookies. What if we valued it instead for the elegantly simple reason that it promises connection — of mind to body, one reader to another, living to dead. Machinery of praise, mode of being moved, repository of pleasure, poetry is finally, above all perhaps, that which connects. And the way it accomplishes this seems to me to have everything to do with breath.

Poetry is a uniquely visceral art form. A poem, after all, is distinct from a painting, or a piano sonata, or an instance of architecture, insofar as our own bodies provide the medium in which it takes shape. No physical remove separates audience from artifact; we apprehend it with the intimacy of a thing that has quickened to life in our lungs. As incantation, poetry can implicate readers-aloud in meticulously managed breathing patterns. I suspect many people are now turning to it in part for the same reason they seek out yoga meditation: They’ve grown alienated from their bodies. Purposeful breath-work is one of the best ways of reclaiming those bodies, since breath is perhaps the ultimate dramatization of the oneness of mind and flesh. In some very real sense, which inveterate meditators grasp, the stream of your breath is the stream of your thoughts. Far from a removed, autonomous entity, the mind is tethered to the lungs, themselves reliant on a shared substance that only lately pervaded someone else. In this way, breath is an index not just of the psychosomatic nature of thought, but our interdependence as humans.

But breath may also be the dimension of poetry that binds the bodies of living readers to poets lost past. For guidance on how this works, we might look to none other than John Keats, one of poetry’s great theorizers about breathing. Keats had a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward breath: As a teenager he watched his mother surrender to tuberculosis, an illness the symptoms of which included coughing and blood spitting and that climaxed in the precipitous waste of the body. Eight years later, he witnessed his brother die of the same disease, and around 1818, at age 23, contracted it himself, writing his greatest poetry with an awareness that his lungs were slowly collapsing.

These ghastly experiences guaranteed Keats would be alert to the mouth’s stunning efficacy as a point of entry into the body and intellect. Death visited one at the mouth, “taking into the air” one’s “quiet breath” as Keats imagines it doing in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” just one of the many death/breath rhymes in his oeuvre. Yet breathing, while mortally perilous, also carried the potential — orchestrated by poets, reproduced by performing readers — to be therapeutic, even to offer the poet a measure of immortality. Poems were monuments of embodied eloquence that, when spoken, enabled the reader to breathe in time with the poet. Keats’s term for this synchronized breathing was conspiring, a phenomenon whereby readers were involved in the breathings of the poet. Poetry was, in this regard, twinned in his imagination with eroticism; love, as “Endymion” makes clear, was a “fellowship with essence” achievable through a “commingling of passionate breath.” “I cannot breathe without you,” he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne in 1819.

By that same year, cognizant of his faltering breath, Keats began composing a series of poems that crystallized that same breath. These “life masks” took the form, not of the plaster cast that famously preserved his face, but respiratory relics that redeemed from oblivion his modes of inhalation and exhalation. “To Autumn” is one of these. At its core it’s a poem about breathing, one that begins by imagining an eroticized union of the autumn goddess with the Apollonian sun, whose “conspiring” brings about the wealth inventoried in the lines that follow. But the poem seeks to establish an analogous union with the reader. It achieves this partly through a sibilance (e.g., “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”) that gives the poem its ductility, its ability to accommodate a largely unobstructed stream of breath. It does so, too, through a succession of oblate, open-mouthed vowel sounds — sounds that occur in monosyllabic, Ango-Saxon-derived words (e.g., mourn, gourd, bourne) that help give “To Autumn” the quality of meditative chant. And the poem is breath-like in its structure. The first stanza, with its heaping of infinitives — unconjugated verbs that build toward an illusion of infinite plenty — represents an inhalation of a sort, an in-spiring that will yield fruit later on; the second stanza, evoking a fleeting pause amid the harvest, that momentary suspension following an intake of breath; the final stanza, a breathing out. That last stanza’s subject is expiration itself: of a day, a season, the swarm of animal life that supplies its “music,” and finally the poet himself, whose troubled, tubercular breath is just audible in the ode’s sibilance, liberated afresh each time we read the poem aloud. Performing “To Autumn” entails conspiring with Keats.

Conspiring with Keats — praising season or urn, plangent song or piquant mood — readers resurrect him for a time. Breath, if an entryway for death, has the power to transcend it; habitually linked with ephemerality, it is paradoxically freighted with the potential to endure. In poetry’s respiratory patterns, frozen in verse forms that enable us to breathe in concert with their authors, we may discover evidence of a shared humanity. Early on in what would become the century of séances and mediumship, Keats offered a secular version of resurrection, one in which the breath-shapes of the dead, distilled in the amber of poetry, materialize afresh in the lungs of the living.

This was a version of rebirth one senses Keats — scornful of religion but entranced by the prospect of immortality — could get behind. Maybe, to the extent we enact such resurrections in gathering to chant poetry, my friends and I do make up something like a dead poets society after all. Maybe we gain access to the physiological rhythms of generations who flourished and died in the drawing rooms, the fields, the streets of worlds ever more alien to ours, suspiring in time with them; converted, as we do so, into mediums in whose mouths the breaths of bygone people take shape. Maybe there’s a connection in this, ghostly in its immediacy and tactility.

What’s certain, anyway, is that we discover a connection with one another. Depleted from the remorseless round of workaday responsibilities, from checking Facebook and Instagram 12 times an hour, safely insulated from each other and the natural world by noise-canceling headphones, we make our way, enervated and starving, back to this reliable reservoir of cohesion. Here is a heightened register of language that embarrasses all the flotsam and jetsam strewn across Twitter and Buzzfeed. Here is a chance, for all the world’s seemingly incurable infectedness, to cry back to it an utterance of thanks. Hallelujah: from the Hebrew hallēl, a very breathy word, “to praise.” Praise: from the Latin pretium — price, worth, reward. For a passing interval, gathered together and conspiring with the dead, we might convince ourselves that the world is worth redeeming at whatever price; that notwithstanding its flaws, it’s laden with inconceivable riches — rewards that we, granting our own shortcomings, might even deserve.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.