The rain’s pounding away / at the rusty eves. / Twirling, sliding, bubbling —-/ well, that’s rain. // You too, and I should walk now / as free as that / on cloud, on air, the meadow / and the vapor roads.// Move around up there and here below / like this liquid thing, / flowing into human life on rooftops / and on shoes.
translated from the Hungarian of Sandor Weores by J. Kessler. From A Book of Luminous Things, Ed. Milosz p. 174
CONTEXT The companion is an other who, at best, is generously there in the between to offer endowments of presence and support and aid, and indeed often secret gifts of elemental presence.
William Desmond, Forword, Renee Koehler-Ryan “Companion in the Between: Augustine, Desmond, and Their Communities of Love, 2019, x.
I changed the headline of this series of essays to emphasize a tightened focus. I’ve demonstrated the more “scientific” or systematic aspect of the topic, the lyric narrative. But the mystery remains, what makes the short poem such a popular literary form?
In his seminal work “Leading a Human Life” (1997), Richard Eldridge sums up the conversation about poetry by quoting John Stuart Mill’s “What is Poetry” (1833) on the key paradox: poetry ASSUMES (he says “presupposes”) a listener but the poet SEEMS to be “unconscious of a listener.” Eldridge goes on to frame the conversation as one about more than poetic form, it’s ultimately about “thinking all about human conceptual consciousness, self-conscious self-identity, spontaneity, expressive power, and value—-the way of ‘poesis.’”
To foreground the prominence of the theme of “self” in “the way of poesis” we can start with friendship. Dig into the origins of the short form and you find the presupposition of an addressee, even though no particular one need be named. Sappho’s fragments often seem to be “overheard” to use Mill’s word. The study of the short poem often focuses on the structures of pronouns—-let’s call it the intersubjective dimension. Desmond’s text on “companion” stresses the dialogical loyalty of the companion in “the secret gifts of elemental presence.”
So in thinking through why we might say a short poem is a companion, there’s a rich foundation.
To make all this more practical, we turn to a poem. Once again we draw on Czeslaw Milosz’s great anthology, “A Book of Luminous Things.” Sandor Weores is hardly a household name. An important modernist Hungarian literary figure (1913-1981), Weores explores the presuppositions of a friendship/identity between rain, you, and me. Milosz suggests the ultimate theme is “grace,” but I’d rather leave the analysis at the structural level just now.
The poem imitates the gush and flow of rain in its syntax and grammar. After the description of the setting, the poem addresses the elemental presence of “rain” in the companionship: you refers to the rain but also by implication the reader who is following the narrative. The grammar of “should” stresses the imagination and the acceptance of the intimate universal over the classical model of conceptual universals and particulars. (Weores translated Mallarme into Hungarian.) Stanza two explores the theme of freedom through the imagery of dialectical others to the urban circumstances of stanza one. It’s almost a prayer for the freedom of the rain from contingency.
The final stanza opens with an address to the rain-as-companion. Weores presupposes the symbolic identity of rain and other. This is “difficult” and elevates the poem beyond sentiment. Read the poem over, learn it by heart, and you may agree with Milosz in his headnote that the poem “praises liberation from inhibitions that hamper our love of the human tribe.”