Process over Destination

Brenda Hillman's 2006 essay "Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems" is concerned with, among other things, imagination--how imagination is a very good and necessary gift to exercise not only in writing but in reading as well.

To say a poem is difficult to get into is to say, perhaps, you are approaching it too directly or are too concerned with the poem's endgame, too concerned with where you are at the end of the poem. "Process is more important than destination," Hillman argues, and I have to agree, especially when reading poems that utilize multiple shifts--in time, in person, in tone, etc.--rather than following a classic "then next" structure. Compare the two poems posted below, extracted from her essay.

Let the eagle soar,
Like she’s never soared before.
From rocky coast to golden shore,
Let the mighty eagle soar.
Soar with healing in her wings,
As the land beneath her sings:
“Only God, no other kings.”
This country’s far too young to die.
We’ve still got a lot of climbing to do,
And we can make it if we try.
Built by toils and struggles
God has led us through.



I used the table as a reference and just did things from there
in register, to play a form of feeling out to the end, which is
an air of truth living objects and persons you use take on
when you set them together in a certain order, conferring privilege
on the individual, who will tend to dissolve if his visual presence
is maintained, into a sensation of meaning, going off by itself.
First the table is the table. In blue light
or in electric light, it has no pathos. Then light separates
from the human content, a violet-colored net or immaterial haze, echoing
the violet iceplant on the windowsill, where he is the trace of a desire.

Such emotions are interruptions in landscape an in logic
brought on by a longing for direct experience, as if her memory of experience
were the trace of herself. Especially now, when things have been flying apart in
all directions,
she will consider the hotel lobby the inert state of a form. It is the location
of her appointment. And the gray enamel elevator doors are the relational state,
the place behind them being a ground of water or the figure of water. Now,
she turns her camera on them to change her thinking about them into a thought

in Mexico, as the horizon when you are moving can oppose the horizon inside
the elevator via a blue Cadillac into a long tracking shot. You linger
over your hand at the table. The light becomes a gold wing on the table. She sees
it opening, with a environment inside that is plastic and infinite,
but is a style that has got the future wrong.

One poem (A) is straightforward and requires very little imagination (give a quick look to the essay link for the author); one poem (B) demands imagination, and this is where close readings of poems that at first seem difficult can provide excitement in discovering what is underneath the surface, which is not a chance operation but clearly controlled and purposeful. For a much better discussion of this poem than I can paraphrase here, search the bottom of Hillman's essay.

Process over destination. The how before the what. Imagination required, necessary, and completely worth the effort. Reading poems like "Texas" can be off-putting if you are not equipped with the right mindset: how does this poem perform? Before asking what is to be understood at the end, ask yourself how was I made to get there, and doing so will make reading poems like this a lot more enjoyable, because trust me, I know how frustrating it can be when the reading-angle isn't changed from poem A to poem B.


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