Thus saith Gilbert Keith Chesterton, great in body and mind, just after demonstrating that the name “Smith” is poetical and just before demonstrating that signal boxes and pillar – mail – boxes are poetical, in his book Heretics. As one who has written more than one poem concerning mail boxes, I am immediately biased in Chesterton’s favor. The mail box has immense poetical potential. Not only is it, as Chesterton says, “a sanctuary of human words;” it is also a passage between worlds, a portal through which bits of other people reach me, and through which I send bits of myself away. Since I was a very small person, sitting in a very large mailbox and playing with my daddy, who had placed me there, I have never questioned the poetical-ness of mail-boxes. But of all things?
What, then, makes all things poetical? In his examples in Heretics, Chesterton ties the poetical-ness of things to their relationships to people. He is so bold as to say in The Man Who Was Thursday that “even the moon is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.” There is a man in the moon. That, I think, is key to Chesterton’s philosophy of poetical-ness. (An interesting tangent: he married a woman who, according to his Autobiography, thought the moon “looked like an imbecile.”)
Hold up a pencil and inquire whether or not it is poetical; you will not go so far as to say that there is a man in the pencil, but I suspect your reasons for affirming its poetical-ness will all be related to people. A pencil is tool of communication. One particular pencil may be poetical because it has been used, to scribble profundities in the margins of already profound texts. Other pencils might be regarded as poetical because they have been carried behind the ear of a handsome genius or used to hold back of the hair of a day-dreaming damsel, or because they bear the marks of a favorite child’s teeth. But a pencil, quite alone, is not poetical. When we look for poetry in an unused pencil, we think of the process of its making, or of its potential for use, or perhaps we put some weighty interpretation on the fact that it is as yet untouched. But the important thing is that we think of it, one way or another, as a thing that is meant to be touched by people.
I posit, then, that all things become poetical only in their relation to people. In some ways, people are what give things their thing-ness. After all, none of the animals had names until Adam named them. And, speaking of Adam, the first recorded poem, Adam’s Ode on Eve in Genesis 2, is highly relational:
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of man.
There was a relationship; there was poetical-ness.
Sometimes the relationship exists only in simile or metaphor, but I suspect it always exists. My computer – dare I attempt it? – is poetical, perhaps. It is, like a pillar box, “a sanctuary of human words.” It is my tormentor, as well as the faithful companion of many tedious hours. It is a portal to other worlds. It opens the way for irrevocable communications, which perhaps bring more pain, sometimes, than letters, for, though irrevocable, they may also be re-read and re-read by the sender when they may not be retrieved.
And so I make an end, having said very little of much use, but having said something. Soon, in the manner of romance, I will post this away from me, to seek its fate in the world. It is an expedition of words which began not knowing where it would end. It is a frail bark in which I hazard some of the contents of my mind. It is bowl containing crumbs of sense to be mixed with the waters of other minds. I grow absurd, but you must allow me. It is poetical.
*An exchange with a friend prompted me to look this up — it’s a remnant from my college days. I present it here in slightly modified format to suit my new audience, and hope that you will receive it kindly.
©2012 by Stacy Nott