Friday, February 09, 2007

Wide Blue Wonder

Joan Miró (1893-1983) - Blue I, 1962

'The blue of the sky, if we were to examine its many image values, would require a long study in which we would see all the types of material imagination being determined according to the basic elements of water, fire, earth, and air. In other words, we could divide poets into four classifications by their response to the single theme of celestial blue:

Those who see in an immobile sky a flowing liquid that comes to life with the smallest cloud.

Those who experience the blue sky as though it were and enormous flame - "searing" blue, as the Comtesse de Noailles describes it.

Those who contemplate the sky as if it were a solidified blue, a painted vault - "compact and hard azure", as the Comtesse de Noailles again says.

Finally those who can truly participate in the aerial nature of celestial blue.

Of course, besides the great poets who instinctively follow these basic inspirations, it would be easy to discover, with such a common image, all the rhymers for whom "blue sky" is always a concept, never a primary image. Poetry about the blue sky suffers an enormous loss on this account. We can almost appreciate Musset's scorn when he called "blue" the stupid colour. In the works of artificial poets, at least, it is the colour of pretentious innocence from which come sapphires or flax blossoms. Such images are not, of course, banned: poetry is just as much the participation of the large in the small as it is the small in the large. But no one experiences this participation by juxtaposing a terrestrial and an aerial name. Only a great poet can discover naturally, without copying a literary example, blue sky in a wildflower.

But, leaving aside the facile polemics against false or worn-out images, I would like to reflect on a fact that has often struck me. As I have read many different kinds of poets, what has surprised me was how rare were the images in which the blue sky was truly aerial. This rarity is due, first of all, to the fact that aerial imagination is much rarer than the imagination of fire, earth, or water. But even more important is the fact that, even when the immense, distant blue infinity is felt by an aerial soul, it needs to be materialised in order to be incorporated into a literary image. The word blue designates, but it does not render. The problem of the image of the blue sky is completely different for the painter than for the poet. For a writer, if the blue sky is not merely a background, if it is a poetic object, only a metaphor can bring it to life. The poet's task is not to translate a colour, but to make us dream the colour. The blue sky is so simple that no one thinks he can oneirise it without materialising it. But this process of materialisation goes too far. The blue sky is made too hard, too glaring, too searing, too compact, too burning, and too brilliant. Often the sky looks at us too fixedly. We attribute too much substance and constancy to it because the soul does not become a part of the life of primary substance. We tonalise the sky's blue by making it "vibrate" like a sonorous crystal, whereas, for truly aerial souls, there is only the sound of a breath. Thus, with excessive intensity, the Comtesse de Noailles writes: "Today the blue is so strong that it blinds you if you look at it too long; it crackles, it whirls, it becomes filled with golden tendrils, with hot frost, with sharp and radiant diamonds, with arrows, with silver flies . . . "

The hallmark of what is truly aerial is to be found, in my opinion, in another direction. It is, in fact, based on the dynamics of dematerialisation. the substantial imagination of air is truly active only on a dynamics of dematerialisation. The blue of the sky is aerial when it is dreamed as a colour that pales a bit, like a pallor that seeks finesse, a finesse that we imagine as yielding beneath our fingers like a delicate fabric as we caress, in Paul Valéry's words:

The mysterious texture of the utmost height.

That is when the blue sky counsels us to be as calm and as light as it is itself:

The sky above the roof, is
So blue, so calm!

sighs Verlaine from the depths of his prison where he is still under the weight of unforgiven memories. This calm can be filled with melancholy. The dreamer feels that the blue sky will never be a possessed good. "What good are the symbols of a basic and comforting mountaineering since I shall not, this evening, reach the blue, that blue which is so aptly called sky blue?"

But it is by following the scale of dematerialisation of celestial blue that we can see aerial reverie at work. Then we will understand that it is an aerial Einfühlung: the fusion of a dreamer with as undifferentiated a universe as possible, on that is blue and gentle, infinite and formless, with a minimum of substance.'

From The Blue Sky by Gaston Bachelard