Are You Experienced? On a poem by Peter McDonald

One of the smaller poems in Peter McDonald’s new book of poems from Carcanet, Hermes the Hunter, goes like this:

Partridge

A little squeal, and then the sound

of a spring being tightly wound

in on itself, is all there is

at first, a sudden note and whizz-

whir coming from the bunched-up grass,

but maybe as the minutes pass

and you lie still, you start to see

a round bird moving clumsily,

all body, getting ready now

to risk the air, and chance a low

flight that will take it further out

from the covey: as if in doubt,

and happier with the ground below,

it hesitates; it doesn’t go.

In its very small way, this is magnificent. McDonald, in criticism and creative work alike, is among the connoisseurs of poetic form. The management of the tetrameter meter, sacrificing nothing of “natural” speech or idiom, effectively conveys not simply what he wants us to see but the experience of coming to see something called Partridge. So the poem is a kind of naming; at the same time, the poem choreographs the ontological event of “naming.” It has been argued by philosophers and theologians, that “naming” takes part in a sharing of human understanding (structured in part by names) and the otherness of creative being itself.

As for the structured experience afforded by the poem, it follows what I call “inner form”: from the first “impression” in sense (“a little squeal”) all the way to the total image of the partridge sitting there “happier with the ground below.” The unfolding of this creaturely object goes in careful stages, each one qualifying the original “note.” The poem is “about” coming-to-know this creature as such: it is about listening, lying still, and as such it evokes an “inner” understanding of the creature. Hypothetical perhaps, “to risk the air, and chance a low / flight that will take it further out . . .”

The poem is also then about a mediative state of mind wooing what I call “metaxyturn”: the moment when the threshold of the objective is crossed over into the shared community of creatures characterized not by the eros of the hunter (hence its place in this book) but the agapeics of the loving understanding.

Rather than label this aspect of understanding as a “fallacy” or outmoded mode of misidentification, we can better appreciate the form of experience we call analogy: there’s a subtle analogy between the observer’s self-understanding and the “thing” out there. Many are the undergraduate lecturers who have snidely refused to condescend to such a phase of identity as Romantic.

As the inner form comes to fulfillment in the final image, we “know” the Partridge in its otherness only because, after quieting our own impulses, we come to know the beast as a creature like us in the only way we know how, by submitting ourselves-and-it to the flow of inner form as it takes shape in an experience.