Anyone who remembers, a lifetime ago, trying to make out new patterns on the wallpaper each night and being terrified by the dark frightening folds of that strange shape on the chair will understand what I am about to say. A poetic sensibility or sense—whether sixth or seventh—first appears early in life; all children have it to a greater or lesser degree—a tendency, even a passion for resemblance. To a child, the world appears to be a big house full of things and she, more than anyone, can sense their familial resemblances. This is not a metaphor; it is a morphogenetic law of life itself, which we discover back in our childhood.
This is why children know the world so well. Strange-sounding substitutions in a child’s speech seem entertaining and accidental only to grownups, who perceive things as existing independently of each other. The world of a grownup is dismembered and compartmentalized. It is rare that a grownup acts by association in everyday life—as rare as a slip of the tongue. How often do we shove a rake into the tableware drawer? For a child, however, a rake and a fork are, basically, one and the same. A child doesn’t deal in labels but in the substance of things. Such deep metonymy requires unconditional faith. And it is faith that breaks down first. This is precisely what happens in adolescence.
Adolescents are antipoets. Hearing a metaphor, they raise their eyebrows: what are you babbling about? Try telling an adolescent a joke that hinges on metonymy. Try to explain an abstraction by a metaphor. It is only in youth that the original sense returns—but not to everyone. This is why there are millions of grownup adolescents living on this planet.
Poets are people who manage to keep alive what they discover in childhood (or who never manage to forget it): the law of universality. This is why it seems that poets know something about the future. To a child, a signifier is more than just a signifier. A child has trouble understanding what “just a symbol” means. For a child even a signifier is a thing unto itself. Actually, that’s how children are taught: look, this letter looks just like a bagel, this one, like a slide. A poet is someone who gets stuck at this stage of mastering symbols.
A reader’s love for poems is, among other things, a longing for a time when things were still things and not concepts. Once you get past your own internal barriers and all the screens and obstacles erected by the lyric poet, so that the path feels both virgin and memorable, you return to your own beginnings, when during the dreaded naptime an outlined rainbowy dot with a wiggly little tail would swim diagonally under your lowered eyelids, leaving a narrow disappearing trail—to when the world was mobile and shimmering with kinship.
And so, to this day, checkers long to be played by Czechs and Czechs hurry at checkout. And Broderie anglaise, never actually handled and only read about, gives you the shivers, not because of what it and its cutwork look like, but because it makes you think of an inflamed throat or a spoonful of ice cream—when they cut out your tonsils, brought you home, and sat you down on the windowsill, on its glazed white expanse, before a winter windowpane frosted over with lacy swirls. A word is a smooth pebble in your mouth. Names are things.
The seeming chaos of poetic speech is simply a special way of putting the world into order, of battling chaos independently of, but parallel to, the logical route. This is why the poetic world, which lacks consistent correlations and is not regulated by the direct logic of concepts—this world of objectified meanings and all-permeating kinship—is off limits to those who’ve become irreversibly grownup, who have traveled too far upon the road at the beginning of which stands the symbol.
Translated from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn