And there is nothing left out there
As night falls, but the rocks
-- George Oppen, "Myself I Sing"
Rocks and stones betoken an extreme loss of human life, of humanity, and thus the impulse to animate them speaks to the far reaches of the poetic imagination. The hardened mass, the stone world, is about as far away from us as possible, and that's precisely why there are always so many small pebbles and large rocks rolling around in poetry, from Ovid's encyclopedic sourcebook Metamorphoses to Wordsworth's radiant lyric "A Slumber Did My Spirit Steal" to Francis Ponge's phenomenological prose poem "The Pebble." ("It isn't easy to define a pebble," Ponge declared in his characteristically deadpan manner. "If you're satisfied with a simple description you can start out by saying that it's a form or state of stone halfway between rocks and gravel.")
One could collect a substantial little anthology of poems that enter into the hard terrain of the stone world. My own short list of modern gems commences with Zbigniew Herbert's "Pebble." Herbert always demonstrated what he called "a rapacious love of the concrete" in his work. He was determined to see things as they are, to give them proper names. "At last the fidelity of things opens our eyes," he wrote in his poem "Stool." To the civilized Polish poet who had seen the collapse of several shameful ideologies, the commitment to concrete particulars stood in fundamental contrast to the cant and half-truths of human beings. Thus he asserted that "the pebble/ is a perfect creature/ equal to itself/ mindful of its limits," and "its ardour and coldness/ are just and full of dignity." He confessed:
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye.
Herbert's radically understated style, his "semantic transparency," was a specific corollary to the quest for things-in-themselves.
My personal anthology would include the Polish poet Alexsander Wat's sequence "Songs of a Wanderer" ("If God exists," Wat declared, "He is there. At the heart of stones"), the Serbian poet Vasko Popa's mythic sequence "White Pebble," the Brazilian poet Joao Cabral de Melo Neto's "Education by Stone," the Mexican poet Octavio Paz's "Black and White Stone" and the American poet Charles Simic's early deep image poem "Stone," which suggests a physical world secretly penetrated by psyche.
Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger's tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.
From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all,
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill --
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.
(The lines from George Oppen's "Myself I Sing" appear in his "Collected Poems." New Directions. Copyright © 1975 by George Oppen. The lines from Francis Ponge's "The Pebble" appear in his "Selected Poems," edited by Margaret Guiton, translated by Margaret Guiton, John Montague and C. K. Williams. Wake Forest University Press. Translations copyright © C. K. Williams, John Montague, and Margaret Guiton and Wake Forest University Press. The lines from Zbigniew Herbert's "Pebble" appear in his "Selected Poems." Selected by Tomasz Kunz. Wydawnictwo Literackie. Copyright © by Zbigniew Herbert. English translation © Czeslaw Milosz. Charles Simic's poem "Stone" appears in "Dismantling the Silence." George Braziller. Copyright © 1971 by Charles Simic.)