Finding the World’s Fullness is a deceptively dense little book, packed with a host of quotes from some of the world’s greatest poets and thinkers, that sets out to make a simple point—how poetry is a way to find the world’s fullness. The book never tires repeating, and revisiting from various perspectives, that the world is an astonishing place, and the simple fact that it is, when it need not be, is possibly the most astonishing thing of all. The world is made, and it is a mystery; it is a work that calls forth wonder. Poetry is a way of capturing and expressing that wonder, while never exhausting it or domesticating its mystery.
Cording quotes Czeslaw Milosz in the preface to set the tone of his book and layout one of the basic tenets of his approach to poetry:
When a thing is truly seen, seen intensely, it remains with us forever and astonishes us, even though it would appear there is nothing astonishing about it. –Czeslaw Milosz
All the chapters unpack this basic insight, employing numerous guides and presenting various exemplars who embody it. The amount of material alone that Cording interacts with is impressive. The book feels like a guided tour of a gothic cathedral, with plenty of stops to point out and explain the beauty and significance of every stained-glass window or strange relic.
Cording partners us with a such guides as: Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Frost, Henry David Thoreau, John Ruskin, and George Herbert. Some of the significant stops along the way include: a row of oak trees dropping their acorns, a Van Gogh painting of shoes, a newly created Eve gazing on her own reflection, a moose stepping out of the night woods onto the road before a bus.
And we enter into the world of Hamlet coming to terms with unruly reality, Jacob wrestling at night with the unnamed One, Abraham’s baffling journey to sacrifice, Job’s confrontation with the voice in the whirlwind, Jesus pausing to write in the dirt, a girl in a waiting room disoriented by the limits of her knowledge, and a man looking out on a lake after the death of his wife.
In helping us find the world’s fullness, Cording overwhelms us with an artistic and literary fullness along the way.
Cording explains the aim of his book like this:
My aim here has been to sketch a rationale for poetry that tries to take into account a world we did not make, being faithful to that essential mystery… I look at how our attention to the concrete particulars of ordinary experience can bring us back, again and again, to the fundamental experience of being: that there is something rather than nothing. (ix-x)
Below are twenty quotes from the book that I enjoyed. While the book is loaded with great quotes from other thinkers and writers, I tried to limit the selection below to Cording’s own words.
The poet’s obligation, then, is not to become a priest (as the Modernist dictum often had it) but rather to become priestly, to evoke the world in such a way that what ‘struck us as ordinary is revealed as miraculous.’ The human search, then, is always for a language that can help us see the world again as if for the first time. (9-10)
It is in and through language that the world emerges in the fullness of its reality. (17-18)
Great poems allow us to be more vividly, if only for moments. (19)
Life often goes by without our seeing it. (23)
We cannot understand the world by distancing ourselves from it or framing it in objective terms. To behold the world, we need… to return to something we may have forgotten or at best distorted: wonder. (23)
Technology enchains us… because it takes away our sense that we still owe our lives to something we did not make. When the world is at our disposal… it no longer matters in the same sense as it once did. It can only reveal itself as something to be utilized rather than as a source to which we owe a debt… We owe the world our attention. (25)
We come to know the world not by detaching ourselves from our felt experience, but by inhabiting our bodily experience as richly and wakefully as we can. (27)
We can never be finished with mystery—like beauty, it is not governed by concepts and it does not allow a conclusion. (33)
Attentiveness is a kind of spiritual discipline. (34)
Great art… delights us ‘because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.’ Great art is the enemy of fantasy. (36)
The poet’s task [is] the revelation of presence, an awakening to the astonishing sense that things are, though they need not be. (39)
Whatever is known is known only as the felt sweetness of a moment when some wholeness constellates itself out of the particulars… Knowledge consists both of taking the world into ourselves, and the love of going out to the things of the world themselves. (40-41)
Nature poems… use language to turn our attention to the world—not in order to understand it, but in order to see it… A nature poem by definition can only be an account of something too large to grasp. It must be accountable to the strangeness of our existence and the world’s. (45)
Poems create that interval in which we can see the very fullness of our existence… [they] create a space in which it is possible to turn away from the dim, reductive hearts inside us. (51)
Poems [have] to confront those events that are beyond our power to tranquilize… Poetry is a counterbalance, an act which gathers and shapes and looks for the “whole” when we are confronted with the forces of disintegration and self-division. (54)
We cannot see life if we’re looking at our reflections… Literature helps us see past our reflection; it helps us to see the world outside ourselves that is too often masked by ourselves. (58-59)
When we write, we should become a question to ourselves… Poems grow by questioning. (66)
Both prayer and poetry embody a longing and a reaching toward the inconceivable. And both refuse to be silent when they face that mystery, though they both admit that all words reach towards and end up in silence. (75)
Poetry and prayer both remind us that we reside at the boundary of the inarticulate. (77)
Mystery refers not to the quantity of the unknown but rather the quality of the known; it refers to awe rather than ignorance. In that sense, mystery attests to the fact that no amount of research could make the creation or the life of Jesus or even the bond between husband and wife less mysterious… Most of us prefer to move through the world unthinkingly secure in our accepted definitions of it. (97-98)
Poems arise out of our in-betweenness and those three little words ‘I don’t know.’ (145)