This week we’ll be experimenting with poems of invocation; that is, poems that employ direct address to construct and position a “You.” When thinking of the “addressee” of a poem, we are often tempted to think simply of audience. In the poem of invocation, however, “You” is a much more active presence in the poem; it is actually called into being, by the poem. For example, by saying, “You come and stand before me,” one literally creates a “you” who materializes through the mechanism of the direct address, comes before the speaker, and stands—at least, in the world of the poem.
To view poetry in this light transforms the art of versifying into a kind of conjurer’s art, which is what happens every time we write: we conjure people, places, events, and affective states, some of which are “real,” and some of which are purely imagined. It also grants the poet the power of creation.
Another interesting dimension of invocation is its relationship to the other-worldly, or divine. Hmong shamans use the art of invocation to summon lost spirits, who they believe are responsible for causing illness. Biblical Hebrew poets such as David and Isaiah use the art of invocation to call to God. For a fascinating example of how one poet has chosen to engage—or interrogate—the divine, check out Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay’s “To God,” translated from the Bengali by Robert McNamara. There are also, of course, John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (see “Batter my heart, three person’d God” for one of my all-time favorites), which invoke the divine in a wholly different fashion.
More energetic than a simple “address,” the invocation is an active gesture that both calls and creates. And it doesn’t stop there. Poets writing in this mode often go on to position the “invoke-ee” in spatial terms, relational terms—as active presences in the text. To return for a moment to the Holy Sonnets, in “I am the little world made cunningly” Donne closes with the heroic couplet:
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.
Not only does this couplet function as a powerful ending to the sonnet, it commands “Lord” to burn the speaker, constructing the “You” as a powerful, raging presence inextricably connected to the “I” of the poem who can simultaneously consume and be consumed by the speaker.
As always, if you find this a productive starting point for a poem, please consider posting an excerpt here. We love reading your contributions, and look forward to hearing some of your responses. Have a wonderful weekend, and happy writing to all.