I know that I'll be looking north this evening when it's dark enough to get a glimpse of the Aurora. This opportunity reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, "The Auroras of Autumn." In it, Stevens witnesses a particular striking display of Northern Lights and wonders how his own poetry could "hold a candle" to Nature's brilliant display. It's a good question for poets but an even better question for the rest of us. What can we "do" besides admire the beauty and sometimes frightening powers of nature we cannot hope to imitate?
Imitation and creation are important themes for those of us who wish to give life to our imaginations and Stevens' poem offers us hope. Despite our feelings of inadequacy when confronted with the limits of our words, we are, Stevens writes, the vehicle through which beauty arrives. "This is nothing," he writes, "until in a single man contained,/Nothing until this named thing nameless is."
Experiences like Stevens' sighting of the Aurora defies his ability to express it. Yet he understands that his failure to capture the fullness of the event is an important stage in the Aurora's life! In other words, as he needs the Aurora, so too does the Aurora need the poet. One lives through the other.
Just as the Aurora is greater than any one description of it, so too are we greater and more powerful than our words. Yet our expressions of our profound thoughts and feelings, even when they point out our limits, are profoundly part of what makes us human. Without words, our lives would be very different and, I believe, less meaningful.