Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Questions for Further Study

The things you choose and the things that just happen. Poetry as mystery.

It’s one thing to say something along the lines of, “The best poems continue opening up to some point of mystery,” and another to turn that statement into something useful, or specific. Similarly to the way a lot of poets talk about “giving voice to the voiceless.” “Huh?” one might well say, “How can you tell?”

“What does that mean?”

The art that most interests me, that continues to draw me back, is the art that inhabits, that comes from out of, a position of unknowing, not one of knowing. Uncertainty, or between uncertainties, as Keats would have it. Certainty in art comes off feeling reductive to me, and not fully open to the weight of experience. Simply said, and so agreed upon it’s something of a contemporary cliché, but how can we talk about it past the nod? Past the jacket blurb?

And that said, I also adore assertions. And assertions would seem to be anything but mystery, anything but uncertain. It’s the tone, really, I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of assertions that feel more like working hypotheses than laws. I’ve never been good with laws. The way asserting an act of faith, “There are trees there,” or an assertion of emotion, “That sure was something,” can be both assertive and uncertain. Tone. As in the Dumanis poem I posted below.

Out, for me then, as a metaphor, is the machine made of words and its performative air (tone) of understandability, of practicality (no matter how Williams meant it) and in is the dance of veils, the seven veils of ambiguity. That’s what it feels like to me when I’m walking through Pittsburgh, or wherever. When people talk about “knowing” their place, really all they know is the thinnest veil of that place, the sensory presence of that place. We know so little about how things really work (though we’re very good at pretending).

Why is the center of the earth hot? What killed the dinosaurs, while leaving so many others? What do quarks act like that?

The easy way out of this knowing/unknowing, seems to me to be the move into irony, which is, for many of us, the signature move of the new century. Irony, though, for the sole sake of enacting irony, is the hollowest of gestures. But the air of desperate unknowing often behind irony, paired with the playful unknowing at the forefront of irony, is the salvation of many contemporary poets. “Desperate, but not serious,” as Adam Ant popularized it 20-something years ago. Many of my favorite poets inhabit a space infused by this.

Perhaps all I’m really saying is that they’re using irony well, by creating a secondary tone that makes me feel something is honestly at stake. To list their names would be inadequate, as I’m sure to forget most, but looking of the shelf next to my computer I can see books by Michael Dumanis, Matthew Zapruder, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Zachary Schomburg, and Jaswinder Bolina. A weird little list of energetic books, and necessary incomplete, as it’s only reflecting the random chance of what I’m currently reading (well, re-reading).

The way such things are always elemental.

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