Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The things you choose and the things that just happen.

I came upon this little essay yesterday back at the lab, and revised it a bit.  I feel I might have posted it at some point, but, as with magazines, a little repetition is expected.  So here goes. 

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, even if not actually specific.  One doesn’t have to be specific to be useful in art, but one should try.  For me, using a term like “mystery” is similar to the way a lot of poets talk about “giving voice to the voiceless.”  “Huh?” one might well say in response, “How can you tell?”  And, “What does that even mean?”

The art that most interests me, that in my reading continues to draw me back, the art that inhabits, that comes from out of, a position of unknowing, not from a position of knowing.  Uncertainty, or between uncertainties, as Keats would have it (if Keats ever really said that at all).  Certainty in art comes off feeling reductive to me, and not fully open to the weight of experience.  It’s a tone thing.  When I’m reading a poem that feels certain of what it’s talking about, I get all fidgety.  Simply said, and so agreed upon it’s something of a contemporary cliché, but how can we talk about it past the polite nod?  Past the jacket blurb?  Mystery!  Woo woo! 

And, that said, I’m also interested in strong assertions, and assertions would seem to be anything but mystery, anything but uncertain.  It’s the tone, again, I’m thinking of.  I’m thinking of assertions that feel more like working hypotheses than laws.  The assertions one makes to oneself walking through a graveyard past midnight.  I’ve never been good with laws anyway, they’re mostly wishes, not facts.  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.  “We may have discoveries next year and maybe not,” as Joseph Lykken, a particle physicist says, “We don’t know.  This is discovery science.”  Meanwhile there are colorful auroras as far south as Arkansas. 

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 William Carlos Williams meant it when he used the phrase) 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 Maryville, 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.  And then past that veil, another.  The closer we look at it the more it spreads out.  We know so little about how things really work (though we’re awfully good at pretending). 

Questions. Unanswerable questions (always the more beautiful question):  Why is the center of the earth hot?  What killed the dinosaurs, while leaving so many other species?  Where is the Higgs Boson?  Why do we not all despair? 

One way out of this knowing/unknowing, is the move into irony, which, for many, was the signature move around the turn of the century (pick one).  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 (irony, done well, is at the heart of the artistic response, from Milton to tomorrow).  The way such things are always elemental, tonally complex, debatable. 

In this way, or because of this, John Ashbery and James Tate are the two poets that so many other poets get compared to these days.  There’s a way that Ashbery and Tate inhabit mystery (with irony, humor, fractured sensibility, etc) that does seem to be emblematic, or an overview, perhaps, of what a lot of poets are up to these days.  But the tendency is much wider, I think, and includes poets as diverse as Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Lyn Hejinian, Russell Edson, Michael Palmer, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, and the list goes on, of poets who foreground mystery, not just as subject matter (mystery [unknowing] as subject matter is common for all poets), but in their process.  

I think this is why Wallace Stevens has become the poet so many poets are now talking about (much more so than in the 1980s and earlier, it seems to me), as his poetry can be seen to, within his constant investigation of imagination as subject, but also as process, contain a primer on this stance (Suppose we call it Projection A).  But one could just as easily trace it back (if we’re concentrating on only the twentieth century) to William Carlos Williams, and the “so much depends upon” that hovers over the wheel barrow, or Gertrude Stein, who, when you look at the arc from Three Lives to Tender Buttons, you can get something of a feel for the gamut of the stance of knowing/unknowingness.

Mystery’s not really the best word for what I’m thinking about.  It contains too much a feel for a kind of schlocky trickery.  “Unknowingness,” or “Process Unknowingness,” seems more descriptive, if perhaps a bit too academic.  Or, as those critical of this move would term it, a sort of muddy, non-specific, generalness. Unresolvable tenor. Or perhaps it can be thought of as embracing the idea of “Necessary Fiction.”  We might be tired of grand narratives, but we still need grand narratives.  Maybe that has something to do with it. 

What I’m interested in, here, is poets who do the dance of the veils with subject and stance, not specifically how they react to language itself (although it often feels something like a distinction without a difference as I’m looking at how poets achieve this “Process Unknowingness”).  And it’s not a problem of how the poets use “things” for me, as things (images) are often leaned on and asserted by poets who foreground mystery in their process.  One can believe in, and assert, the veil, while knowing, and admitting, it’s veils all the way down.  Unknowing, or mystery, doesn’t mean everything is unknown and/or mysterious. 

There are, of course, many ways that poets can negotiate something as fundamentally large as unknowableness, as poets as different as Lucie Brock Broido and Martha Ronk attest, but I think there is something useful in the attempt, as both of them have much more in common with each other than either does with, say, Sharon Olds, or Philip Levine. And poets don’t fit neatly into categories usually, as they tend to mix and match ways of doing things in their own personal ways, as well, some poets move into and out of the tendency.  Jorie Graham, for instance, is foregrounding this much less in her recent work than say, in the late 80s and early 90s.  But, even with that, there are two (there are more, of course) general tendencies through this stance that are interesting me right now:

Situational Unknowingness (which is an enacting of mystery through fractured scene or narrative) – Which comes from John Ashbery and James Tate (among others), through Martha Ronk and Dara Wier (among others), to Matthew Zapruder and Cate Marvin (among others).

Philosophical Unknowingness (which is an assertion of belief or philosophy into a vacant or unknowable sphere) – Which comes from Charles Wright and Jorie Graham (and others), through Donald Revell and Bin Ramke (among others), to Reginald Shepherd, Dana Levin, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (among others).

What is a fragment, if not a leap through mystery?  And what is grammar, then, if not the same?  In that way, all poets deal with this stance in some manner, but what I’m thinking about is poets who foreground this stance, who hit it head on.  One can look at The Waste Land as a created ruin, or an assemblage shored against the ruins (yada yada y puis nada), but one can also look at it as an enactment of how perception really works, privately, associationally.  One can look at Dickinson this way.  One can look at Shakespeare this way. 

Lists like this quickly break down (where does Dean Young fit?  Should Cole Swensen be thought of in this way?), but might still be useful in starting a conversation. 

Anyway, I’ve thought of this tendency in the past as Poetry of the Irrational Imagination, but I’ve become less fond of the word “irrational.” Maybe I should just embrace it again.  As well, Interesting anti-stances to this might be a poet like Albert Goldbarth, who uses leaps of association and sensibility not to foreground mystery, but to reveal connections.  Maybe?  I’ll keep working on it. My thinking is still a bit rough. Perhaps it will always be so, necessarily.  And I wouldn’t want to describe it too well.  That would take all the fun out of it.


At 1/10/2012 12:14 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I think irrational is a good word for it. It will invite criticism, but so won't any other substitute. Art isn't logical, it doesn't solve problems. At the same time it's necessary. I like the tension between necessary and irrational in this conversation.

For me, certainty, at least in the way you're using it in the second paragraph, just bores me. It's like looking at a picture of a pipe that's labeled "pipe". Acknowledging the illusion (you call it veil) highlights our want to believe in it and forces us to have that double-take. The double-take, the question, that is what my favorite poetry makes me experience, regardless of aesthetic stance.

The strong assertions you're describing are a shortcut to this. As read, it forces you to wonder/believe or, if you're a skeptic, doubt. The only way forward is to keep reading.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on the role belief plays in this conversation.

At 1/10/2012 6:05 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

I agree that irrational is a good word. We seem to be irrational beings (glance at any newspaper). We might as well have a romping ground for indulging our weird selves that's at least somewhat sandboxed from, say, the world of national elections, or climate science.

And I don't have a problem with machines in my poems. They are not necessarily rational. Talk to someone who uses Windows. Or go cream an egg:


At 1/11/2012 11:02 AM, Blogger David said...

Dante gives us a bold assertion of faith (certainly not a "working hypothesis"), accompanied by a certainty of knowledge that pierces the veil of veils.

Hopkins, on the other hand, in the "Terrible Sonnets", shows us faith's flower torn by violent winds of uncertainty and despair, even as the root of faith remains firm and unshakeable.

At 1/11/2012 11:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Belief! Well, in my view belief fits just fine in the "irrational" or the position of "unknowableness." I mean, belief is believing, yes, but it is not knowing. No one knows what's to come, one has faith. Dealing with the silence of God is an act of the imagination, either way.

At 1/11/2012 12:22 PM, Blogger skholiast said...

John, I'm primarily a philosopher not a poet, but I think (and maybe no surprise) there is a great deal of overlap. My hope for (my) philosophy is that it be able to think coolly, slowly as it were, about the things that make us most antsy-- most desirous, most hot under the collar, most annoyed at each other or ourselves, saddest or gladdest or awestruckest. Does this dovetail with what you say here? There's always been a bit of a turf-war between poetry and philosophy, and I like to think this is partly why.

At 1/11/2012 12:35 PM, Blogger skholiast said...

PS: By "coolly" I don't mean "dispassionately," nor yet "methodically." Just without getting riled, without jumping ahead into certainty. I'd say, maybe, "humbly"? But humble can't really be done on purpose.

At 1/11/2012 1:11 PM, Blogger David said...


For someone like Dante, to have Faith is to know. Not in the gnostic sense of peeking behind the veil, but in the sense of the child who trusts. "I know Daddy loves me." One needn't accept Dante's position to recognize that such bold assertion of belief and knowledge can produce poetry of greatness.

At 1/11/2012 1:19 PM, Blogger David said...

Hopkins' late sonnets, on the other hand, evince all the uncertainties of the Confessionalists (up to the very edge of despair), yet the foundation of Faith remains. The "dark night of the soul" experienced by persons of great faith, such as Hopkins, St. Therese of Lisieux (also a poet), and Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, might have some bearing on this conversation about knowing / unknowing in poetry.

At 1/11/2012 2:51 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

I don't think young Dante knew his father loved him. He believed it. One can be certain and be wrong.

skholiast, maybe you should give us condensed epistemology 101.


At 1/11/2012 3:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I’m good with the dove-tailing. These are all just us rehearsing our different ways of having at the unknown. I’ve heard of poetry referred to as the lab science of philosophy. I wouldn’t say it that way myself, but I’m sympathetic.


I’m with Paul. Saying you know something like your father loves you is saying you believe it, that you have faith it is true. I’m sure there are things that one can say one knows that really can be known, but from years of listening to people disagree about pretty much everything all the time, including events they witnessed together, I’m proceeding cautiously.

At 1/15/2012 5:21 AM, Blogger Michael Schiavo said...

It's completely rational to be irrational, especially when poetry is concerned.

At 1/16/2012 7:10 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed. Or really where anything is concerned, for that matter.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home