Sunday, January 01, 2006

Poetry and Uncertainty

A wonderful essay by Jane Hirshfield in the current issue of APR, "Poetry and Uncertainty." My take on it is that knowing and not-knowing, certainty and uncertainty, and the nexus between them, is where poetry grabs hold of us. That a good poem contains a kind of disruptive, lubricating force that can loosen up our rigid, stuck, or petrified selves, and open us up to the world again.

" . . . what the medieval alchemists called solutio — the process of making something workable and transformable by making it more fluid, whether in the physical or imaginative realm. A difficult thing is "hard" we say; a mathematical answer arrived at is "solved." A good poem, then, is a solvent, a kind of WD-40 for the soul. . . . Simply to feel oneself moved creates an increase of freedom . . ."

Later in the essay, she quotes one of my favorite Walt Whitman poems:

When I heard the learned astronomer

When I heard the learned astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.


I love how this poem evokes the letting-go of fact and and accuracy, in favor of ecstatic clarity and vision. Epiphany, if you will. Thank you, Walt. You were a good man. I think I'll try to memorize this one.

7 comments:

The Sublibrarian said...
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The Sublibrarian said...

"Simply to feel oneself moved creates an increase of freedom...."

I haven't read the essay yet. But I have a hard time imagining a context in which this could possibly make sense. The experience of emotion in and of itself is not liberating. On the benign end of things, think about ET and that double (or contaminated) sense of being moved and manipulated at the same time. On the malign end, think of the Third Reich's mass rallies. Folks were genuinely moved. And it wasn't about freedom.

The excerpt also strikes me as favoring the "nice" poem. Maybe I'm perverse, but sometimes I want a poem that pounds a dock spike through my foot and dares me to run after it.

Peter said...

Your point is well-taken, Ron. I love language and word-play and Oulipian procedures and indeterminance as much as the next person. But the number one reason I read poetry is to be moved by it. I guess I am just a sucker for emotion; always will be. (I still like to cry at movies, too.) ~grin~

The Sublibrarian said...

Maybe this highlights a difference in how the two of us think about things.

If I were to put words in your mouth, I'd say that constraints, palindromes, etc. serve a subordinate purpose to the emotion. In a sense, Oulipian procedures and word-play are decorative. They may call attention to the surface, but they don't disturb what lies in the pool beneath.

For me, procedures, etc. are important because they not only call attention to the surface but also highlight the way in which that surface constructs the pool beneath. A poem (or a story or a novel) isn't something that points to the world. It is, in and of itself, an object in the wold. One made of language, but nonetheless an object, and one whose relationship to that world is always problematic and always under negotiation. (If this seems totally whack, see, for example, Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar.")

To pull this back down to earth a little bit, I just finished reading Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. It's well-written, the three main characters (Macon, Sarah, and Muriel) are generally drawn with significant depth. It's a solid, mainstream novel. And I'd say I was moved by it (the subject of divorce is still a bit of a touchy thing for me). However, I don't trust a word of it.

The reason I don't trust it is because of its rhetoric of transparency. There's a narrator, but he or she is completely in the background. Things are presented as if this is simply the way things are. There is no sense in the novel that yields any self-knowledge about itself as a constructed thing.

So, if I'm moved by the novel, is it because Tyler has captured the humanity of her characters and their lives, or is it because this is what a bestseller, a consumer item of a particular kind, is designed to do and to yield?

At the same time I was reading Tyler, I was just starting to read Barthelme's Sixty Stories. Barthelme's stories wear their constructedness on their sleeve and yet, because of that, I'm more willing to trust them. They know that they are things in a world of things and don't pretend they are somehow giving me THE world. They're giving me an experience of a particular kind of consciousness and what I do with that is my responsibility.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

The Whitman poem, which is a great one, reminds of another of his-- "A Noiseless, Patient Spider". That one has a great sense of blasting the mind into the universe --and beyond time for that matter:

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul."

Whitman allowed his poems and the line to explode. Dickinson, his flip side in many ways, allowed her poems to implode. Both writers affecting the reader in a lasting way with a different approach.

Peter said...

Ron: you are so eloquent about this! I am totally drawn in. I especially love the idea of "surface constructs the pool beneath."

I guess I want it all: I want the poem (or story or novel, etc) as a created thing in the world (that does not point to the world, but is a thing in and of itself), AND I want the mimetic experience of being taken in by the poem (or story or novel, etc), and being moved to tears (or joy, or wonder) by it, and "trusting it" totally.

Does this make me just an easily-manipulated, quivering (hehehehe) feeling-junkie? I don't know.

Peter said...

Sam: Yes, I think of Dickinson and Whitman as alternate sides of the same coin.