828: Against Poetry
828: Against Poetry
I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.
Once, I was seated next to a professor of geology on a flight, grounded before takeoff for two hours thanks to inclement weather. After pleasant exchanges about where we live and our professions—he was headed to California to research the San Andreas fault, I said, “I am a poet”— he asked, with immense incredulity, “Why?” I scrambled for some words as a rejoinder but sounded unconvincing even to myself.
The truth is I, too, have questioned poetry’s value, and my role in making it. I don’t know what to do when people ask “What kind of poetry do you write?” Picture me, wide-eyed blinking with a fake smile, like I was thrust onto a red carpet. Or what to do when someone states with mild revulsion: “I don’t get poetry.” Or, in the company of a contrarian, with a disdain for the here and now, asserts: “Poetry written today does not hold a candle to the poetry of the past.”
I just read such an editorial . . . oh well, his loss.
It all makes me want to throw up my Wakanda-like shield. Today’s fantastic discursive poem, however, takes up a different defense. It feels like it was written out of a similar self-interrogation, but listen to how it sharply turns from contemplating poetry’s limitations to underscoring poetry’s value.
by Diane Seuss
A poem, unlike a living being, cannot perceive you and, in perceiving you, grant you reality. If it sleeps with you, it cuts you. It runs a few degrees cooler than room temperature. A love poem does not love you. Or does not necessarily love you. A love poem faces outward. It performs love adequately. Lately, I’ve wondered about poetry’s efficacy. It’s like doubting a long romance, or romance itself, the essence of it. Fearsome, to doubt your life’s foundation. I’ve also wondered about painting. What distinguishes a good or great painting, paintings I’ve loved, from illustration? Lately everything seems illustrative to me, as if the whole world is a cunning metaphor. A young painter once cautioned me not to bring a literary framework to visual art. A sane admonition, I think. Maybe what distinguishes art from illustration is its uselessness. Art, useless at its core, but not valueless. And what is the correlation between painting and poetry? What makes a poem merely illustrative and what elevates it to an essential artfulness, i.e., uselessness? I know I am using the old language here. “Merely.” “Elevates.” I am in an antiquated room, its fixtures, dust-covered and ornate. Furniture, built at the behest of another era, from a principle of design that forefronts beauty, is delicate, as if balanced on a foal’s trembling legs. Maybe to live within a poem is to entrap oneself in an architecture constructed upon outmoded theories of composition. It’s possible there is an undiscovered room or house, or a structure somewhere I don’t yet have the language for. An academy of silences. A cathedral of cross-purposed voices. A posthuman spaciousness filled only with a reemerged species of butterflies. A catacomb of cluster flies. Whatever it will be, it will be new, filled with its own mystifying absurdities, and likely beyond me. This body may not be built for it. Mine is the kind of body you drag around town on a leash, with a choke chain. You don’t love it, but it’s yours to contend with, though it compresses your soul. When did it begin to compress rather than liberate my soul? Early, but I do remember when it was my soul’s instrument, indistinguishable from my soul. I could sit on the front stoop and the whole world came streaming in through the structures of my senses. Maybe the body is the soul’s metaphor. Maybe to escape it is to escape the service economy. To dissolve analogy. Attain uselessness.
"Against Poetry" by Diane Seuss. Used by permission of the poet. "Against Poetry" first appeared online at The Yale Review.