This summer, the New York Times Book Review ran an article titled “Does Poetry Matter?” In it, David Orr stated that “poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts.” The article led to a variety of online responses from writers to the Academy of American Poets.
CKP is joining the conversation by asking writers, friends, and other community partners “Why Poetry Matters.”
Poetry as Pilgrimage: The Unreal City
By Celia Bland
I have often lived in the material world as an eye: looking without thinking. I like traveling for that reason – hearing other people’s questions, commands, responses as cacophony. Looking, noticing, forming no opinions because its all new and I need to know nothing more than the moment of seeing. My normal existence is conversations, lists, judgments, and calculations. I notice nothing in the blur of accomplishing everything. Words as commerce.
I think of those hermits who sat on poles for years – anchorites? I can’t remember – under the hot sun in the rain looking down. At the North Star. A bird in her nest, a flower in a pot on a windowsill. Who passed up water and food to the hermit at the end of a long pole? What did the anchorite pass down to the faithful in return? Silence.
If what my colleague, the poet Robert Kelly, says is true, we do not live in a city. We live “across it, athwart it.” A city is a journey, a pilgrimage. He was describing his relationship to his home borough of Brooklyn, furthering the rich tradition of William Blake who would build in England a new Jerusalem. Seeking in the known, the corrupted, an ideal city, what Eliot called the “unreal city.” But what if the city as quest becomes the quest, the vehicle of discovery? And what if that quest-vessel, that unreal city, was poetry itself?
“How does the mind work?” Plato asked his circle of students. “Do we put our hand into a birdcage and pull out a thought-bird? How is it, then, that we choose the right bird?”
I can’t remember what he decided. Were thoughts a series of feathery binary codes? Yes, no, no, yes, yes, no, no, no. Cluck.
My mind is the pneumatic tube at the main branch of the public library. A penciled slip is sucked in and I patiently wait until a reverse burst of air delivers the correct tidbit: Go. No go.
Keats believed the mind was a series of rooms. The foyer was for infants and other thoughtless beings; then a living room of understanding which was, at first, light-filled and airy, but slowly, inexorably, darkened with the soot of experience and uncertainty. The next room – the kitchen? The dining room? — he could not see, perhaps because it was the room of Negative Capability. A room dark as film noir, tuned to the mysteries of where, when, how.
I’m a tenant of this room. I’m here at the window, my hands on the sill.
I would call my everyday self “Ms. Negative Capability.” Keats would not. He coined “negative capability” to describe the artist – Shakespeare was his example — who could suppress his need to fix or name or understand. A “man capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” The artist, he was saying, should operate on a different frequency than the rest of us. We may hear pop music and thirty-second ads for car dealerships, but the poet hears the Voice of God – which is not to say that s/he can understand God’s language. The perfect philosophical response is: that’s okay. I don’t need to understand.
Capability. Capable of what? Negating. Deleting. Denying. Nullifying. My daily competence – seemingly a positive – is to my poet’s mind a denial of real responsibilities to the mysteries. Philosophers may believe in self-determinism, free will. Poets see the world as a series of patterns, individuals as threads woofing and weaving. (I am tangled in patterns I can see but only vaguely name.)
This is why I question the conundrum of Keats’ phrase. To be supremely creative one must rein in one’s desire to name or to “fix” reality. But what’s negative about that? That sounds positive. Unless naming is creative and to create is not to delete, deny, unfix, etc. So the negative he’s identifying is the denial of the naming-creativity for a not-naming creativity. But why not just call this state “negative incapability” or “a toleration of uncertainty”?
“The willing tolerance of the negative.” How else understand Jerusalem? Visiting Israel and, just over the wall, the Palestinian territory that used to be Jerusalem, I felt as if I was watching two different films on the same screen, the images transposed and overlapping, disparate, unrelated events seemingly happening at one and the same time.
Oh wait, they are!
I stand on the curb at an intersection as cars and taxi’s whiz by at frightening speeds. On the opposite curb: a family of ten: all six boys wearing the same striped shirt in different sizes; the mother and two daughters solemn in grey jumpers, equally dumpy. My eye goes to the paterfamilias – a peacock of a man: pale, not quite thirty, a scraggly brown beard, glistening in a purple smoking jacket belted at the waist, sateen breeches and sheer silk stockings. On his head, a bristling beaver lampshade. I stare at the square buckles of the man’s high-heeled shoes and don’t notice the white horse trotting down the street between us. Busses, a sports car, and five rickety Toyotas zoom past the saddle-less horse, scarcely slowing. A dusky boy – aquiline nose, hair cropped close at the sides of his head – clings to the horse’s back. He grins as he gooses its flanks with bare toes. Close behind jogs a foal on spindly legs, its veiny nose outstretched in its hurry to overtake the mare that has paused in front of me, as if posing, delicate hooves drumming the asphalt in a brief military tattoo.
Stock still on the curb in my tourist’s sensible shoes, I stare. Like a fun house reflection, the family in their Sabbath finery stares from the opposite curb. The 18th century faces down the 21st, and time and place courses between us, a pale horse. To my left, I make out what I thought was a dump but that I now see is a camp of rough board shelters. It is from here that the horse and her foal have come. They canter toward the intersection of cars careering from four directions like pinballs. Whistling shrilly, the boy pulls on the mare’s rope-bridle, and wheels her around. Her foal vibrates, muscles rippling along its miniature shoulders as it tosses its head nervously.
Such moments punctuate my trip: the camels tended by black-veiled Bedouin I glimpse from the window of my hotel room in Jericho. The pilgrims either prostrate upon the marble floor of the Holy Sepulcher, or davenning in retreat from the Wailing Wall (where violets bloom in mortared clumps high among the stones). The veiled young women – students — picnicking in the shadow of the wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank and bifurcates the campus of the university.
I am here to teach a workshop to faculty of a West Bank university. I have no idea what to expect – will they speak English? Our workshop is in a drab modern classroom and holds Palestinians, an Israeli, American expats, all of us discussing the dynamics of the classroom and concerns for their students – the universal preoccupations of teachers.
Happily, they write in fluent English.
We work with Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” and I am ashamed to find myself wondering if the Palestinians will identify more with his cannibals, described as brave, noble and rational, despite their proclivity for human flesh; or with the righteous Europeans, deep in the barbarous practices of the Inquisition. Or with Montaigne himself, that rational observer of human frailties.
Some respond with verses from the Koran; some relate the essay to American-Israeli politics, and others to the wall just outside stretching like the wall of China. As we read aloud a poem by Mohammad Darwish, our collective balance shifts on its keel like a ship. Individuals are moved by personal insights into painful situations. We are united in the poem, in this pause of coherence – I could almost venture harmony. Yet, as one woman describes the drizzle of rain, a rare occurrence in Jerusalem, as a sound of comfort and refreshment, another describes bursts of gunfire echoing off the façade of her apartment building, and I feel again that negative capability. two films projecting in endless loops: one the calm of our classroom, the other that city on the hill just outside our window: imagined and imaginary, and yet all too real.