WHY TO GIVE UP … AND REALLY MEAN IT
My best poems happen when I give up on writing my best poems, when I fall asleep at the wheel, in that half-state between daydreaming and dreaming, between asleep and awake. I wake up typing. Sadly, there’s no formula for this. When it happens—and I definitely try as much as possible to make it happen—it sneaks up on me in lots of different ways. The question is how to consciously go unconscious, how to give up and mean it, how to be exhausted and write more poems. As Frank O’Hara put it in “Personism: A Manifesto,” “When I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.” Let’s get lofty, shall we? Okay.
That said, writing about writing poetry is weird, because my process is my process, and your process, if you have one, is your thing. Maybe yours involves clouds, or energy drinks, or sleeping to dream and waking up in a racecar in a dark parking lot. I like to get exhausted—but not frazzled or anxious, just too tired and unwired to think––because that’s when I give up. And when I give up is when all the good stuff happens. Maybe that sounds paradoxical, but it’s not. By giving up, I mean ceding control. I mean forgetting who’s in charge. I mean resigning myself to “nothing gets done” to “no (good) poems get written.” I resign myself to “no good.” Instead, I take out the trash. Then I wash and dry the dishes. I sit down to read or write thinking nothing will happen, but believing that something might/could happen, if/because I am engaging with something antithetical to writing a good poem
Here’s an instructive diversion:
Darcie Dennigan is one of my most favorite poets. She’s so inventive, bright, charming, insightful, hilarious, and beautiful. Mostly I can’t stand it, but I can stand her (for all the reasons just given) and love her poems (for all the reasons just given, and also) for making me want to write them as my poems. For making me ecstatic and jealous and lovely in love. I read her every day. She is full of missing and deliberate mistakes and ellipses, especially in her new book Madame X, where you can SEE the poems almost writing themselves, as if Dennigan is the one writing the ellipses and the poems are writing everything else.
Often she starts with a quotation, as in her poem “The Revolution,” which she begins with the first piece of something Frank O’Hara said (the second part of the quotation comes later in the poem): “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial and don’t be proud.”
… Okay baby … ? He says to me … Baby … Sit down … There was a bomb …a bomb in a crowd … one town over … Oh …I hadn’t … No you wouldn’t have he says … Because I’m so … ? Because of the blackout … They’re blacking all the good news out… ! He grabs my foot … in … fierceness … but also please don’t be too serious …
That last bit, “but also please don’t be too serious” both connects back to the initial quotation and points the way forward to its/the very serious finish, “The slightest loss of attention leads to death.” Here, Dennigan reminds us how important it is to allow the worlds of our poems to unfold, to pay attention (but not too much attention), to play, have fun, get funny, go bananas, except when we shouldn’t, as later in the same poem when she writes:
Don’t be bananas, don’t be lemons, don’t be … tangelo … we are on the couch … we turn on the radio … The reporter’s in … the middle of … she puts her cell phone up … and from the mob … a man’s mouth … comes out … What is he saying … ? This couch is the color of teargas and … tangerines … I would like to fall asleep … mid-foot massage … while sucking … the juice from a coconut … But … but … I know how it goes
And how it goes, when we give ourselves over to sucking the juice of a coconut or falling asleep mid-foot massage, is sometimes a poem—one that in spite of itself is all about paying attention. The ellipses don’t necessarily signify an absence, but a disarmingly attentive presence, a mind in motion/perception, looking for what comes next. We now return to our regularly scheduled lecture.
I’ve also been reading over and over this terrific poem by Peter Gizzi from his book Threshold Songs called “Eye of the Poem,” which is an ars poetica about getting to the heart of things. He begins:
I come to it at an edge
morphed and hobbled,
Somehow the last word of that sentence always sounds like “morphine” to me, or I read it deliberately, mistakenly, associatively that way. Nevertheless, morphing or morphine, it’s not easy to focus in a poem—to find the focus of a poem. Maybe the problem is actually looking for it, rather than showing up on its primordial doorstep (“I come to it”)(“I come to”) as Gizzi suggests, bedraggled and out of it, half-baked and sluggish. And if one does get to that edge, is it sharp? And what is going over it all about? What does one do at the mouth-edge of the volcano, the sea, the void? What do I do? Leap of faith?—maybe if I’m tired enough, not thinking too much. O I can play it like a horn. Get scared and go home. Get scarred and forever after worry about eruption, disruption, little thorn in my paw. Awe. How does one get to a place in the process where the edge of the knife, or the edge of the earth, looks inviting, and thus, with nothing to lose, accepts its invitation. How does one get so exhausted that giving up is a relief and a release, from work to play in a single bound? Well, one can (try to) make a conscious decision (to turn off the understanding), or one can get to where involuntary spasms SPUR the next move.
For his part, Gizzi goes on: “There is also / the blowtorch grammar’s /unconquered flame.” I have no idea what he means by that. Is he saying that grammar is a blowtorch, a thing that welds words together? What would it mean to conquer that? Would we want to? Maybe in part at least this is what poets always do: conquer grammar, as a way to get out from under its authoritarian logic and prescriptions. Take your morphing or take your morphine. I don’t know. One informs the other, a heady draught to a giant cockroach, a motorcycle into a wall.
And speaking of welding (see “blowtorch” above)(see “motorcycle into a wall”), fire’s interesting stuff, mesmerizing and dangerous, and a blowtorch takes that and intensifies and focuses it. To be a poet is to weld and focus one’s vision into language. Here’s Darcie Dennigan again, this time from her poem “Out of the Ether”:
Transported I behold, transported touch—
This is me typing—Darcie. I am human.
At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs and mouth and fingers.
Oh angels, if I were Milton typing this, I would find you a way to have sex
that lets you be real, nipple-biting people—and also of one soul and holy and glorious.
Well, before you fell.
What does this have to do with fire and focus and welding—and more importantly, giving up as a way to write one’s poems? Well, besides demonstrating the melding of Dennigan herself into the poem—and her poem with Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost—it’s a not-so-subtle reminder that to be a poet is to become a little less than (or more than) human, a monster ecstatic, a “real nipple-biting” person, not fit for the office, falling through the ether. And yet, one goes to the office—the office of poetry—precisely to become unfit (more on this later). To fall or jump or leap of faith. She ends the poem this way:
I’d say more if this throat I have on earth weren’t so thick with scars.
But angels, burns are totally worth the pleasure of giving a light saber a blowjob.
So, see fire. See blowtorch. See Star Wars. Getting burned is hard work.
My process—and thus my focus—is always changing. (Note: “My process” sounds like such a stable thing. Beware the bewitchment of personal pronouns and nouns.) Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes at night. Sometimes on an old Remington portable, sometimes a computer. I even occasionally write things out longhand, but that’s dreadfully slow, and I hate the way my handwriting looks—much the same way I hate the sound of my voice. I wish I sounded more like sandpaper or a wolf. Even exploratory surgery sounds better, even a liver. And yet, my voice is the only voice I’ve got. Go figure. Often I can’t find it, so I have to go running, or do an antonymic translation, or call Nate Pritts on the phone to figure out where it’s off to. In other words, I get to the poem––the thing I need to say––by playing a game, or by distracting myself from poetry, or by not writing at all. Instead I have a ball, fill up on life, reconnect with my community, my family. As Gizzi points out later in “The Eye of the Poem” the important thing(s) in writing a poem, and in art generally, is this/are these:
Stay open to adventure.
Being awake is finally
a comprehensive joy.
But this is so much harder than it sounds, because we have wills. We want (desire) to make a mark, to draw our own fate as we see and intend it, but the will shuts down possibility, keeps us asleep without dreams. Being awake comprehensively (a.k.a. perspicuous vision), is the job of the poet. But this requires engagement with the intended and unintended in the very same breath. To write a poem, or to make any kind of art, and succeed, comprehensiveness is critical. One has to be aware of/in gear with all the possibilities and respond to them, work with and against them. To communicate is key, but one doesn’t force communication, unless one is a totalitarian; rather, one creates the circumstances where the message hits the target(s) in spite of our desire that it hit the target(s). (Note: I’m using “communication” and “message” very loosely here—I’m just talking about the crux of the poem, whatever it may be—a demonstration, an expression of something, an absence of something, etc.) This is where the joy comes in, and the will goes home with its tail between its legs. Hooray! To make a poem is to let something fly, so let it be an entire jet, not just one wing and an engine. To do this, one needs a conception of the whole—the denotations and connotations, employed and deployed, and all the possible transformations. Comprehensiveness with regard to materials and process. Comprehensiveness with regard to the plethora of meanings, feelings, joys, and tragedies.
Still, it’s important to note: comprehensiveness is not necessarily comprehension—it’s not necessarily understanding anything. And it’s also not necessarily something one has a sense of until the poem’s mostly written. Just because one has a perspicuous view, doesn’t mean one can explain it. Why not? Because an explanation is always both a reduction of something and a definition, a chain link fence around the wilderness of experience, when what’s required is a wallowing into the mud and taking a bite so big that one can’t talk. One expresses oneself via the music of trying not to choke on EVERYTHING, the inclusiveness and sprawl. Sometimes to write/right a poem is to go with the musically sloppy flood. You get to be rude and play with your food. You get to be wished on by a star. Yes, epiphanies do happen, but not because we will them to happen. Meanwhile, Gizzi’s poem continues observing itself in itself:
the back porch reverie,
every parti-colored aura
on cars left and to the right of you.
Ascending through the core
I am silly with clarity
To be “silly with clarity” just about hits the nail on the heartstring. And this, in the right circumstances, makes a sound, maybe—maybe harmonious, or dissonant, or both—cars flying by as the partially-a-party (parti) gasps its last—as the poet ascends from the center, from what’s central: light-headed/ridiculous, an angel or Sisyphus. Either/or. Through discipline, practice, focus, one gets, from time to time, choked-up or flabbergasted or exhausted, and that is the exact moment—that moment when one is drowning—not rationally, not intentionally——that one must, nevertheless, go on without a plan, or a map or an aesthetic guarantee (who ever heard of an aesthetic guarantee?—only really bad artists expect a guarantee), because that’s the moment one’s knowledge is all used up.
Back in “The Eye of the Poem”:
Born of air I am and
the dappled buttresses
in this vacuum glisten.
I remake my life.
To give up in the process of writing a poem is to cede control to the poem and process itself—to get so tired of wresting and arresting and wrestling with the language that one lets it win and remake our lives in its image. We end, when we’re lucky, as deer in the headlights, stranded in the moment before whatever hits us. Crash. Whoops. Sorry. Perhaps Gizzi puts it in more hopeful terms:
What pressure animating giddy coil.
What not the flutter, every
ting and flange calling to you.
A bright patch over the roof
on the jobsite singing itself.
It’s not the workmen or the foreman or the architect (the poet), but the jobsite itself that sings. We have to get down to the job and then get out of the way. Daydream a little, eat lunch on a beam, fall asleep in the sun, wake up typing.
On a slightly related note…
There’s a poem in Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X, “The Corpus” which is all about getting an art school education—that is, ostensibly—but it’s also about the BODY (the corpus, the corpse) of knowledge in art and how it can be “a trap.” How ridiculous and misleading is the teaching of art. Craft can be taught, and it’s important, but then what? If craft is one’s only (or perhaps even primary) focus, one can at best only go so far, or at worst be led ridiculously astray. No one I know in art wants to be a stray. And no one wants to be ridiculous either. And yet, often what passes for teaching in art is as goofy as the three “honors tracks” for the artist as proposed in Dennigan’s poem:
I sought to be an artist … so I went to school … A in all my classes … I went on … Wanted the summa cum laude next to my name in the art school graduation program … I asked the school how to … They presented three honors tracks … suicide … jail … madness … Madness was graded on a curve … madness being … relative … The other two … strictly by the book … Okay I said … Jail sounds good …
Of course, a huge part of the problem here is that the speaker seeks to be an artist and yet is concerned with getting the grade. An artist must be willing to fail, so the speaker of the poem is working on some (possibly) false premises from the start, e.g. that being an artist can be taught, that art can actually be evaluated (rather than experienced) in a meaningful way, and also that one can decide to be an artist.
In art school, the speaker of the poem is then assigned a mentor, and she proceeds in her art and with making her mark. But it isn’t until her “Milkshake” piece, which consists of ice cream and Red Dye #3, and which she sells “only atop Mount Everest” “… to those ladies and gentlemen who could afford [them]…”) that she finally succeeds in achieving her goal. “The milkshakes of ‘Milkshake’ were … many things at once … a symbol of … Also poisonous…” the implication being that poisoning her wealthy patrons results in her going to JAIL, right on track—with honors. But of course the artist is never meant to be “right on track,” so after many years and “torture … etc. …” she gets her final report card from the art school and is surprised to find “All F’s”:
F in the thing thought is in the thinking that thinks it
F in the thing bought is in the thinging that things it
F in the thing taught is in the torture that brings it
F in the sing sought is in the wringing that rings it
This riddling sing-song of a report card (Note: she is 4-F—in military terminology, certifiably not fit for service for physical, mental, or moral reasons) causes the artist/speaker to go mad, and she commits suicide with a shard of mirror (Hello, Narcissus). Thus she completes all three Honors tracks, “suicide … jail … madness,” but realizes in the process (at the very end of the process, when it’s too late) that “The track itself was a trap … The whole art school … was a joke …” And in a ridiculously Deus ex machina sort of moment that ends both the artist and the poem, the artist’s mentor shows up (as the artist herself is bleeding to death) “… beret and all … right away I recognized him … He said … with compassion … We at the school would be happy to grant you … an aesthete’s … funeral …” In other words, while she mayn’t have been fit for service for physical, mental, or moral reasons, aesthetically speaking, she’ll make a beautiful corpse/corpus. Or, to put it another way, she’s solved the koans of art school—“the thing thought,” “the thing bought,” “the thing taught,” “the sing sought”—but the answers and their implications weren’t anything like what she wanted or expected. Expectations and what we desire to be as artists (the corpus of art) are always at least potentially a trap—but who is it that defines them? Well, we revere the great artists of the past for the ways they established the rules, not for the ways that they followed them. What you can KNOW or be TAUGHT about how to write a poem is a tricky thing indeed.
Goodbye, cruel world. And now for the afterlife.
Here’s the end of Peter Gizzi’s poem “Analemma,” also from Threshold Songs:
now that you’re gone
and I’m here or now
that you’re here and
I’m gone or now
that you’re gone and
I’m gone what
did we learn
what did we take
from that oh
now that you’re here
and also gone
I am just learning
and changing light
a leafy-shaped blue
an upstate New York
a tungsten light
an oaken table-rapping
burnt over, shaking
You have to walk, stumble, or rapture into the light. One can’t think one’s way into being an artist. Nor can one imitate one’s way there. One has to be willing to forget the rules, the various tracks, the teachers and the teaching, and give oneself over to the art, to make oneself available to possibility. For me, that involves finding ways, either procedural (antonymic translation, erasure, centos, lectures) or physical (sleep deprivation, sickness, cases of beer, running, dancing, talking to friends on the phone) to let go of the notion of writing a poem at all. The best poems aren’t written, they happen and we sing them. That is, suddenly, we realize we have something. Giving up meaningfully is a deliberate lack of focus, of being present and away, of, the powers mysterious and often mislaid. We prepare for this through reading, writing, connecting with and to ourselves and other people, their lives and their work. But then to actually make art we have to turn it all off and walk away, let it bake in the oven at 425 degrees for 33 and 1/3 minutes. When we return, it’s like magic or it’s a total failure. There’s no in between…or maybe there is, but that isn’t the point.
Here are some points:
And just look what Amanda Nadelberg does at the end of her poem “North Country Concrete,” which is from her new book Bright Brave Phenomena:
What a picture this is becoming.
Shapes are difficult to speak of.
Shiny protective material. All these little
mishaps. Quiet! Quiet riot in the city.
Somehow, for me, this both demonstrates something—the “becoming”—of what I’ve been getting at here, and also exists as a summary of it, “All these little/mishaps. Quiet. Quiet riot in the city.” Makes me wanna bang my head until I can’t anymore, singing “Come on feel the noise. Girls rock your boys. We’ll get wild, wild, wild.” Be exhausted. Give up. The poems! The poems will come.