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Fanny Howe, a poet…

… has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

UD would like to take as our text of the day some remarks Howe made ten years ago about poetry and bewilderment. Your University Diarist will weave them into Palimpsest, Gore Vidal’s memoir, which I found in my Key West house. And into other things.

As always, UD‘s comments appear parenthetically, in blue.

Howe titles her essay Bewilderment.


‘What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. [Bewilderment doesn’t just inspire poems; it’s a way of being, a form of consciousness, every single day.]

Bewilderment as a poetics and an ethics. [If the condition of bewilderment is intrinsic to us, then our art must mark and convey it; but our morality too should evolve ways of thinking about good and bad bewilderment.]

I have learned about this state of mind from the characters in my fiction–women and children, and even the occasional man, who rushed backwards and forwards within an irreconcilable set of imperatives.

What sent them running was a double bind established in childhood, or a sudden confrontation with evil in the world–that is, in themselves–when they were older, yet unprepared. This is necessity at its worst.

These characters remained as uncertain in the end as they were in the beginning, though both author and reader could place them within a pattern of causalities. [There’s a necessity to our being the particular way each of us is, a necessity established long before we were aware of it. Our lives are a rushing back and forth between the necessity of this self and the attempt to exercise the freedom to be more than, or other than, this self. Although we always remain caught in this back and forth, and in the bewilderment that underlies it, we can understand this pattern itself, and the personal reasons for it.]

Within the book they were unable to handle the complexities of the world, or the shock of making a difference. In fact, to make a difference was to be inherently compromised. And for me the shape and form of their stories changed in response to the perplexities of their situations. [To step outside the authentic, private, bewildered self and attempt to change the public world in some way is to compromise, to falsely simplify, one’s complex inner truths, as well as the complexity of the world. Yet one wants that public engagement as much as one wants a sense of inner authenticity.]

Increasingly my stories joined my poems in their methods of sequencing and counting. I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?

There is a Muslim prayer that says, “Lord, increase my bewilderment,” and this prayer is also mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of “I” in my poems–and under multiple names in my fiction–where error, errancy and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story. [Ted Hughes writes this: “Almost all art is an attempt by someone unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi… in other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session. [Poetry is] nothing more than a facility… for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction… [T]he physical body, so to speak, of poetry is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.“]

A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden. This contradiction can drive the “I” in the lyrical poem into a series of techniques that are the reverse of the usual narrative movements around courage, discipline, conquest, and fame.

Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude find their usual place in the dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe enough to lie down in mystery. These qualities are not the stuff of stories of initiation and success. [Rilke in poetry, Proust in prose, but so many others — they lie down in mystery and convey in language the dream world from which we sometimes struggle to wake toward a certain form of comprehension. Think too of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and his artist’s ethos: silence, exile, and cunning.]

But it is to that model that I return as a writer involved in the problem of sequencing events and thoughts–because in the roundness of dreaming there is an acknowledgement of the beauty of plot, but a greater consciousness of randomness and uncertainty as the basic stock in which it is brewed. [“The urge to comprehend is so deep. … It would make little sense to live a life if you didn’t understand what you had done,” writes John Montague. Yet Howe reminds us that the accomplishment of a sense of one’s plot is a messy, fugitive affair. It’s certainly never linear, but can in the hands of the poet take on a roundness, a circular always-returning — rather than a neurotic, destructive back and forth rushing in a horrible double-bind. ]

There is literally no way to express actions occurring simultaneously.

If I, for instance, want to tell you that a man I loved, who died, said he loved me on a curbstone in the snow, but this occurred in time after he died, and before he died, and will occur again in the future, I can’t say it grammatically. [Our deepest emotional moments represent a complex, atemporal in-gathering of many moments. How to reconcile this reality with the narrative imperatives of written art? Writing about Joyce’s method in Ulysses, Hugh Kenner says this: ” Of what use, a Descartes might ask, is the senses’ sharp vividness, when minds may entertain clear ideas? And Joyce will let Stephen answer: Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past. The now, the here, are where I am. Reality is immediate experience, and in a book is the immediate experience of language, streaming through what Finnegans Wake will call ‘the eye of a noodle.’ … There are things [in this novel] we shall never know, and we think it meaningful to say we shall never know them, quite as though they were entities on the plane of the potentially knowable, forgetting that nothing exists between these covers after all but marks on paper … Joyce’s aesthetic of delay, producing the simplest facts by parallax, one element now, one later, and leaving large orders of fact to be assembled late or another time or never, in solving the problem of novels that go flat after we know ‘how it comes out’ also provides what fiction has never before really provided, an experience comparable to that of experiencing the haphazardly evidential quality of life; and, moreover, what art is supposed to offer that life can not, a permanence to be revisited at will but not exhausted.”]

You would think I was talking about a ghost, or a hallucination, or a dream, when in fact, I was trying to convey the experience of a certain event as scattered, and non-sequential.
I can keep UN-saying what I said, and amending it, but I can’t escape the given logic of the original proposition, the sentence which insists on tenses and words like “later” and “before”. [This is where Vidal’s palimpsest comes in. You see palimpsest literalized in the erasure-canvases of the great painter Cy Twombly. This is work which, again, does not express the uncomprehending, neurotic entrapment of back-and-forthing, but rather conveys both the temporal logic of a given proposition, the immovability of human facts, and our ability to play with that givenness, to half-create and half-perceive our own patterns. Here’s Vidal, at the end of his memoir: “I’ve… been reading through this memoir, adding, subtracting, writing over half-erased texts, ‘palimpsesting’ – all the while looking for clues not so much to me, the subject, if indeed I am the subject, as to what [my] first thirty-nine years were all about… [on] the small planet that each of us so briefly visits.” Recognizing that his patterns are all about an imperishable youthful love for a classmate killed at Iwo Jima, Vidal concludes his book in this way: “Finally, I seem to have written, for the first and last time, not the ghost story that I feared, but a love story, as circular in shape as desire (and its pursuit), ending with us whole at last in the shade of a copper beech.” Vidal will be buried near his lover.]

Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.

It cracks open the dialectic and sees myriads all at once.

The old debate over beauty–between absolute and relative–is ruined by this experience of being completely lost by choice! Between God and No-God, between Way Out Far and Way Inside–while they are vacillating wildly, there is no fixed position.

Bewilderment circumambulates, believing that at the center of errant or circular movement, is the axis of reality.

… Q–the Quidam, the unknown one–or I, is turning in a circle and keeps passing herself on her way around, her former self, her later self, and the trace of this passage is marked by a rhyme, a coded message for “I have been here before, I will return”.

The same sound splays the sound-waves into a polyvalence, a daisy. A bloom is not a parade. [A parade is sequence. Public sequence at that. We are talking here of a private aesthetic blossoming whose page may or may not find a small audience.]

A big error comes when you believe that a form, name or position in which the subject is viewed is the only way that the subject can be viewed. That is called “binding” and it leads directly to painful contradiction and clashes.

No monolithic answers that are not soon disproved are allowed into a bewildered poetry or life.

… In so many senses making these spiral, or serial poems, is very close to dream-construction, where we collect pieces of […] emotionally charged moments and see how they interact, outside of the usual story-like narrative.

But this is not a plan or an experiment. It is simply the way my poems come into existence and carry something out of my stories that is having a problem taking form there.

This is, I think, my experience of non-sequential, but intensely connected, time-periods and the way they impact on each other, but lead nowhere.

This is what gives them their spiraling effect within the serial form.

And ultimately I see the whole body of work as existing all but untitled and without beginning or end, an explosion of parts, the quotidian smeared.

In the meantime each little stanza expresses my infatuation with the sentence; and each stanza is a sentence where the parts and phrases are packed and shaped to bring out the best in them.

Like the disassociated stanzas in poems by Ibn Arabi, or Hafiz, I see my poems as being composed of queer sentences with lots of space, a dreamlike narrative, and a hidden meaning, so to speak, in that it is hidden from me. [I read this with Eve Sedgwick‘s death in the background, and the whole thing sounds like an elegy for her.]

The actual theological meaning of the word “salvation” is meaning.

To seek salvation is to seek a sense of meaning to the world, one’s life.

And so somehow the business of bringing these poems to light is part of a salvific urge.

Not gnostic–in the sense of seeing humanity as cast down, unwanted, unloved, duped, expelled, tested and misunderstood–and not fearing that only a few are chosen to be loved by God or history–I am a victim of constantly shifting positions, with every one of those positions stunned by bewilderment–is it here, is it here, is it there?–and by the desire to shuck the awful attributes of my own personality. To toss the dreck.

The illuminati used flagellation, levitation and starvation as a method of accounting for the power of the invisible world over their lives. Public suffering and scars gave the evidence of hidden miseries which had begun to require daylight.

The poet uses words to do the same. From the lashes of whip and ink the secrets become common, rather than signs of individual genius.

After all, the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.’


Margaret Soltan, April 15, 2009 12:21PM
Posted in: poem

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