Crisis of the Poetic “Now”
Now when I turn on the radio to hear the news, I too often turn it off, unable to bear what it is I’m hearing, unable to bear my children listening. I don’t think of the silence then as a denial or a refuge—I think of it as mourning, and I think of it as attention.
I’m never wholly sure what dimension it is a poem actually exists in, a strange thing to say, I know. I only know that Achilles is, that man of wrath, still weeping by the sea. Even now, he’s weeping. I only know blind mad Lear is raging in the storm. Maybe it is that both these men come to mind now because of their own profound injustices, their pride and wrath in all their force revisited upon them who once wielded it, broken by the force with which they broke others.
But it is also some sense that poetry’s now stays open, or is on delay, in a way my now is not. Sometimes I think there is no now. It’s ahead of me or behind me but I’m never exactly in it; it’s never now in a way I can access. But in a poem, one of its great graces, is the now stays still long enough to return to it, to live there in now a little while, and to learn what lessons there might be learned. To enter that now of poetry is an agony—I mean, an agon, a wrestling-circle, a threshing-ground, shape that holds itself open for fundamental forms of collision, grappling out of which something else arrives that can arrive in no other way: world, light, love, the old gods themselves. Perhaps it is that to write a poem, or to read a poem, makes of oneself one such participant, and who or what it is you find yourself in agonized toil with, I cannot wholly say. Sometimes, I fear, I’ve come out of the poem pinning myself, so to speak, to the ground.
My sense of what poetry offers us now cannot be unraveled from what I feel a poem has always offered us. Simone Weil gets at it, writing about her sense of desire’s nature: “We have to go down to the root of our desires in order to tear the energy from its object. That is where the desires are true in so far as they are energy. It is the object which is unreal. But there is an unspeakable wrench in the soul at the separation of a desire from its object.”1 I think she gets closer to it when she writes, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” 2
To write directly about the profound injustice and violence being perpetrated against those who suffer so irrevocably the harm, honors those lives, searches them out in their utmost reality, hurts with their hurt, fuses outrage and sorrow together to counter somehow the entrenched causes of all that pain, and yet—.
And yet I know that writing a poem will not alter the now done deed of the fact of it all—.
And yet I fear that writing a poem about the harm—of war, of refugee, of sexual violence, of school-shooting—won’t stop the next atrocity from happening.
In Weil’s understanding of desire—that we fail when our desire is met by the immediacy of the object it has sought, that we must instead learn to desire so desire itself remains desiring, desirous so that desire becomes not a force of acquiring, but instead, a force of seeking—I begin to feel a hope in what poetry can offer us now. I can imagine the poem as a training ground for desire; I teach it just so. I can feel that poetry trues our desire past the easy successes of getting whatever it is we want, and instead, ushers us into desire as a means of attention always seeking out the genuine reality of the world and those that live in it. Here, desire ends not in possession, but in being possessed—caught by the attentive gravity that holds us to all that is as real to us as we are to ourselves, that physics, or phusis, of love.
Then it is Achilles might put away his wrath and end his weeping—. If it only it could be so—.
Then Lear might open clear his eyes and see—. If only it could be so—.
And for us, I want to believe, I need to believe, such long effort in poetry’s now might stop any given hand from the harm it might harness, might teach us that imagination guides us to what’s real rather than away from it, and that desire doesn’t seek to satisfy love, but to further it.
If only it could be so—.
1. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 1947).
DAN BEACHY-QUICK is the author, most recently, of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems, Of Silence and Song (Milkweed, 2017).