De Profundis (what are you willing to do?)

"Watchmen," Seattle, 2010

"Watchmen," Seattle, 2010

Well you’re in your little room,
and you’re workin’ on something good;
but if it’s really good,
you’re gonna need a bigger room.

And when you’re in your bigger room,
you might not know what to do;
you might have to think of how you got started
sittin’ in your little room.
— Jack White

How do you know if you are capable of what you feel — really feel — like doing? I can hear someone saying: "Some people just know." And what that means to me, in this moment, is that people find ways to be at home in the uncertain terrain of any endeavor. There is no guarantee that anything you do will succeed. What is success? Fruition? Export? Completion? What is completion? When is something done? Is "done" even possible? What is possible? We're back at the beginning.

The question I should be asking is: How do you feel? We practice casual answers: "Fine," "well," "terrible," "super" — all casual. Because how one feels is an impossible mystery — impossible in the sense that feeling things is inevitable and inevitably inexplicable. Or, when expressed, the feeling has shifted, takes a new form, and so departs from the original experience, like growing up. They call this "suffering" and, as regards the art of poetry, I've heard it called "hopeless." And instead of trying to prove otherwise, I'd like to share a portion of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis:

And, though at present my friends may find it a hard thing to believe, it is true none the less, that for them living in freedom and idleness and comfort it is more easy to learn the lessons of humility than it is for me, who begin the day by going down on my knees and washing the floor of my cell. For prison life with its endless privations and restrictions makes one rebellious. The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart—hearts are made to be broken—but that it turns one’s heart to stone. One sometimes feels that it is only with a front of brass and a lip of scorn that one can get through the day at all. And he who is in a state of rebellion cannot receive grace, to use the phrase of which the Church is so fond—so rightly fond, I dare say—for in life as in art the mood of rebellion closes up the channels of the soul, and shuts out the airs of heaven. Yet I must learn these lessons here, if I am to learn them anywhere, and must be filled with joy if my feet are on the right road and my face set towards ‘the gate which is called beautiful,’ though I may fall many times in the mire and often in the mist go astray.

All of which leads me to a certain hazardous and wholehearted recapitulation of the wonderful responses I received to the question of "What is memorable about contemporary poetry?" It seems we remember pain and pleasure alike; we remember names and numbers; we remember dilemmas and decisions; we remember loves and failures; we remember our lives and the lives of others; we remember the outrageous and the mundane...

Perhaps the most striking thing about the responses I received (as a whole) is what they suggest is "contemporary," namely... everything. Which, if you ask me, revolutionizes the question of poetry's relevance and the relevance of poets in today's world. If all poetry is contemporary — if it is largely a mistake to distinguish between the old and the new, if the distinction between historical periods is, for poetry at least, a delusional blunder encouraged by hierarchical schematics and intellectual vanity — then we are talking about an immanent and transcendent medium. Mystics throughout the ages would, of course, wonder what's taken us so long to reach this understanding, given the abundance of scripture (poetry) that deals more or less explicitly with this reality, be it the Gospel of John (and Thomas, and Jesus's teachings before them, and Francis of Assisi's teachings after), the poetry of Rumi, Teresa (of Avila), Gibran, Roethke, Hildegard (of Bingen), et cetera, et cetera.

(There are those who would see the sprawling temporal nature of the survey's results as proof that contemporary poetry — work written/spoken by the living — is in fact not memorable, because more often than not respondents came up with lines by poets who've passed, and so conclude that contemporary poetry is basically dead or at the very least disappointing. Well, fine, but I might mention, in defense of the devil, that it can take the heart a long time to absorb a particular and important message, sometimes longer than a single lifetime. And, because this is the end of a hypothetical paragraph, I would rest my case.)

In response to a veiled question about the sustainability of contemporary poetry, people shared evidence of time travel. I can say with a tremendous sense of solidarity and assurance that people will always remember the way certain things occur in language, and if it becomes useless to say or even produce "poetry," so be it — the refrain, the chorus, the incantation, the invocation, the embodiment, the practice, the ritual, the performance will be present in and among us forever.

Here's some evidence, graciously offered by anonymous contributors:

For the poet,
the poem
is not
the measure
of his love, it is
the measure
of all he's lost,
or never seen,
or what has no life
unless he gives it life
with words.

— Diane Wakoski

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

— Robert Frost

I hear it in the deep heart's core

—William Butler Yeats

the intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work

— William Butler Yeats

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?
(Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic Orders?)

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Ah grasshoppers,
death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
something more equal to the centuries
than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.

— Robinson Jeffers

Word over all, beautiful as the sky;
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost.

—Walt Whitman

Hitchhiked a thousand
Miles and brought
You wine

— Jack Kerouac

Slivers of rain upon the pane
Jade green with sunlight, melt and flow
Upward again, they leave no stain
Of storm or strain an hour ago.

— Hart Crane

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

— Robert Frost

I say to my body: you carcass

— Anna Swir

This above all: to thine own self be true

— William Shakespeare

Mark the first page of the book with a red marker. For, in the beginning, the wound is invisible.

— Edmond Jabés

One note from one bird
Is better than a thousand words

— Emily Dickinson

For we are language lost
in language.

— Susan Howe

Yours on the carousel of days (with a goldfish in my heart),

⎯ Joe