(–that’s a long-term goal, not a threat.)
It’s what Kurtz shouts in The Heart of Darkness.
(He shouts it to the wilderness.)
One night recently in mid-Vermont, in a forest where not even Verizon dares to go, a writer showed me one of her own awesome poems. The poem itself was a sort of thick forest: obsessive lines, recurring images, paragraphs. She said everyone in her writers’ group had hated the poem, had not known how to make sense of it.
Sense! It escapes me too.
So I, unbidden, advised her to delete the only line in her poem that did present a concrete explanation for the poem’s decisions.
If I were the President of the James Tate Poetry Discussion Club, the first rule would be: Don’t talk about James Tate’s poetry. At least, don’t ever ask what it means. A poem like “Peggy in the Twilight” (if that link works, it’s a miracle) means, and means so much to me. It’s like millefeuille. There are a thousand layers and you attempt to put it in your mouth and they all dissolve.(1)
If you google “James Tate” and “sense” (I have done this more than once), you’ll find pretty quickly this report of a panel discussion on “Clarity and Obscurity.” Towards the end, comes this explanation of what Stanley Kunitz calls moments of wilderness–”lines that don’t necessarily themselves make sense but which, when taken away, impoverish the work…”
To which the panel moderator asks, “But how do you know when it’s wilderness and when it’s bad?”
Yes, yes! How do you know when your decisions are bad? What if your own choices feel like hours of wilderness?
Sometimes I care about that question. Maybe morally I should care about that question. Certainly to respond with something like, “I please myself” (2) sounds beyond arrogant.
Or you could keep googling for answers to how to live your life, which I have done, have done, and find the brilliant Ange Mlinko’s take on the idea of impenetrable forests. She asks, “Is ‘obscurity’ the modern vehicle for enchantment that meter used to be?”
That’s what I like about certain poems. They put me in an enchanted forest.
And I cannot tell you the name or acreage of this forest, and no pins are stuck through it on any map.
I cannot see the forest for the….
Trees, trees, trees. But we go walking anyway.
When I say, dearest wilderness, that I want to wring your heart yet, I mean I want to twist it out of shape, make more wild the wild.
Perhaps that doesn’t make sense.
(1) Of course, these kinds of insights are really furthering the state of poetry criticism. Wait until I make my genius point about poetry and bread pudding. I can go no deeper than dessert.
(2) “I please myself” I swear is the caption for a cartoon in Stevie Smith’s Sketchbook, which I have only lost in a box somewhere, maybe not lost forever. Does anyone out there have that book? Is that caption in it somewhere? It feels really important to know that, for some reason.