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A passage from James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry, the opening to a chapter entitled “Untidy Activity”:
“What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it,” said Elizabeth Bishop, “is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” This sentence makes the hard work of art seem simultaneously rare and available to everyone. It suggests that the making of works of art is a way of being alive. Uselessness has been a distinguishing feature of a work of art since Kant, but anyone who dreams or falls in love has known the feeling Bishop identifies: a freedom to forget ourselves so that we might discover we are different from ourselves.
And a passage from the first chapter:
Poets fear wisdom. This is why great poems threaten to feel beside the point precisely when we want them to reflect our importance: language returns our attention not to confirm what we know but to suggest that we might be different from ourselves. We have only to write the next poem to discover its inadequacy. To employ figurative language is to hear its implications slip away from us. To write in lines is to feel their control of intonation and stress beginning to waver. To discover one’s true wildness is to feel the ghost of Callimachus bearing down. Still, these mechanisms of self-resistance are a gift, for without them we could not feel the wonder of poetry more than once. Nor could we rediscover out pleasure in the unintelligibility of the world. Imagine forgetting from second to second what we are for. Imagine a sense of vocation contingent on our need to remain unknown to ourselves. Rather than asking to be justified, poems ask us to exist.
For some reason that last passage haunts me and moves me, and makes me think of one’s entire life-process. You could replace the task of writing poetry with parenting, or tube-sock knitting, for example, and the beauty of his point still holds true. (“Parents fear wisdom. This is why great parents threaten to feel, beside the point….”)
By the way, James Longenbach was a professor of mine, many moons ago. He was a total badass. Still is. To wit: a recent poem in the New Yorker.