Poetry, Madness, Justice: Where and What and Who

Kafka's "Three Runners"

Kafka's "Three Runners"

As this is my first post as one of Soliloquies Anthology's Web Editors not mediated by the need to promote our fervent desire for your writing, I thought that I would dedicate it, broadly, to celebrating, firstly, our access to sites of communication and communion like the internet and literature, and secondly, more specifically, briefly raise a question about how these spaces should be occupied, shared, or criticized. To this end, Mary Ruefle’s juxtaposition of insects and humans in Madness, Rack, and Honey should help us reflect on the problems our communities and literatures may face. Perhaps a third point should be made about my trouble with run-on sentences, but I'll leave that to y'all and just thank you for reading.

Last winter was my first winter in Montreal and, despite its mildness, it bore a new kind of darkness that I had to cope with. A now very close friend lent me Mary Ruefle's book of essays to aid me in this. Then, this individual could not claim to know me all too intimately, but obviously recognized some place inside me that this book belonged in. And I can confirm that not only does this book belong inside of me but in anyone with any kind of faith in language and awe for the ways it allows human beings to express themselves. There are too many (and not enough) things that I could say about this book, but as I wanted to talk about how spaces, both virtual and actual, should be filled with poetry, prose, criticism—anything human—I will limit myself to talking about only two of Ruefle's essays. The first is titled "Why All Our Literary Pursuits Are Useless", and proves itself with exemplary brevity:

Eighty-five percent of all existing species are beetles and various forms of insects.

English is spoken by only 5 percent of the world's population.

Before reflecting too quickly on these facts I want to present the essay that directly follows this one and which represents beautifully how Ruefle uses a kind of dialectic to reconcile lightness and darkness throughout her book. It is titled "Why There May Be Hope", and is as follows:

One of the greatest stories ever written is the story of a man who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle.

Our efforts as writers may be futile, but within that futility there is a potential for greatness that can never be anticipated, and maybe never completely explained. The second essay refers to “The Metamorphosis” and puts forth the idea that although the human project of literature may be dwarfed by the presence and indifference of insect life, that absurd relationship may yield profound revelations about our nature and experience on Earth. Ruefle's book is full of wisdom and advice, both anecdotal and scholarly, that helps one endure not only long winters but calls attention to the ways in which one can express oneself holistically: balancing creativity with sincerity and ambition and responsibility. Responsibility is what I want to talk about next.

I also wanted to talk about Ben Lerner (because who can resist him, seriously), but not without good reason. Lerner is a poet with degrees in creative writing and political theory, and whether you've read just his poetry or prose it is impossible to ignore his awareness (and maybe exploitation) of not just the political but the social, economical, and industrial aspects of academia and literature. In The Lichtenburg Figures he "invite[s] [us] to think creatively about politics" while confessing that "we must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires ... / and enter the Academy single file." Lerner is not the only poet to occupy such a fraught position--one that is simultaneously critical of the institutions that he benefits from--but he is an excellent contemporary example, and useful for trying to assess what the value of such a person is. Furthermore, in both of Lerner’s novels, his narrators (who are admittedly ciphers and fragmentations of the author) both suffer from different kinds of illnesses. In 10:04 it may be a heart condition or it may be hypochondria, and in Leaving the Atocha Station anxiety and substance abuse are the afflictions. I bring up madness, not only to relate to one of Ruefle’s foundational poetic tenets, but because it is useful for thinking about responsibility and justice.

Justice is, or should be, the force that guides our conduct. At the beginning of The Republic, it is madness that first complicates how one person should treat another and poetry that is dangerous if misused. This is incredibly resonant for me, and relevant to the conversation about responsibility within communities--literary or otherwise. Whether one's madness or illness be hereditary, post-traumatic, chronic, or spontaneous, it is hard to see the world through the same lens if you are suffering. And when you suffer you can justify almost anything—right? How do we then hold ourselves accountable in the spaces we share, in what we create, while still honouring ourselves and fulfilling our needs?

I am thinking about justice because it is impossible not to do so when trying to answer the question I initially raised: how do we occupy and share--critically--spaces online or offline, how do we justify what we do? When I ask myself about my creative impulses, I am with more and more regularity also asking myself how I can go about reconciling them with what I consider to be obligations to serve, support, and make space for people in my community. If we want to model our communities how we would like to model the world, these questions assume a lot of importance. So what the heck do we do with our egos if our egos inevitably cause others harm? What does illness permit, what does power demand? When does subjectivity reach its logical end, and how do we know if that end is justifiably amplification or silence? I think these are questions that both Ruefle and Lerner try to answer in their own very different yet equally beautifully complicated ways.

At this point I can't help but return to insects. Not just because of my love for Kafka, or Ruefle's essays, or the idea that we move about the hallways of our academies like ants move about their homes (both wonders of different varieties), or because we will likely actually return to them in the sense that they will survive us and once again become the dominant species on Earth—I return to insects because I can't help but see a striking resemblance between us. Put yourself in outer space for a moment, if you can, and look at Earth. Try to see, simultaneously, all the humans. Now try to see just the poets. What are they doing, how many of them are moving? Observe how even at this level, at a substratum of species-being, we never stop moving, doing, making. Ah! – making – that word that we poets, by our nature, practice, discipline, vocation, helplessness, submission, obsession, responsibility, cannot escape. Where would we go? What does it mean? Who are we living for? What do we owe each other?

I don't think that this image resolves the problem, and I don't think that I know any better now, than I did when I sat down to start writing this, what I am supposed to do when I wake up tomorrow. Do you?

-- Charles Gonsalves