The Thinking Already Open in the Work
Amy Wright: Will you describe a panorama of your current writing space?
Dan Beachy-Quick: As of the moment, it’s very different than usual. I’m in Lewisburg, PA, teaching for a week at Bucknell University, and so alternate between a table in the kitchen at the “poet’s cottage” where the light pours in yellow and bright, and sitting out on the porch, watching a wasp land over and again on a broom propped in the corner. More typically, I write in my office at home, in the basement, where I can look up through a window and see a bit of verdure. If by “space” you mean something more internal, something like mind, well, I somehow find Alcibiades in there knocking the nose and genitalia off the statues of Hermes, the forehead and the groin being where a lover greets by touch his beloved, and thinking, too, how the head bends down toward the book cradled in the lap. Thinking, too, about the nature of being prolific—of how an essay might move from Thoreau’s sitting in his home at Walden claiming he wants a room large enough to speak so that silence can be heard, and thinking of Pound, so sadly writing: “But to have done instead of not doing this is not vanity.”
AW: You say in your essay, “Meditations in the Hut” that reading is “a form of experience....happening simultaneously in the author’s mind and the reader’s mind with only the thin printed page as a conduit between.” The interview adds an element to that channel, if one considers both the interviewer and interviewee to be authors as well as readers. Ideally, how might that dynamic contribute to the exchange of energy, information, beauty, and wisdom?
DBQ: Most fundamentally, I suppose, it founds a co-created space, and makes available to others something that is usually denied them—this access to a thinking as it occurs in the moment of reaction that real dialogue requires. It seems to offer, ideally, a profound kind of trespass, an overhearing, in which the actual importance of two people talking together exists not in the conversation itself, but rather in the intimacy only trespass allows, a glance, a glimpse, a listening in that feels worthy exactly because it doesn’t initially belong to you at all. As for the two doing the interview together, it keeps active and in the air what could otherwise be static, it adds a conversation to a reading, and refuses the page as the lone thinker’s solitary refuge, but forcing the page to speak back into the world as still-forming rather than an already-formed thing.
AW: Your answer conjures the “pulse” of thought you mention in your essay “Of His Hand,” on the poet John Keats. In it you describe how his speaking voice in “To Autumn” is nearly absent compared to the other odes—enabling Keats to vanish into the poem and move past “the self’s mere limit.” Will you describe perhaps one of your attempts to confront or illuminate or transcend the self in your work?
DBQ: In some sense, I think of this work as the very work of writing, seldom found in any single work, but evident in the sum of the whole, in the daily practice of trying to do this absurd thing—of facing the blank page, and trying to find a way to let something necessary happen on it. Allen Grossman’s thinking has been very helpful to me in this way. He has a sense of the poet’s voice as “daemonized,” as doubled. One was I’ve come to hope transcendence occurs in writing is that the self, the personal, the ego, is not exactly a limit to our experience, but a threshold through which poetic experience must travel. I’d hate—truly hate—to claim a poetry whose cost is the denial of the life I’m living, of my family, of the people I love, of what it is even to say “I.” But just as bad, compounding that particular error, is a poetry that assumes subjectivity can be dropped carelessly, without damaging the life that in writing is seeking a continually renewing lesson on what it is to see, to think, to feel, to touch. It is an irony, almost of classical agony, that the only means for transcending the self is the self.
AW: As both a poet and essayist, you might have an interesting take on the sentence as a particular unit of meaning. How do you define it or conceive of its function?
DBQ: At some level, I think of the sentence’s relation to the paragraph (or the larger unit) as not dissimilar to how a line relates to a poem. It is its own unit of meaning, an essay in itself, not beholden in any way to the larger meaning of which, at the same time, it cannot help but be part. But, strange as it is to say, the sentence feels mimetic in a different way than does a line of poetry—perhaps working almost in reverse. I feel fascinated, maybe obsessed by, the relation of a poem to perception, a kind of encouragement there to reverse the mode of our thinking, and to let reason feel its insufficiency in such a way that the mind must turn back to the nerves to learn how to think again. I love the flaw poetry forces into our happiness. A sentence feels to me to use beauty in a slightly different way. It mimics the syntax of the mind’s own logic, and the disruption it offers occurs without our even noticing it. I love in prose the ability to set forth a sequence of thoughts, ideas linked to subsequent ideas, but that what builds as the whole consideration destabilizes the conclusion one thought one was going toward. A sentence has a remarkable way of using thought to reach beauty, and teased away so, we find ourselves, we who love language so dearly, in that anxious realm where realization and doubt feel simultaneous.
AW: I love your phrase “the flaw poetry forces into our happiness,” the way I do many of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s phrases—by rolling it like a grit of sand in my brain, coating it with smooth arguments. Will you elaborate on how you see poetry forcing this flaw in a way the sentence doesn’t?
DBQ: I fear my explanation might seem a bit . . . well, a bit something: obtuse, overmuch, willfully abstract . . . I hope not, anyway. First, the source of that phrase comes from Keats: “It is a flaw / In happiness to see beyond our bourn . . .” What I like most in your phrasing of the question is the way in which you imply a kind of necessary irritant in the work that leads toward beauty not as ornament, but as necessity. As of the oyster, so of the mind, that nacres with beauty that thought that threatens its very working. In terms of poetry versus prose, well—the question is very pressing for me. I might say that poetry has upon it a formal obligation that doesn’t belong to prose—at least, not nearly in the same way. The base of that formal obligation is that a poem must, as Charles Olson says, discover its own limits. I’ve come to think of Leibniz suggesting that all imperfection comes from our own limitations as a kind of poetic edict. A poem is generous to us, because like us, it must learn to think through the experience of itself in order to discover those flaws that mark it as existent, and only through such flaw, do we get to another idea from Liebniz: “There are some disorders in the parts which wonderfully enhance the beauty of the whole, just as certain dissonances, appropriately used, render harmony more beautiful.” I guess I believe that there is no clever way to create real flaw; it is a work that demands one put away notions of “experimental” and “traditional” as opposed points so that the poem can do the work it alone can do. Such also requires some transcendence of self, the “mere limit of self,” for to confuse one’s own limits with the limits of the poem is to make an egregious and egotistic mistake.
AW: A fascinating process, which to my mind replicates the transcendence of the self by the self, in the sense that by discovering its limits, the self recognizes itself as outside them. At some point, you might have made that confusion between the poem and the poet’s limits, since you can see past the error. Certainly it can be hard for a poet—as arbiter of historical and contemporary standards of beauty, whose ear imposes free and restrained verse measures—to dispossess himself of his or her creation. Can you describe how you developed that crucial distance?
DBQ: In some ways, I suspect it’s simply an outcome of the way writing has taught me to think about it—this sense, somewhat ironic, that the poem one writes is one’s only teacher, and part of the need to write, to be at work as much as one can possibly be at work, is that there is no other way to learn one’s lessons. The poet knows she must make her own teacher, and then move past the sense that as its writer she is also above or beyond what the made-thing is. Part of poetry’s devotion, it feels to me, is to learn to apprentice oneself to—to be humble in front of—the made-thing. Certain notions of authority turn paradoxical: the poet seems, in some strange way, an accident of the poem . . . the derivative reality by which the poem must come into being, a kind of formative fate to which we too easily ascribe causality in a common-sense way. One deeply powerful way to read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is in exactly this light—the agonized light between maker and made-thing. This answer goes a long way around to say something perhaps quite simple. I feel tutored by poetry into varying kinds of distances. I don’t find this a psychological work so much as phenomenological one—what is the condition one finds oneself in when one writes a poem? What is it to write a poem? To be a poet? Each poem is its own experiment in that very question. None of it is clearer to me, save perhaps, a new clarity of the problem’s complexity. It brings me to Emerson’s sentence, for long now a kind of mantra to me, and one that is tied to nature of the distance one finds in oneself like a poetic necessity: “The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment.”
AW: In Wonderful Investigations, you say, “Poetry is an audacious experiment in form, with form as the means of experiment.” What other bold experiments have you undertaken in or on the world?
DBQ: I hope it doesn’t sound too trite to say, but the most audacious experiment in my life must to others seem like the most typical; namely, being married, having children, holding myself—as one must learn to—to the riddling place in which intimacy and wonder and love must co-exist with the mundane fact of each day’s repetition. Poetry itself seems to me like a guide toward such experience, lesson in learning over and again what it is to desire necessarily rather than capriciously, guidebook to commitment’s labyrinth, and that art that shows us what seems most plain masks truer bewilderments. Strange to say, but the very fact of others—others who are not us but even so are all the more ourselves—provide our dearest aporia.
AW: That’s a nobly ambitious experiment in staying fully and collaboratively alive. You also speak of the effect of poetry and learning to read poetry in your essay “The Hut of Poetry” in terms of bewilderment, which reminds me of Fanny Howe’s essay of the same name. Howe conjures it in terms of a Muslim prayer, “Lord, increase my bewilderment,” implying it has or meets a condition of holiness. How does bewilderment relate to wonder, you think?
DBQ: Fanny Howe’s essay you mention has for many years meant much to me. But so has the idea of bewilderment as carried to us from Socratic philosophy. Bewilderment, as Socrates so often showed, is constant in the human condition, that world that seems both within the self and without it, mindless as bewilderment is of such easy boundaries as inner and outer, subject and object, and once those reasonable maxims by which we explain the world to ourselves (and so think we have some control in it or of it) vanish, then we fall back down into our resourceless lot. Like Bunyan’s dreaming figure in the proem before Pilgrim’s Progress, each of looks down at some book in our hands and laments: “What shall I do?” But Socrates conjures from such bewildered despair a reorientation back towards—if not truth exactly—the world, the realization of the world, and so the self in it. The moment of that realization strikes me as wonder, as perhaps wonder takes the linguistic form most simple in its predicate: the is that is. Sadly, it seems no such realization holds, and is decays quickly into was, and so wonder has its half-life, one that poetry works to delay, to protract, to extend—to capture in itself that wonder that in our experience must flee. And so we come to another wonder: that the poem’s life is not exactly the same form of life as our own.
AW: Let’s talk about your editing process. Do you time yourself between drafts—forcing yourself to wait two weeks before deleting something forever, or do you maintain a holding tank of drafts and unfinished work?
DBQ: No, none of these at all. I try not to write until I have some feeling that there’s no longer any choice but to write. Then I begin. I always think of Faulkner’s story in Go Down, Moses, when Sam Fathers tells the young boy learning to hunt that he must pull the trigger “quick and slow.” It’s always felt like good writing advice to me; or if not advice, an apt description. I write quickly and slowly, and I do at the same time. That means that over the days, weeks, months I’m at work on any given thing—be it poem or essay—I read back through all I’ve written, make what changes seem necessary, but mostly just to re-enter the thinking already open in the work, and then trust, as one might trust to fate, that the next word is already there. I keep no drafts of anything, and so much has been lost, though I like to think what has been lost prefers it that way. So, no drafts, though I do have some works half-finished, or some form of less than complete repair. I just keep hoping I’ll find a way to return.
AW: I love the world-within-the-world quality of the four tales that conclude Wonderful Investigations, in which a forest can be inside a house or a sky behind the eyes. What was your process for writing them? Did it differ from the essays and meditations included in the same volume?
DBQ: I suppose the tales felt to me a mid-point between the work of poetry and the work of essays, the usually excluded middle, taking part in both but belonging to neither. I wanted the tales to offer what tales always have, a kind of picture of the way wonder harms and illuminates our lives over the course of our lives, and so the four tales move from the young child, to adolescent, to young adult, to maturity, and in each subsequent tale, the presence of wonder becomes harder to discern, more troubling, more difficult. I like to think the essays in the book follow a thought—a line of thinking—much like one’s eye finds a way to read a cubist painting, through some shadow-line, some chiaroscuro. The tales work differently, as I suppose they must, though I didn’t realize it until I began to write them. The tales allow symbols to unfold the full complexity of their own lives, and once I realized I could put away my notions (very intimidating notions for a poet) of narrative, and saw that the symbols the tales contained had within them their own trajectory, then the tales seemed in some sense, in all their strangeness, to write themselves.
AW: You distinguish “meditations” from “essays” in the subtitle to this prose collection. How do you distinguish these forms as well as the term “meditating” from ruminating, cogitating, or chanting a mantra in the hopes of transcending suffering in this life?
DBQ: Most basically, the meditations allow a much greater degree of unexamined space within them than do the essays. They don’t need to take measure—to assay—in the same way, but act more as mediation, an interstice, between the moment of thinking and all those implications that might follow. The meditation has little need to follow through on the course of its own logic, and is content to hint and do no more, to feel the brunt without coming to the consequences of that feeling. I don’t know if the words are cognate at all, but I am taken with the overlap between mediate and meditate, which is what makes it differ from the other forms above, and explains too why they occupy the middle ground between the long essays and the tales in Wonderful Investigations. The meditation feels like a place open only so other thoughts, perceptions, ideas, senses, can move through it, across it, gaining what little it can from being delayed in such a way that the mind can grab on to some vestige of it all. A meditation—like those deep chambers in which neutrinos are “photographed”—lets us see something that given its own nature would be unseeable, and shows us what seems non-existent does exist, and even nothing has its mass.