“The General, Big-Bearded Arrogance of Certainty.” And Then There’s Poetry.

uack underwood

As a subscriber to Poetry, I admit to enjoying the essays in the back section as much as or, some months, more than the poetry up front. I’m still safe at the plate, however, as the essays are about poetry.

The May issue features Poetry‘s well-advised fourth installment of exchanges with England’s estimable Poetry Review. I enjoyed one essay in particular—Jack Underwood’s “On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects.”

Though an essay, Underwood’s is an ode to poetry’s protean knack for escaping. Escaping what, you ask? Lots of things. Predictions. Definitions. Sometimes even meaning.

In poetry, Underwood writes, “You not only have to acknowledge the innate inaccuracy of language as a system that cannot catch or hold onto anything securely, but also that it’s precisely this characteristic of inaccuracy that a poetic, empathetic transactions rests on.

When it comes to writing and publishing poems, Underwood warns, “you deliberately build you poem as an open habitation; you have to learn to leave holes in the walls, because you won’t and can’t be around later on to clear up any ambiguities when the lakes of your readers’ lives come flooding up through the floor.

(Editor’s Note: Underwood assumes that your poems will, in fact, have readers.)

What resonated with me most in this essay is its admission that our poems can slip away even from us, the supposedly confidant author / poets:

If a poem works it’s because you’ve made it such that other people might participate in making it meaningful, and this participation will always rest on another person’s understanding of the poem and its relationship to a world that is not your own. Your own understanding of the poem will evolve over time too, as you reread it in light of your changing world, just as you will find the world altered in light of the poem you wrote to understand a small uncertain corner of it.  With poems, you never get to settle on a final meaning for your work, just as you never get to feel settled, finally, as yourself. So it seems entirely natural to me that poets, exploring and nudging such unstable material, foregrounding connotation and metaphor, and constantly dredging up the gunk of unconscious activity over which they have no control, might start to doubt the confidence, finality, and the general big-bearded Victorian arrogance of certainty as it seems to appear in other forms of language: mathematical, religious, political, legal, or financial.

Doubtful? You need only dig up some of your own published work, whether they be poems in poetry journals or poems in your own books. Trust me when I say, some of your poems will wink at you, stick their tongues out at you, and even turn their backs on you.

Willful children, I think they used to be called. You did your best, and now they go out unto the world to be interpreted as they will by the many, many people they will cross paths with.

Vaya con Dios, I tell them. Godspeed and may you reflect kindly on your creator.

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