Mary Oliver in A Poetry Handbook introduces the reader to a vital aspect of craft, Negative Capability. The Poetry Foundation describes Negative Capability as ‘a theory of John Keats, who suggested in one of his famous letters that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated. The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact.’
Negative Capability may also be described as ‘the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems’. Keats posits that the ‘poetical character . . . has no self – it is everything and nothing – it has no character and enjoys light and shade, it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.’ ‘What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon Poet . . . a Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence because he has no identity, he is continually filling some other body.’ The website Keats’ Kingdom goes on to compare this to the definition of a state of conflict: ‘an emotional state characterized by indecision, restlessness, uncertainty and tension resulting from incompatible inner needs or drives of comparable intensity.’ Here we see that doubt can lead to pregnant possibility, to creativity. Keats felt this emptiness is a positive state of being, one that allows the poet to access empathy, sympathy and understanding of the other (whether person, object, or place).
Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Keats was not the only poet to notice or participate in this state of being. Byron indicated he embodied himself ‘with the character’ while he was drawing it. Browning imaginatively inhabited other beings. T.S. Elliot summed up the process as ‘the progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ Therefore, according to Keats and other poets, the writer will exist in a paradoxical state, at once retaining some sense of perception, skill, and personal memory while conveying the interior life of another: this tightrope must be walked for the other to remain ‘other’ lest it become the self or a projection of the ‘self’. The poet effaces her own voice while maintaining her artistry to accomplish this feat.
The Mad Yak by Gregory Corso
I am watching them churn the last milk they’ll ever get from me.
They are waiting for me to die;
They want to make buttons out of my bones.
Where are my sisters and brothers?
That tall monk there, loading my uncle, he has a new cap.
And that idiot student of his–
I never saw that muffler before.
Poor uncle, he lets them load him.
How sad he is, how tired!
I wonder what they’ll do with his bones.
And that beautiful tail!
How many shoelaces will they make of that!
My name is Anna Elizabeth Graham and I’m your host today for Meeting the Bar: Critique and Craft. I am asking you to experience what Coleridge called, ‘a sort of transfusion and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the object’. Along these lines you may write a persona poem, an ode to an object, about the concept of negative capability or demonstrate it in other ways. Use another’s language, world view, turn of phrase, or style. And in the words of Mary Oliver, ‘I would rather see an ambitious though rough poem than a careful and tame poem’ so be brave and take some risks today.
Divine Game by Anna Elizabeth Graham
For Sainkho Namtchylak and Claudia Schoenfeld
at the junction of Cyberia’s culture
two notes/one sound
imitating nature’s call
Tuvan Khöömei youth
encounters Soviet Union
classical music education
creating a Lamaist jazz mantra:
I am the shaman of my life
rumbling spirit timbre emotes
through a seven octave range
the space of meaning and feelings
beat drives the insistent vocalizations
like wind echoing in Artic skies
forming the transformative art
of an intoned sense
groaning, guttural sound
grandmother city dweller
revisits the tundra of childhood
‘tender bird of timelessness
touches me with her wing’
intuiting secret sounds
that would not be taught
‘hidden chords of thought’
woman on the outside
even when looking within
bodhisattva cries as
‘my sleeping pulse awakens,
trembles in front of my eyes’
how can I keep from singing
resonating frequencies that pierce
illusory aspects of the self?
‘artificial addendum of the human voice’
making sense in this divine game
‘aural quintessence of the spiritual world’
giving voice to the sacred fire
developing the capacity to imagine
fullness arises from emptiness as
‘absolute harmony is born into silence’
*All quotes are Sainkho Namtchylak’s; Cyberia is the name of one of her albums
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