How do we create poetry with, for, of the unsayable? How can we recognize difficulty, pain – acknowledge and body it forth in art, creating beauty without stripping away the difficulty? We can consider the obvious problem of language’s limitations, even as poetry stammers ahead, through a kind of un-writing. Marguerite Duras explores this in her late work entitled Writing, even enacting the problem as she considers it:
The consolations of art are limited. As are we. It is supreme arrogance to imagine otherwise. We must, nonetheless, swell these limits, make them swollen to the point, even, of suffering. This is the consolation of art – messy consolation though it sounds. Simone Weil tells us, “It is an act of cowardice to seek from (or wish to give) the people we love any other consolation than that which works of art give us” (65). It is brave, then, to insist on attending acutely to that art – and the everything else it tries to get at – what is unsayable and yet worth attention. This work is the hard stuff of art.
The hard work of the mind considering its attention – its ethical demands – is poetry’s task.
What can language open when given space? Poetry invites pause, the pause of music, of introspection, of spreading sensitivity. Maggie Nelson reports, in The Art of Cruelty, that John Cage proposed this “exceedingly difficult” advice: “The most, the best, we can do, we / believe (wanting to give evidence of / love), is to get out of the way, leave / space around whomever or whatever it is” (268). What is exceedingly difficult is necessary and important.
Telling us what to think is not the same as moving the mind to think differently. Powerful art can slow and stun us. The sense of a shock is something to shake off, and yet to draw the reader into silent attention – this is the power that moves us. The mind slows.
I know when art makes me attend better to the world. How might we know the heart breaks – is it metaphor? – if the fissure was not made perceptible? How would we understand the pain of loss if we could not sense absence? There is the hollow, the what-is-not-there. This is the stuff of slowing.
We interact, react. In this both/and simultaneity of art the experience is “intraactive,” in the words of Karen Barad.
Readers interested in contemplating the value of effort of attention toward art may not need much persuasion, but it is nonetheless important to assert some principles on which the thinking is founded. I begin with some fundamentals from Iris Murdoch, which lead her to contemplation of moral concerns. “Art is not a diversion or a side-issue, it is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen. Art gives a clear sense to many ideas which seem more puzzling when we meet with them elsewhere, and it is a clue to what happens elsewhere” (85).