A Poetics of Failure: On the Truths That Lie Between Words
D.S. Waldman Considers the Unbridgeable Gap Between Poetry and Any Single Poem
In every poem, there is a ghost. The page’s emptiness between words. White space where what’s said falls short of what, at the most essential level, needed be said.
For every image, a negative. A lit room gone dark. Against it, the outline of a face, its vague features.
If you ask my father about Hanukkah ’59—his tenth—if you ask him about growing up Jewish in Louisville, he won’t tell you about the headlights, sudden, through white curtains. The swastika, scratched white into a red brick. The red brick, sudden, through the dining room window—or the December wind, how it made the thin white curtains dance.
Lamb with the garden mint, he’d say. Dreideling for chocolate coins.
Close your eyes. You might see, spreading against the black backs of your eyelids, flared little patterns of light called phosphenes. Squeeze your eyes tighter-shut: maybe the light gets brighter. Now relax: watch the shapes fade. Some would say, the inherent electrical charges the retina produces while at rest. Others, an experience of light in the total absence of light.
I’d like to say something about my brother. When I try, though—Lord how I try—it always comes back to the silence I spoke into, the phone held to his ear while I spoke my last words to him. The phone held to his ear in some far away ICU. The silence he spoke back to me.
An empty chair at the breakfast table.
My primary aesthetic principle, I once told a therapist, is absence. He was an old Jewish man, my therapist, Fienberg his name. He told me that though I will never replace or resurrect my brother, I might meet new brothers—Welcome them into your life, he said.
Highlight the line. Press delete. Begin typing—different words, this time.
My primary aesthetic principle, I told another therapist—another Jewish man (Reimer), though this one a Buddhist convert—is resurrection.
Highlight the line. Press delete. Now, from memory, retype the old words.
Have you ever tried, he asked, still and soft-eyed like a tired cat, sitting in the emptiness?
Open a new document. Watch the cursor, its small pulse. See the heart monitor at your brother’s bedside. Imagine you’d been there. See, too, the white curtains, 1959, watch the glass drag and ravel, tessellate and soothe itself. See the window—a clean backdrop for the white curtains, their stillness.
For years after my brother died, folks gave me books of poems by Whitman and William Blake, prose by Mary Oliver and Terry Tempest Williams—all well–meaning, of course, and with the presumable intention of providing, through literary companionship, some sort of way forward—to loosely quote Oliver, “standing within the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books (can) redignify the worst-stung heart.” And though I felt the love in these gifts, these words, they ultimately felt inauthentic in the context of my own experience. I wasn’t ready to enumerate my feelings or the wildlife, nor was I willing to find solace in the shade of an octogenarian live oak. I needed to wallow—to sit a long time in the dank apartment my brother left behind, rummage through his things, leave notes he’ll never read in his nightstand drawer.
I am not, as a reader or writer, especially interested in poems whose intention is to heal or transcend, to provide in either the personal or collective spheres some new and radical vision for the future. Though I acknowledge these as potentialities, I find that one’s faithfulness to the act of writing—as opposed to any preconceived intentions or agendas for the written work—tends to yield something more authentic and, as such, powerful.
By entering into the piece without intention, by listening rather than willing the poem towards a specific end, I find the words eventually arranging themselves as they were meant to be. Look, for example, at the poetry of Walt Whitman, at these lines from “Song of the Exposition”: “Thou Union holding all, fusing, absorbing, / tolerating all, thee, ever thee, I sing.” I’m less interested, here, in the words themselves, which feel too grand to me, maybe contrived, than I am in how his lines—famously long, unenjambed, trying always to “hold all”—enact the inclusiveness he sought as a poetic correlative to the new, idealized American political project.I am not, as a reader or writer, especially interested in poems whose intention is to heal or transcend, to provide in either the personal or collective spheres some new and radical vision for the future.
It’s his writing into the moment that I admire, his faithfulness to the instinct, how he allows his voice, his unique moment in the country’s history, to push the line beyond the material constraints of the page, of historical antecedent. And I admire that, despite having little to no material effect on our nation’s bloodiest war or its outcome, the poem was nonetheless written. I keep Whitman—and this sense of writing into the futile, the irrevocable—close by these days as my first full-length manuscript of poems, dealing largely with brother-loss and the ultimate impotence of language—winds itself to a close.
The poem, to me, is what poet-critic Ben Lerner calls “a record of failure.” Next to its urgency and potential to reach beyond the violence and banality of the human condition—towards the divine, the transcendent—is its definitional impossibility. We poets feel the itch to make a poem and sense, within this impulse, all of the poem’s abstract potential—the felt impact, say, of a poem on its reader, the profundity of its images—but this potential, these potentialities, are necessarily compromised when brought into the world of language and representation.
There’s an unbridgeable gap, in other words, between Poetry—the infinite potential one senses when inspired to write—and any actual poem. And while some might see this as a reason to abandon the poem—Dreideling for chocolate coins—to bridge the gap between life and Poetry by abolishing any and all attempts at poetic actualization—Lamb with the garden mint—I find it comforting. Inspiring.
A ghost is everything you don’t see in the room, but which you’re sure, nonetheless, is in the room, frittering, taking up air.
For every image, a negative.
In my poems, I try to leave room for the ghost of Poetry, the phosphenes, to leave empty the chair at the breakfast table, let the absence say everything I cannot, can never. My poems are failures, and with each one I strive to fail more successfully.
What I mean to say is that, confronted with the inevitable shortcomings of language—the poem’s certain failure to live up to the potential therein—choosing nonetheless to write and make poems is no less profound than opting, in the face of the human and environmental crises that dominate the contemporary news cycle, to go on living. In this respect the poem, though a record of failure in relation to Poetry, is by fact of its existence an act of defiance—something of a vital impetus.
Lerner, who in his book-length essay The Hatred of Poetry writes extensively about the “bitter logic” of poetry (a term handed down to him by Allen Grossman), about Poetry as a word for a value or potential no particular poem can realize, writes also about the poem as a necessary function of being human. “The bitterness of poetic logic,“ he writes, “is particularly astringent because we were taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human. Our ability to write poems is therefore in some sense the measure of our humanity.” The lived human experience is littered with, perhaps defined by, failure—what happens to our loved ones, ultimately? to us?
Poems are what I do in the the wake of failure. In the face of the unexplained and unanswerable. My brother’s apartment, occupied now by strangers, a single mother and child. The star of David my father does not wear, but keeps in his sock drawer, behind his father’s cigar cutter.
And this is what many of my favorite poets and poems do. Gregory Orr’s “A Moment,” for example: how one moment you’re standing / shoulder to shoulder, / the next you’re alone in a field. For both Orr’s masterful subtlety and the way the poem deals with a brother’s death, “A Moment” is and will always be a touchstone for me. Natasha Trethewey’s “Incident,” a poem I’ve written about extensively, is another, a poem that uses form and subtlety, quiet images and a distant tone, to sculpt a chilling recollection of one of our country’s most evil acts of hatred and violence.
Conversations about poems and the crafting of poems might not, in any quantifiable sense, make the world a better place. Poems themselves might not necessarily transcend the quotidian or offer hope to a reader toiling in everyday life—though I do count this among the poem’s myriad potentialities. But it is my firm belief that poems and conversations about poems can lend a novel texture to the everyday, a dimensionality that allows life to be touched and handled, repurposed to serve, eventually, the awe and beauty that successful poems sometimes conjure.
It is a way of life for me—making and talking about poems. A way of coping. And my manuscript, Less the Window Than the Day, is ultimately a record of this coping—a record, like any of its component poems, of failure.