Interview: Dan Beachy-Quick on Keats, the Agonal, and the Sublime
by G.C. Waldrep on September 13th, 2012
Periodically we’ll be posting short interviews with our contributors here, for your delectation. Here’s the first, from Dan Beachy-Quick:
In your essay “The Hut of Poetry”–in your marvelous recent collection from Milkweed, Wonderful Investigation–you write “It helps, perhaps, to think of the poem not as content but as cavern,” as an invitation to entry rather than, perhaps understanding or recorded experience as such. Could you talk a little bit more about this, in terms of both poetic and ecological practice?
I suppose, over the past many years, my sense of a poem’s relation to meaning has gone through a kind of seismic upheaval. I began to distrust my furious instinct toward finding “meaning” in a poem when I began to sense my fury was the very thing forging that meaning–or was so in significant enough ways that I feared the “meaning” I came to merely reified some structure of self that needed to be shaken apart. I should say that I am one who thinks that a poem is involved in the work of meaning-making as a fundamental activity, and that is both one of the reasons I love it, and why I practice it. I also feel as if language creates in the mind an allergic reaction, so to speak, and the reach after “meaning” as such is a kind of congestion. One of the deepest works in poetry, I mean, one of the deepest works poetry offers, is to not only use language in ways that leap beyond the arrival at a so-called meaning, but is to find oneself put to use by the language one uses. In a very odd way, I’ve come to think of the poet as something akin to the Higgs-Boson particle. That is, the poet is a kind of field into which a syllable enters, a word enters, and it gains the mass it needs to become a poem on a page—a thing that is, in curious ways, the spurious phenomenon of a world itself. Much influenced by Lyn Hejinian’s essay “Strangeness,” I began to conceive of a poem’s language as a description, miraculously a map that leads into itself, into the world that it is. Meaning then is not where one arrives, but is itself the means of arrival, and where one arrives, what one enters, is the world that is a poem. In terms of poetic practice, this means the work of writing a poem is always tending to the world it forges in ways that care most deeply for it, to put in it, as Keats would have it, a “fine excess.” In terms of ecological practice, it is one that understands that if the poem is a place of dwelling, one does not get to stay in it—it is in motion, and you yourself are in motion in it, and one is cast out, as is the case with every paradise—it is most ours when we lose it. But that loss casts us back into this world that is, and it casts us into it with an eye that has been initiated into care.
You also mention, several times, your concept of “bewilderment,” a word we thought of often as we were putting together The Arcadia Project: an introjection of wild(er)ness. For you, “bewilderment” seems to be intrinsically bound up in another concept, “initiation.” But for others, it’s more closely related to what one might refer to as estrangement–the opposite of initiation. What is the link between true poetic bewilderment and initiation, and how does estrangement (in any sense of that word) fit into the equation?
I think it’s good to note that the process of initiation–in terms of archaic practices–is one of deep, earth-shattering strangeness. It bewilders the initiate into a death that reverses itself back into life, a practice that is meant to open the eyes as if newly, as if for the first time, so that what light pours into the eye is a deeply strange light, a result of estrangement. The poems I love, and the poems I would most dearly want to write, offer us recognition with a flaw, and that flaw is the first hint that the senses must suffer a bewilderment to perceive this world right, and those estranged perceptions must be the roots of these thoughts that think their way into and through this world. Part of my sense of initiatory bewilderment as a gift the poem offers, difficult as it may be, is that it forces the mind back into the body as the source of its ideational work. Then thinking grows apprehensive, and is a grasping thing. It is by finding that place where the mind is such, beginning at the point of estrangement, that a poem can be, perhaps must be, written. It just so happens, awfully and wonderfully enough, that the only way that does happen is through the writing of the poem.
And what if I add the ancient concept of “the sublime,” as a fourth concept for you to juggle— that peculiar combination of beauty and terror? How does it alter the rhythm of the whole, or does something else have to drop?
I do find there is a terror in beauty, a kind of erotic fascination the mind is helpless not to consider, not that this considering it nears it, not that it resolves it or solves it. I suppose I do seek, as devotedly as I can, that moment at which the mind is undone by the thing it discloses–that point of apprehension in every sense, where to grasp so as to understand is also to fear the thing encountered. In some ways, I don’t know if it alters the rhythm of the whole so much as I feel the rhythm of the whole alters you, me, the reader, the writer. Part of beauty’s real terror, I think, is it claims you into it, calls you into it, an erotic magnet, the “loadstone concatenation” (Keats), whose fee for entry is the loss of the definite self one had been before the experience of the poem. I think the sublime is also that sort of experience resistant to becoming mere experience, the place where the fact grows adhesive, and pulls to it all that cannot help but be attracted to its tow.
As I read your work and meditate on what are, for me, the almost unfathomable connections with the Romantics (Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley), I’m struck with what this connection produces: a sustained capacity for wonder. You address this briefly in the preface to Wonderful Investigations, but what I am wondering now: is there such a thing as an agonal wonder?
It’s funny you’d ask this now, as I just finished a short book on Keats, the main discovery of which was the degree to which wonder is agonal. I do feel very concerned with the need to maintain a capacity for wonder–really, for all the reasons spoken of above. Maybe I want to revise what I just said, not that “wonder is agonal,” but that wonder accompanies agonistic endeavor, runs parallel to it, and in the midst of agony wonder interrupts, alters difficulty into altar. This typifies Keats’s work, I think. Agony in its oldest sense becomes deeply important–the agon not only as wrestling ground, but the agon as descriptive of the process by which anything comes into being, a gathering toward existence that precedes existence, as true for us as it is for the gods, as true for the poem as it is for us. This grappling with other in agony strikes me as one way to define what the poem on the page offers—it is agony’s blank ground. What results, as with Keats, is that excessive world that is the poem, and wonder is exactly that this world has come to be, agony’s product and agony’s promise.
And where and how does Celan fit into this?
When I first read this question, I didn’t know how to answer, especially when I tried to tie it back into the ecological efforts of this anthology. Celan is for me one the central poets. I’ve never recovered from reading his work for the first time, a wound that deepens with every return. I suppose my answer is that Celan is at the very source for me of this thinking, of this worlding of the poem in wonder and agony. Celan’s belief that the poem is in search of an other who exists, one who is, as he is, stricken by the reality he strives after. It is also deeply there in his Bremen address, his link between “thinking” and “thanking.” Celan’s poems offer constant reminder that the poem is not the thing a poet is trying to accomplish. The poem itself is searching, a world in search of a person who can enter it, opening within itself the grounds for encounter, in which we can take solace in Emerson’s “It is very sad, but too late to be helped, this discovery we have made, that we exist.” Is it too much to say I think we make this discovery in the poem, and that the poem is a grounds for existence? Well, I do. Celan, I know, did—and for his thinking I am deeply thankful, and called into the responsibility to think also myself.