Negative Magical Thinking

The most important thing I learned about poetry came from a graphic novel. In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud’s treatise on the philosophy, history, and craft of sequential art, McCloud discusses the idea of closure: “Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.”

Closure occurs in poetry as well, in the white space between words, lines, and stanzas, even, I would argue, ideas. Anything can be made to connect—start with a Buddhist parable about the moon, then throw in Jonah and the whale, no problem—so it’s perhaps more artful to tease the connectors as far apart as possible without losing an intended meaning between them. McCloud calls this the poetry of comics, but it’s also the poetry of poetry: enjambment, image rhyme, and metaphor.

With closure we see the instinctive understanding of implicit connection, but everyone knows that poetry is often about remaining in uncertainty. In her essay, “On Fear,” from Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle complicates this notion: “If negative capability works at all, it works in reverse, a kind of negative negative capability—which would make it positive—where very real anxiety and irritability over mystery and doubt enable the poet—no, propel him—into the world of the eye, the pure perceptual habit that checks all cognitive drives, not before they’ve begun but after they’ve begun, and done their damage.” Ruefle promotes the attempt to understand that tapers off, the moment when suffering continues, but the poet “ceases to try to understand.”

I find it more dynamic to start from negation. In my poems we have the man I know nothing else about, the story God tells I’m not listening to, the scream the groom doesn’t remember, the wrong I didn’t do. From these negatives we work towards and through uncertainties, but the negative remains. As J. Kastely says, we begin in disagreement. And as Kenneth Burke has said, the imaginative act begins not from yes, but no. When a fiction writer has her character think to himself, “I’m not a murderer,” the reader starts to wonder when he’s going to kill someone. Even when a poem asserts its last image with finality, the first ambiguities hang underneath, as in a palimpsest (a couple good examples in recent movies: “Take This Waltz” and “Drive,” both of which start in frustration, end ambiguously, and are available on Netflix, and you should watch them after reading the rest of this fine literary magazine).

As a poet I try to be “receptive,” and mostly that means being aware of the world saying no. I write about nature because I grew up in an ugly suburb. I write about religion because it seems always just out of my grasp. I don’t trust people who are certain about their uncertainties. Even now the connections between me and the things I don’t understand continue to grow.  end