by Jason M. Wirth
David Pollard writes from the end of the world.
These idle thoughts can stopper up the silence
and can instil themselves into that little space
among the cavities of thought
(avoid the thought of that, always of that);
can force out light against its better knowing
back like a brake that crows its own defeat
How strange and wondrous it is to write and think from the end of the world!
David Pollard’s writing eschews what Heidegger, following a tradition that included Kierkegaard, called ‘idle talk [Gerede].’ We generally live in denial of our mortality and our chatter acts as a prophylactic against ‘the silence that can instil itself into that little space / among the cavities of thought.’ Although the negative space into which silence instils itself is small – so small that chatter and indolent thinking can quickly and persistently fill it – it is powerful enough to arrest the obviousness of the march of time and the light drenched expanse of visibility. ‘Down the long flux of introspection / Heraclitus’ river makes its way / to the long waters’ severance of the land / and each of us the severance of ourselves.’
Finis-terre, the end of the world, does not just mark definitive conclusions. The silence of death does not just hush the idle chatter of everyday living and render shadowy the world as we think we know it. It is the time and space of re-emerging liminality: ends that make way for new beginnings and beginnings that are destined to end. The silence and invisibility at the heart of this liminality, however, remains a secret that always keeps it secret, a darkness at the ground of light, a stillness at the origin that still permeates what comes to be seen and heard.
As the author spends much of his time in Galicia, North-West Spain, and has sailed past the Costa de la Muerte, he is also familiar with Finisterre (Fisterra in the Gallego), which is named after the end of the known world as it juts out as a peninsula into the endless wastes of the Atlantic ocean. On a rough winter evening it is a good metaphor for the topos at the end of life, the point at which nothing more can be done but also for its reverse, the chiasmos of mortality that is the defining moment for the artist and his creativity, for the poetic language and all the spirits that hover round it is at one with facing up to death.
After his watershed work on the English poet John Keats (1795-1821), The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience, and a beautiful novel of sorts – somewhere between the poetic and the critical voice – on the misbegotten legacy of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s Footfalls, David Pollard has been writing conspicuously and unapologetically thoughtful poetry – as if thought as such were at stake in the poetic word. His poetry resonates with other ‘philosophical poets’ like Keats, Blake, Hölderlin, Celan, Jabès, Mallarmé, and the American poet George Oppen, as well as ‘critics’ and ‘readers’ like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Blanchot. It is resolutely a poetry of thought.
What does it mean to think as a practice of reading as well as critical-poetic writing in the work of David Pollard? In what manner is his work philosophical, even if that manner emerges at the edge of what we have been habituated to consider as virtuously philosophical? If Pollard’s work is in some manner philosophical, in what manner does it preserve the gap between philosophical and poetic production? That is, if, as he says in study of Keats following Heidegger, ‘the nearness of poetry and poetical thinking’ – works of poetic thinking themselves and philosophical-critical attention to them – ‘must be respected, not bridged’ (PK, 136), what is the manner of thinking that attends to this proximity that in its proximity also exposes a concurrent but heretofore recalcitrant fissure?
It is certainly not to confuse poetry with a manner of doing philosophy by other means. Poetry seeks to do what only poetry can do, and philosophical criticism of poetry must seek to become like the Cheshire cat, slowly disappearing so that the experience of the poetic can more forcefully come to the core. Just as the word medicine cures no one, criticism seeks to move beyond a description of the imagination to a thinking of the imagination that allows the imagination to create as a condition of our introspection of it.
Keats realized that the movement of the imagination cannot be directed in advance. We must let go of ourselves – what Keats called ‘Self-annihilation’ (PK, 83-84) – and let the imagination give birth to the world and us anew. ‘The poet’s renunciation is not a renunciation of the word but a renunciation of himself to the word; that is to say, an annihilation of identity in favour of the word, a letting the word withhold itself, for ‘that which is creative must create itself’’ (PK, 60).
Pollard and Keats, each in their own way, also discover what Zen practice has called the Great Death, that is, the awakening to a mode of attentiveness that breaks through the unrelenting projects of a subject that does not become a question to itself. The cracking of the shell of subjectivity as a fixed, permanent, and ultimate point of reference, is what the Kyoto School philosopher Nishitani Keiji cherished, following the great Hakuin and others, as the cultivation of the Great Doubt and the Great Death. Not to be confused with the Cartesian Doubt, which doubts everything but itself (the most dubitable and pernicious delusion of all), the Great Doubt occasions the Great Death, which is not the termination of our mortal coils, but the death of the self as a fixed point of reference. ‘It is like the bean whose seed and shell break apart as it ripens: the shell is the tiny ego, and the seed the infinity of the Great Doubt that encompasses the whole world. It is the moment in which the self is at the same time the nothingness of self.’ And hence Zen pronounces: ‘In the Great Death heaven and earth become new.’
We do not just write a poem in the way that we set out to change a tyre. We have to journey to the end of the world, the word, and ourselves (‘each of us the severance of ourselves’). Writing poetry is not therefore, strictly speaking, something to accomplish because some of the self-certainties that render intelligible what it is that we are seeking to accomplish also obscure the event of the coming into word. Poetry is not the concentrated effort of inventing poetic applications of philosophical positions. It requires that one not only go to the edge of oneself, but also that one go to the edge of language, to the liminal space that holds together the silence at the ground of the spoken word and the coming into language of the word. Hence Keats wrote to Bailey that the poet awakes and finds the reveries of the imagination to be truth, ‘whether it existed before or not’ and hence ‘what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth’ (PK, 77). One can still detect Keats’ edgy sensibility in contemporary poets like Gary Snyder:
How Poetry Comes to Me
It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light.3
Poetry is therefore the opposite of chatter, which seeks to submerge our mortality in the reign of the trivial. In reading Pollard we experience how respect for mortality is a clue to what makes for good art and criticism. His poetry, especially Risk of Skin, employs the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. This respect also permeates Pollard’s complex poetic saying of what makes the poetic word poetic in his startling and powerful new poetic cycle. Finis-terre which everywhere evokes both the liminality of the ‘end of the world’ – a complex border where ends are beginnings and beginnings are ends. For example:
Thus does the poet write
not with the pen
but with mortality between his fingertips,
prey to the doubts that skin commands
at each long draft of breath;
and thus against the dead of nothing doing
can he place with terrible care each word
And to cite another powerful example:
And so the poet, lacking the music to do other
but gently close his eyes and kiss the void,
knowing the skin is eggshell to his bones’
owned whiteness, weeps
and his lament, wordless,
always at the edge of the wide waters’ flaying,
catches the tang of harshness and its peril
and cannot turn,
– for blindness is the secret here –
and cannot turn
to see what he has done
and left undone
but in that failure answers
into the silence here
– and always ever here –
among the broken rocks
and breaking seas at finis-terre.
Although, resisting Orpheus’s temptation to turn and take possession of Eurydice, ‘blindness is the secret here,’ it would be unjust to demote such a gesture to quietism. It is, rather, the aspiration to embrace and cherish the full spectrum of experience, not the humiliated remnants proffered by our prevailing politics of chatter. In the Mahāyāna tradition, emptiness, śūnyatā, is compassion (karuṇā). For Keats this was the cultivation of what he memorably dubbed Negative Capability, which is ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’ (PK, 32). The poetic is neither deductive nor inductive. It is not a poetic embellishment of what are more straightforwardly facts or positions or arguments. The poetic does what only the poetic can do – it is not philosophy or criticism or politics by other means. In a poetic imagination of a letter from Woodhouse to the impoverished painter Hayden, Pollard writes:
He knows the trivium
of magic, silence and the veil
that sing across the study that he makes them
around the music of his gaps and lapses,
for as we know, the night even the darkest gales
has moons and afterglows and lightnings
that haunt its magic margins
and condemn it to be seen.4 (RS, 68)
In the Medieval University, the trivium was the lower third of the seven liberal arts. The three roads, logic, rhetoric, and grammar, are the mechanics of truth production and their proper conjunction – all three operating in harmony – is the capacity to utter the truth. Keats operates not from the mechanics of truth production and virtuous philosophy, but rather from the trivium of Negative Capability (magic, silence, and the veil). Correct statements do not issue from their conjunction but rather lightning strikes that expose the dark field of the sky and words that expose the vast elemental field of silence. As Pollard forcefully expresses it in Finis-terre:
Midnight, almost lightless, has its colours also,
all the furnishings of each eye’s
myriad prisms held back into the deep
and shadows speaking and denying
words and all their worlds and other truths
we can be freed from, turn from,
come to us upon that sharp rivet of silence.
Thus the enormous act of immobility enshrouds us
othered, chamfered out of being,
which is the miracle that words can help perform.
If philosophy or criticism approaches the poetic by arbitrarily applying some self-serving paradigm, it absorbs it into itself by assimilating it into an ideology. Nor does the poetic give itself to be translated into supposedly objectively true utterances and propositions. This supposes that the poetic is a stealth form of such statements and that the point of reading is to return it to its original philosophical premises. To be attentive to the text, to ‘preserve’ it as Pollard articulates it in his Keats text, philosophy must renounce its virtue. It approaches the text in the terms that creation demanded of the poet: the renunciation of the self and its virtues. ‘What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet,’ Keats wrote to Woodhouse (PK, 32, 47). Reading and creating reciprocally demand negative capability but at the heart of this capacity is an awakening to what is mysterious, even monstrous, at the heart of sense. Poetic thought is to risk one’s skin and to embrace the risk of skin itself.
To approach with due attentiveness the work of David Pollard is not to attempt to explain it or even to comment on each poem, as if breadth of commentary somehow magically became depth of commentary. It is rather to hold onto some of his precious words as an attempt, however modest, to find ways into what makes the experience of his work so rewarding. In holding onto these words, the aim of criticism is, as it always is in Pollard’s own criticism, ‘to make themselves superfluous, to renounce themselves in favour of the text which set them on their way’ (PK, xi). To do so is to join David Pollard at the end of the world; ‘kiss and fail that is all there is / of our inheritance / and less / on this escarpment / here at finis-terre’.
Jason M. Wirth
Seattle University (Seattle, Washington, USA)
- The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984). Henceforth PK.
- Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, trans. Jan van Bragt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 21.
- Gary Snyder, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 361.
- Risk of Skin (Hove, East Sussex: Waterloo Press, 2011), 68.