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A Skeptic’s Faith

The Kenyon Review Credos

“Not believing has a sickness which is believing a little.”
      —Antonio Porchia (trans. W.S. Merwin)

My family joins the family down the street for dinner about every Fourth of July. We have known them for a quarter century, and we make a point of preserving this local ritual yoked to the national ritual: grilling dinner, dancing on the lawn, setting off smuggled fireworks on our neighbors’ neighbor’s potato farm. This last transgression we put off till late in the evening—the result, I think, of our practiced appreciation for suspense; we always know where the evening is headed but not exactly how it will get there. Continuity is part of the charm, and the slight aberrations from year to year supply the thrill.

I believe poetry—lyric poetry, at least—behaves similarly. The source of its power still lies in continuity and variation, in pattern and deviance from pattern, in convention and transgression. Which explains, to a degree, why old poems retain the amp to knock us sideways, and new poems absorb the strategies of old.

During these July Fourth dinners someone invariably asks me to recite a poem. Last year I got through half of Emily Dickinson’s “I like a look of Agony” before my host cut me short.

“Not that,” she said, “I don’t want to hear that.”

She was visibly provoked, vexed even, and avoided talking to me for the rest of the night. So this is what having the top of your head taken off looks like, I thought. And then: the poem has done its job if its job is to unsettle.

Dickinson may have written, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind,” but I suspect she took pleasure in the knowledge that the truths packed into her poems did put people’s eyes out. Loaded Guns, Ampler Zeroes: her metaphors are anything but gradual. They have merciless heft. So I should have known that reciting Dickinson’s poem, even 150 years on, would be like lunging at my host’s eye with a fork. But propriety—through evasion—also blinds.

Good poems aim for hard truths (Dickinson likes a look of Agony, after all, because she knows it’s true), and truth incites a measure of discomfort. You want to get close but not too close.

Many poets have compared the truth-element of poems to fire.

Vasko Popa: “Once upon a time there was a triangle / It had three sides / The fourth it kept hidden / In its burning center.”

Henri Cole: “A poem must burn with a truth-seeking flame and be a little symphony of language, too.”

Burning centers and truth-seeking flames once struck me as melodramatic, but I’ve since grown to realize that skepticism needs faith as much as faith needs skepticism. That a poem is built around a destructive force, like a blue flame (restraint) containing a red core (abandon), is a notion I trust. Poetic truthiness doesn’t equal objective reality; poetry reassembles reality to trigger physical sensations—pleasure or pain—via sonic felicity, imaginative play, or, as in Dickinson’s poem, violent distortion.

While putting into words the beliefs behind one’s words may look like transparency, talk of transparency has become a smokescreen. Credos always hazard prescriptiveness, defensiveness, restriction. I empathize with poets who took a stand by leaving little but their art behind: Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, the Italian-born Argentine poet Antonio Porchia. My writing life has largely been, like theirs, a private affair, although not as intensely private as theirs, given the conferences, creative writing programs, readings, tumblr accounts, etc., of the contemporary scene.

My own ambition when writing is to keep my balance. Where one line runs on high octane, the following line, I hope, idles in simplicity. Description begets abstraction. The next line revises the last.

Everything, even our estimation of other writers, is subject to revision. One day you’re hooked on Stevens’s “downward to darkness, on extended wing,” and the next day, reading a poet like Louise Glück, say, Stevens looks fussy and overelaborate. Too long a stretch of Dickinson can feel like Chinese water torture. I’m aware that being of two minds, that hedging, can suck the energy out of a conversation, yet straddling feels natural. I know there must be risk, yet in some circles the biggest risk is to write a limerick. I don’t believe, yet I believe a little.

Straddling, revision—they’re not the same as disjunction. Circular and accumulative structures satisfy me more than overt surprise. I don’t like being pulled out of a poem. Like Bishop, I’m a believer in total immersion. When you dip your hand in you should feel what the poet would feel:

your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.

Will Schutt is a poet and translator from New York. His work has appeared in A Public Space, FIELD, Harvard Review, Linebreak, and Southern Review, among other journals. He is also the recipient of awards and residencies from the Academy of American Poets, the James Merrill House, Oberlin College, and the Stadler Center for Poetry.