John Estes: Artist Statement
The one and the many are one and the same
Following are a few thoughts on art, and by extension my art. There is nothing absolute here, nothing not subject to revision. I would append the same caveat to every poem I’ve written.
Art is long, life is brief. But long is not the same as eternal. Immortality is a trope to help us draw useful distinctions of value between what can last and what should not. Eternity is a good idea but, after Frost, I think earth—beneath its many clouds—is the place for love.
Stephen Dunn, in an essay from Walking Light, says that “A person scrupulous about language these days would not say ‘Have a good day.’” Although I yield to his authority in most cases (because he is right), this declaration stops me short. I must admit, I use that phrase with regularity. But just because when I say it I really mean it—I do want people to have good days (what else is there to wish upon another?)—is the language any less dead? We all understand this complaint; the distinction between poetry and throw-away language is necessary, the proto-distinction that makes a poem possible. No one intends, I hope, to write a “Have a good day” poem; even though most poems won’t survive, nevertheless a poem is an attempt, an intention, to speak words that will outlast their sounds lengthening into silence, to somehow demand that the words be remembered, re-spoken, revived.
Poetry, according to C. K. Williams, serves our best intentions but at the same time reminds us, in song no less, how feeble those intentions are. “The poem makes enormous demands: we are to be confronted with all our inattention, with how small mind we pay to what is offered us. We are to become aware of how little we have allowed experience actually to touch us, and at the same time we are to face the responsibilities implied in our awareness of that experience.” The struggle to arrest language’s entropic slide from its metaphoric origins into servile instrumentality is the labor of a poet’s job that is never done. Because the healing of the self involves a healing of language, a poem is not only a wish for the good but part of the good. And because the self is never wholly healed, the things on the list of things to do are never scratched out, these “obvious tasks” that Williams identifies as among poetry’s good intentions: “to confront, to cure or comfort, solace or succor, to change, correct, resolve, take into account, come to terms with, redeem, surmount, transfigure or transform.”
What if Americans read more poetry? We might be less deceived, might treat ourselves and others with more kindness. Except for frauds and hucksters, who we’d more easily identify, and ridicule. The holy fool would again achieve social status. Would we use less plastic? Would sex be better? Would fewer people, or more, expose themselves on the internet? Maybe our political discourse would address human beings as other than economic or id-riddled creatures. We might appreciate the id for what it offers. We certainly wouldn’t diminish the link between language and action. Perhaps we’d be less embarrassed that we are what we long for, and thus maybe we’d long for a better beautiful. But as de Tocqueville found, meager taste and ambition has always afflicted us. “If it be your intention to confer a certain elevation upon the human mind…to cultivate the arts of a nation, and to promote the love of poetry, of beauty, and of renown…you must avoid the government of democracy.” Some would qualify this incompatibility. Some would say reading levels are just fine.
In the title essay of his book Ambition and Survival, Christian Wiman describes two types of poets with two approaches to the relationship between life and art. One, like Dickinson or Auden, writes with a kind of logomaniacal obssessiveness. The other, like Hopkins or Crane, writes slowly (and re-writes) as if (in Hopkins’ phrase) in blood. Because neither is ultimately superior to the other—neither one seems to improve one’s chance of writing a poem that will endure—these examples interest him less as models of production than as models of suffering the silence between Real Poems. Does one keep “a steady skimming sort of hum” while awaiting the deeper heaves or, more painfully, does one tinker about and dwell in the absence of what one can only hope will return? If left to my devices, I am among the first group. But I am suspicious of Real Poems.
The mystery of origins is a mystery that haunts all works of art. At the scene of any poem is a wonder that asks: Where did this come from? Other art forms are no less haunted, but because their grammars are more distant from the logical basis of everyday commerce, they are more immune from debasement and dismissal. This is evermore so in an age of endless text. As the species of art whose medium—not language only but rhythmic language—traps these original energies near their sources, gives them a guise (a term, an image, a tune) and a signal-to-noise ratio, poetry renders the mysteries accessible to not just thought, and not just emotion, but to the amalgam of felt-thinking by which we actually guide and inhabit our lives.
Into the breach between Emerson’s meter-making argument and Arnold’s sweetness and light; into the gap that binds Bly’s three brains to the Duende at the soles of Lorca’s feet; into the fissure dividing Augustine’s music of the spheres from Rimbaud’s season in hell: a poem runs, or leaps, or dives. Art must, at least, dip into or accrue dust from that plutonic crevice; when there is sufficient courage, skill, and luck—a work is made.
There can be no absolutes because nothing shakes free from what it makes or what makes it; the whole of creation can be summoned with materials at hand. That’s what the whole of creation is.