Negative CapabilityThe Power of What is Not by paulj


									    Negative Capability: The Power of What is Not
     The theatre, and ultimately most written               Poet Fran Quinn, with whom I study, put it to
  literature in the West, emerged out of the Greek       me this way: “If you want to be a poet, first you
  festivals of Dionysus, the god of wine and ec-         must get yourself really lost.”
  stasy. Plays came into existence because of the           To this I replied, “Well, I’m on track. I’m lost all
  need for entertainment at these festivals. That is,    right. No question there.”
  the Greeks needed something else to do while              “Great!” he responded. “Some people can’t get
  drinking and having orgies. So plays were writ-        that far. You are where you need to be to learn
  ten, theatres built, and Dionysus came to be           how to see and hear and feel anew. Now you just
  associated with creative                                                        have to learn how to be
  inspiration. After all, wine                                                    comfortable living in that
  is spirit of a sort.                                                            place.”
     When Dionysus is                                                                This handout gives you
  sculpted in human form,                                                         some ideas about what
  his face typically looks                                                        some other writers have
  mask-like. This is also the                                                     said about this subject
  origin of the Druidic                                                           and, on the back, shares
  “green man” we see                                                              an example of a poem
  depicted in garden orna-                                                        written with this idea of
  ments. The idea is that                                                         emptiness, or negative
  behind the eyes of                                                              capability, in mind. Good
  Dionysus is blackness,                                                          luck on your journey to
  darkness, emptiness. The                                                        nowhere. May emptiness
  Mysteries of Dionysus, a                                                        find you!
  religion active at the time
  of Christ, taught that it is                                                    American Poet Mary
  only when you are truly                                                         Oliver in A Poetry Hand-
  empty do you receive                                                            book: A Prose Guide to
  direction. So the way to                                                        Understanding and
  spirit is through falling                                                       Writing Poetry(New York:
  into instinct and the                                                           Harcourt, 1994): Negative
  emptiness that follows.                                                           capability is not a contempo-
  And when you are truly empty, something new            rary concept, but a phrase originating with Keats. His
  can come in.                                           idea was, simply but momentously, that the poet
     This emptiness is similar to what people strive     should be a kind of negative force--that only by
  to reach in various forms of meditation, but as an     remaining himself negative, or in some way empty, is
                                                         the poet able to fill himself with an understanding of,
  end in itself, because it is restful, rather than so
                                                         or sympathy for, or empathy with, the subject of his
  something new can come in. The idea in                 poem. Here is a passage (from a letter to his brother)
  Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) Buddhism is that            in which he discusses it:
  nothing has a self, a soul or an essence. You can         “ struck me, what quality went to form a Man of
  read this two ways: either as if no thing has a        Achievement especially in Literature & which
  self, soul or essence, or, as if nothing-ness has a    Shakespeare possessed do enormously--I mean Negative
  dimension of identity of its own, just like “some-     Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in
  thing-ness.” I had a dream once that played on         uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable
  this idea. An inner voice said to me in a combina-     reaching after fact & reason—...Coleridge, for instance,
  tion of Italian (which I have never studied) and       would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught
                                                         from the Pentralium of mystery, from being incapable
  English, “Coppa di guare, god of nothing.” Coppa
                                                         of remaining content with half knowledge. This
  di guare translates “cup of healing, cure or           pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no
  recovery.”                                             further than this, that with a great poet the sense of
  Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather        and sit behind the driver.
  obliterates all consideration.”                              We talk about the weather
      Keats elsewhere writes of “taking part” in the life of
  the sparrow pecking crumbs at his window. “A Poet is
                                                               and not enough exercise.
  the most unpoetical of any thing in existence,” he says      I don’t mention Victor Jara’s mutilated hands
  in still another letter, “because he has no Identity—he      or men next door
  is continually in for—and filling some other Body—...”       in exile
  Neither was Keats bothered by the categories of              or my own family’s grief over the lost child.
  animate and inanimate: his friend Richard Woodhouse
  records that Keats claimed he could “conceive of a           When I get off the bus
  billiard Ball that it may have a sense of delight from its
  own roundeness, smoothness & very volubility & the
                                                               I look back at the light in the windows
  rapidity of its motion.”                                     and the heads bent
      Now, as then, the concept of negative capability         and how the women are all alone
  goes to the heart of the matter—the “mere” diction of        in each seat
  the poem, in any age, is the vehicle that holds, then        framed in the windows
  transfers from the page to the reader an absolutely
  essential quality of real feeling. Poetry cannot happen
                                                               and the men are coming home,
  without it; and no one has talked about it more              then I see them walking on the Avenue,
  usefully and marvelously than Keats; his commentary is       the beautiful feet,
  as up-to-date as a sunrise.                                  the perfect legs
                                                               even with their spider veins,
  Former U. S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass: “All                 the broken knees
  interesting works of art come very close to saying
  almost the opposite of what they say. To be real, it has
                                                               with pins in them,
  to have a sense of darkness.”                                the thighs with their cravings,
                                                               the pelvis
  Persian poet Rumi, in The Book of Love: Let the              and small back
  lean and wounded be revived in your garden. The              with its soft down,
  ground’s generosity takes in our compost and grows           the shoulders which bend forward
  beauty. Try to be more like the ground....Real value
                                                               and forward and forward
  comes with madness.”
                                                               to protect the heart from pain.

  Workday         by Linda Hogan

  I go to work
  though there are those who were missing today
  from their homes.
  I ride the bus
  and I do not think of children without food
  or how my sisters are chained to prison beds.

  I go to the university
  and out for lunch
  and listen to the higher-ups
  tell me all they have read
  about Indians
  and how to analyze this poem.
  They know us
  better than we know ourselves.

  I ride the bus home

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