|Tina Modotti, "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the May Day Parade, Mexico City, 1st May 1929"|
Years ago I read a couple of lines of poetry by L.S. Asekoff which has lingered in my working mind, like tones of a darkly resonant bell: "Avoid what tempts,/ move toward what threatens."
As poetics go, it's a word to the wise: You are often fooled by what you think you know best. Resist such certainties in order to go deeper, to get to the heart of the truth.
Implicit in the notion of resistance is that the best—the pièce de résistance, so to speak—is yet to come. We must avoid the temptation of completion; our poems are ever only in their latest draft. There is always another room in that dream.
Temptation is an idea old as the hills, or at least the Garden of Eden with its serpent-woman conundrum. Humankind was perfect until tempted with that shiny sweet-looking apple in Eve's Venusian palm. Succumbing to the desire for immediate reward, we did the one thing we weren't supposed to do—taste of the tree of knowledge—and got ourselves evicted from Paradise. Original sin is the failure to resist. (And the temptation, patriarchs, comes from within.)
But what of poetic resistance? What aesthetic temptations do we indulge at our peril? I am at my creative worst when indulging in short cuts, old tropes and redundancies—easy solutions which usually wreck me offshore of the sublime. There's a rote voice in my ear, ticking off in iambic pentameter, dictating the old soundtrack by which I write the same poem every time—damn! How did I get back on that same old singsong bangagong Muzak track? I've become Swinburne, swimming naked in tidy couplets; Keats without the urning, pocket Ginsburg howls without untidy burning.
Mailer once said you should never fall in love with your own writing, because when that happens it means you're writing crap. But how are we to resist the very lamp leading us through the labyrinth? That's quite a rub. In his poem "Man Carrying Thing," Wallace Stevens tells us that the poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully." That "almost" is the qualifier: we are writing, right? We are chained to medium and imuse. Resist too much and you're blocked, silent, dead, turning to the TV or the daily Sudoku. And however much you try, resist, revise, remake, remodel, you never know if your work is any good. Ever.
Resistance is a way of not going too easily or heedlessly into one's Voice. There's a sequence: first the apple of temptation with its immediate satisfying result, and then there's the greater thing which comes of refusal, patience, waiting, and cultivation. Then finding what's behind the found and the known. The secret country, the hidden paradise we can't see, can't sing, because our next sentences are too chained to their first.
Jack Gilbert lived and wrote this way, refusing the easy career for one largely of isolation and near-poverty, getting close and closer to the insides of his words. He published a book a decade in his 40 year career, taking all the time in the world to get to the truth. This, from Gilbert's poem "Tear It Down":
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars...
Can resistance become a habit, a way of chasing words almost successfully? Rilke wrote in one of his Letters to a Young Poet: "...If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience." To Rilke, the very face of beauty can only be revealed in the shadow of its alternate, the one turned toward death. How else are we to fully appreciate the rose window, the blushed secretive smile, the angel singing above the grave? In his late masterwork series "Sonnets to Orpheus" and "Duino Elegies," affirmation and triumph are found down a long road of resistance.
But here's the rub: Such an astringent is not readily or headily applied. Ever. I am constantly fooled by softer, easier ways of resistance—suburban approximations of Eden at best. The result is neither hallowed or harrowing. You can liken it to the dialogue about resistance we've been hearing in American politics these past few years. Midterm elections are approaching, primary election results indicate that the #MeToo movement is mounting an effective resistance to the hard-right politics of Donald Trump. There has been a surge of women for office, and more than half of them running have won their primaries. If your sympathies go that way, your Facebook feed is garnished with Resistance memes.
Last week, an anonymous senior White House official penned a op-ed for the New York Times about a quiet internal resistance against an elected President of no moral and scant mental capacity. She or he wrote that the real business of the Republic was being carried on behind his back, keeping the country out of war and criminal debacle by diverting the nation's business from him. An immense flood of comment and critique has arisen from all sides. Is such resistance traitorous? False? The secret oath of every Republican in love with present policies despite the man? Cowardice? Pragmatics of the Fall? Et cetera.
The best thing I've read on the topic (and very germane to this challenge) came from Teju Cole, photography critic for the New York Times Magazine and Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. He compared our current cadres of Resistance on both the American left and right as carrying on too much in the disembodied squawkbox of social media. He compares that the legacy of the French Resistance during the Second World War, where the stakes were bloody, merciless and real:
... A dangerous commitment to resistance made by hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of whom died in France alone. For a spell in the early ’40s, whenever the members of the Resistance killed a Nazi, the Nazis would execute 50 innocent French; an unspeakable calculus, but it did not stop the Resistance (its Communist wing in particular) from killing Nazis. It was a terrible time. The Resistance recognized that what was as stake was not just political power but also human dignity, which, all question of tactical efficacy aside, the resisters saw as nonnegotiable.
This history looms each time the word “resistance” is evoked in the current American political crisis. It judges the triviality of our responses. The sacred word has been made banal, its intensity dulled. The triviality is not in the predicament — so many have died here already, and many more will die — nor is it in the serious work being undertaken by so many people far from the spotlight, but in the voices of those who set the public tone. How I long now, on behalf of America, for Beckett’s aridity, for Melville’s gloom, for Stéphane’s desire to bear witness, for a sobriety of affect that matches the enormity of the crime. How are we to live in this? How are we to inhabit the principle behind the word “resistance” when the meaning of the word itself has changed so much?
Refuse a resistance excised of courage? Refuse the conventional arena and take the fight elsewhere? Refuse to eat with the enemy, refuse to feed the enemy? Refuse to participate in the logic of the crisis, refuse to be reactive to its provocations? Refuse to forget last year’s offenses and last month’s and last week’s? Refuse the news cycle, refuse commentary? Refuse to place newsworthiness above human solidarity? Refuse to be intimidated by pragmatism? Refuse to be judged by cynics? Refuse to be too easily consoled? Refuse to admire mere political survival? Refuse to accept the calculation of the lesser evil? Refuse nostalgia? Refuse the binary of the terrible past and the atrocious present? Refuse to ignore the plight of the imprisoned, the tortured and the deported? Refuse to be mesmerized by shows of power? Refuse the mob? Refuse to play, refuse decorum, refuse accusation, refuse distraction, which is a tolerance of death-dealing by another name? And when told you can’t refuse, refuse that, too? (Teju Cole, "Resist, Refuse." New York Times Magazine, Sept. 8, 2018)
Sorry to belabor the quote, but Cole I think gets to the deepest sense of resistance. How much are we willing—no, adamant—to refuse in the name of living and loving more genuinely, more truthfully? Are we citizens not only of nations, but of a world with an ecology with vastly different purposes than suburban blight, than cities of night? And beyond politics, how does resistance inform our poetics? Resistance nails the crucial difference between a hobby and an art. It's the difference between today's revision and tomorrow's, between a hollow trope and a newly arrived truth. Do you write because you like to, or because your existence as a soul on earth depends upon it? What temptations bar the way, and how many of them are you willing to sacrifice?
In French tradition, the chief dish in a meal is the called the pièce de résistance—
"the best or most exciting thing," usually the last in a series. We have to work through the quotidian and stereotypical, the bland and the wrong to arrive at the heart inside the heart of the matter.
For this challenge, write about resistance. Resist the theme, struggle with it, go down with it, come back with what saves you. Resist your poetic, your politics, your body's politic in love, your failure and death. What temps you to say nothing, or worse, too little? Conversely, why does poetry matter? What can it alone say to the world?
What is your pièce de résistance—the poem you can't live without? I mean for today ...
Viva la Resistance!