Contemporary Poets on Negatively Capable Poems, Part 2

Re: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

Today is the second of a three-part series featuring reflections from contemporary poets writing about poems that they find to be particularly negatively capable. Read Part 1 here. Today’s reflections come from Matt Hart (on Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant”), Shara McCallum (on Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”) and Jennifer Militello (on E. E. Cummings’s “my father moved through dooms of love”).

Matt Hart
Art Academy of Cincinnati

ALIVE FOR AN INSTANT WITHOUT ANY IRRITABLE REACHING: Negative Capability and Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant”

For a long time now I’ve had this weirdo inkling that the most important phrase in Keats’ Negative Capability letter is “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” In particular, it’s that word “irritable” that I always come back to and that feels so brilliantly necessary. The implication is that while great works of literature put us, as Keats says, in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” they short-circuit the discomfort and irritability that often accompanies them, making them instead opportunities for revelry, possibility, enlightenment and joy.

No poem I can think of does this as wildly as Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant,” which has always struck me as one which, as Keats says, “makes all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth.” To put it simply, Koch’s poem has a lot of uncertainty, Mystery and doubt in it, but it doesn’t have an irritable bone in its body.  It is in fact very happy to catalogue all that which is not irritable. The poem begins this way:

I have a bird in my head and a pig in my stomach
And a flower in my genitals and a tiger in my genitals
And a lion in my genitals and I am after you but I have a song in my heart
And my song is a dove
I have a man in my hands I have a woman in my shoes
I have a landmark decision in my reason
I have a death rattle in my nose I have summer in my brain water

What’s marvelous in this excerpt is the MARVEL in this excerpt, which is the engine of the poem. The speaker comes on (and I mean both that he turns on like a lightbulb and like an amplifier cranked to 11) with a bird in his head and a pig in his stomach, and everything begins immediately to fly (even the pig). As such, the poem is a celebration of momentousness and instantaneousness, compulsion and provocation, as if right before the poem began some customs official at the entrance to the weirdest country ever said, “And do you have anything to declare?” And in response the speaker of the poem can’t help but give up the ghost in a totally run-on, effusion-occasion of VOLUME. What’s the occasion? Being alive. Alive how? Total zoo! The poem IS a matter of FACT, generously and disjunctively giving itself (in Frank O’Hara’s phrase) “as variously as possible,” but it’s fundamental mode is the run-on list. “I am Lord Byron I am Percy Shelley I am Ariosto/ I eat the bacon I went down the slide I have a thunderstorm inside I will never hate you,” Koch insists, radically-amiably. (Imagine bringing this poem into a poetry workshop and everybody going ape-shit trying to resolve all the nonsense into something more than a joyous apparatus of operatic acrobatics. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t shop. This poem “obliterates all consideration.” It doesn’t need a resolution. It IS (a) resolution. We don’t consume it. It consumes us.)

However, even more than that, the poem’s wild sense of inclusion even extends into the realm of total contradiction:

I have a knocking woodpecker in my heart and I think I have three souls
One for love one for poetry and one for acting out my insane self
Not insane but boring but perpendicular but untrue but true

And while this urge to hold “disagreeables” in emotional suspension together, epitomizes the poem’s impulses, it’s not the only way the poem manifests “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” There are in fact ten questions (and marked as such) in the poem’s relatively short thirty lines. For instance, “Who is it that I wish to astonish?” “Has nature set out to be a great entertainer/Obviously not A great reproducer? A Great Nothing?” Strangely, there’s a sense in which the poem’s querulousness is as exclamatory as anything else it offers up. It’s not about answers, it’s about the emergency to “come clean” through the expression of the mess that life is. And thus, all doubts are dispatched (rather handily) with further declaration and disjunction rather than response. Anyway, who could get a word in edgewise?

In the poem’s final lines all of this declaration and doubt, contradiction and effusion, come to a fabulously turbulent head when the speaker wonders aloud, taking a much needed breath:

But how can this maelstrom be appealing? do you like menageries? my god
Most people want a man! So here I am
I have a pheasant in my reminders I have a goshawk in my clouds
Whatever is it which has led all these animals to you?
A resurrection? or maybe an insurrection? an inspiration?
I have a baby in my landscape and I have a wild rat in my secrets from you.

The only end stop in the poem comes right at the end of the poem, and it’s a total mystery, seeing as how 1) even the grand finale is full of “secrets” (Oh yes!), and 2) it has a “wild rat” in them. That final complete bit of syntax, “I have a wild rat in my secrets from you” is actually quite bizarre, even for this poem. Does Koch mean to suggest by “secrets from you” the “secrets I keep from you”? If so, it’s a confounding elision, since he’s already seemingly given everything up (including the wild rat, which is in the secrets). What else could fit in this clown car? Could there possibly be anything left to disclose (notice the “lose” in “disclose”)? There is no closure (nor is there any loss) and that’s why the party never stops (until it does, but we are not worried or irritated about that—things begin and end, that is all).

We might, however, also imagine those secrets at the end of the poem as ones the speaker gets from “you,” since the speaker himself seemingly isn’t holding anything back. This begs the question of “you,” who you is/are (and by extension who we are in the grand scheme of things). Life itself? Death? Perhaps the final line’s big reveal (that somehow there are still secrets) is the biggest surprise of all in the poem, i.e. the “you” is the poem’s shadow, the “thou” that does not speak, and that’s where the spark for art always is—the unsayable, unknowable, not-said—we can’t quite wrap our minds around. It’s the messy, unpredictable spark which becomes somehow wildly more intense, even as it flames out, “alive for an instant” / “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Matt Hart is the author of seven books of poems, including Radiant Companion (Monster House Press 2016). Hart’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous print and online journals, including The Academy of American Poets online, Big Bell, ColdfrontColumbia Poetry Review, Harvard ReviewJam Tarts Magazine, jubilatKenyon Review online, Lungfull!, and POETRY, among others. His awards include a Pushcart Prize, a 2013 individual artist grant from The Shifting Foundation, and fellowships from both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he is Associate Professor in Creative Writing and the Chair of Liberal Arts at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He plays guitar and shouts in the band NEVERNEW:

Shara McCallum
Penn State University

On “Morning Song,” Motherhood, & Being “Negatively Capable”

“I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand.” How these lines from Plath’s “Morning Song” stayed with me, ricocheting in my ears in many moments during my early years of motherhood. They do still. Motherhood, for many, brings with it polarities: extremes of joy and dejection; a sense of seeing one’s purpose and meaninglessness at once, of staring down the proximity of life to death and facing the mystery of existence.

The opening line of the poem, “Love set you going like a fat, gold watch,” is unforgettable for its quality of sound (those stresses at the end of the line are emphatic) and image. In the way the music and metaphors combine throughout the poem to do, the line brings forth the visceral and at times vexed nature of the situation of the poem. The poem begins with a birth, but ultimately concerns itself less with the child born and more with the woman-now-transformed-to-mother at the poem’s center. It is her “song” of ambivalence, not the infant’s more purely hopeful one gestured toward in the poem’s closing image, we hear loudest. The dominant figure in the poem is perhaps not even the mother but rather Plath’s evocation of the state in which the mother comes to reside following the child’s arrival: motherhood.

As the poem reveals, motherhood is accompanied by hours that feel like years and years that feel like minutes. It is accompanied by a form of love difficult to parse but often expressed through words like duty and sacrifice in the face of what feels like vast and unending need. It is accompanied by the wish at times to be free of the role of being ever-present for someone else’s wants and, paradoxically, the desire to remain inside of piercing instants that are inextricable from that role—hearing your child babbling from her crib, “the clear vowels rising like balloons.”

Plath’s unforgettable and frequently surreal images throughout the poem give body to Keats’s concept of negative capability: the ability to reside within paradox, to be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” But the mother in the poem is the one of whom negative capability is demanded. The duality in the line “I’m no more your mother,” isolated for a reason, is resounding in this regard. Is she sounding a momentary desire to abandon the role? Or, as the lines that follow it suggest, is she to exist like the “cloud distilled,” both clarified and erased, by the “wind’s (child’s) hand”? Inside the rotation of these questions, Plath’s truths of motherhood and of being a mother “rise” to the surface.

Originally from Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry published in the US and UK, most recently Madwoman. She is also the author of numerous personal essays, as well as essays on poets and poetics. After fourteen years as Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, she now teaches at Penn State University.

Jennifer Militello
New England College

“My father moved through dooms of love” by E.E. Cummings asks to be read with the instinct, not the intellect. Its moves are secretive and subversive; it creates an underworld of caves to be explored while lit only by a headlamp, as one holds one’s breath, while the movement through it, as survival in the face of danger, provides a rush of adrenaline.

The poem successfully resists attempts to render it in literal explanation. If we relied on the logical, if we resisted mystery and the resonance of suggestion, “my father moved through dooms of love” would mean nothing. It is unapologetic, confident in its sustained presence, rooted in the lizard brain. It seeks the pre-lingual, anti-language real, a feeling that hits like the touching of skin or the seeing of color, experience that cannot be explained simply because it is so deeply and inherently understood.

Cummings’ poem asks us to suspend our literary disbelief for 68 lines. And yet it is somehow exactly right.

The mystery of the poem is strung together by music; trust in what is being said is first created by sound. Phrasings, rhyme scheme, and rhythms beat with our hearts, dance us around a fire to their drum. The result is an increasing tension and supernatural expansion, like stepping out onto an open body of water, not so we can sink, but so that we can float.

The pairings of the poems are unexpected and strange, unorthodox in ways that facilitate comparisons along inexact latitudes. A “doom” is big and dreadful, earthshaking, negative, impactful. It has the sound of thunder or an explosion, but here it parallels love. Sorrow is “true as bread.” Is bread true? It is a base food, a religious symbol; it is simple, it is honest in its presentation. It rises cleanly from yeast to an airy, spongy, dry perfection.

The poem resists our desire for tidy pairings and easy movements, and that discomfort opens up a slice of space in the mind that allows reinvention and new perspective. We fall into the gap unfastened between two concepts in order to see them more fully, like squinting in order to focus or looking to the side of a star to see its light.

The poem’s unique logic also embraces abstraction to fashion a poem that serves as a continent rather than a grain of sand. Phrases like “through sames of am through haves of give,” and “this motionless forgetful where / turned at his glance to shining here” offer large, unpinned concepts that also serve to liberate associative space. There is much specificity in the poem, but it is tempered or ruled by this ambition of purpose and vision.

To excavate truths that are otherwise too expansive for language’s limited net, we must remember that language is a construct. We need to go beneath words, using words to do so, which may seem ironic, but which lies at the very core of what poetry actually is.

Jennifer Militello is the author of A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016), called “positively bewitching” by Publishers WeeklyBody Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), named one of the top poetry books of 2013 by Best American Poetry, and Flinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award. Her poems have been published widely in such journals as American Poetry ReviewThe Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and anthologized in Best New Poets and Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion. She teaches in the MFA program at New England College. More at

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