Contemporary Poets on Negatively Capable Poems, Part 3

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

Today is the last of our three-part series featuring reflections from contemporary poets writing about poems that they find to be particularly negatively capable. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Today’s reflections come from Virginia Bell (on Erika L. Sánchez’s On the Eve of the Tepehuan Revolt, November 15, 1616) Jerry Harp (on Milton’s Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost) and Gary Hawkins (on Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”). Thanks to all the poets who’ve contributed, and thanks to all of you for reading!

Virginia Bell
Loyola University Chicago

At first glance, Erika L. Sánchez’s “On the Eve of the Tepehuan Revolt, November 1616,” looks like the poetic antithesis of “negative capability.” After all, the title references a verifiable event, the war between the Spanish conquistadors and the indigenous Tepehuan that lasted four years and that extended the genocide and so-called pacification of indigenous peoples already underway (through catholic conversion, learning Spanish, and forced labor). The poem references other indigenous groups, the Acaxee and the Xixime, as well as the epidemic of 1576, known as “cocoliztli.” Although written in the persona of a catholic priest, the speaker clearly exposes his own ethnocentrism by referring to the Tepehuan as “sons of dogs” who “howl to stars” and who, like ungrateful children, will violently give you the cold shoulder once they’ve grown (the poem invokes the Spanish saying cria cuervos y te sacarán los ojos—raise crows and they’ll pluck out your eyes). Isn’t this a positively capable political poem, then, a simple condemnation of colonial ideology?

Yes. But. However. Upon re-reading, this persona poem also raises questions and explores productively ambiguous emotions. When the priest utters condescending slurs, he almost always follows or precedes them with details that suggest his own self-doubt, his growing crisis of conscience or destabilization of his worldview:


The poem, it turns out, is a prayer addressed to God, and through shifting syntax, em-dashes, enjambment, and pronouns with ambiguous referents, the speaker could be asking God to pardon the “natives,” or to pardon himself. The indigenous inhabitants may literally have “cocoliztli,” but the priest—and his colleagues—may be mad themselves, may be spiritually lost. It is the “eve” of the revolt and the poem may make the priest predict and anticipate its eruption because of his own fear and growing self-disgust. The poem ends with an unanswered question:

Does he mean that his professed “love” for the salvageable souls of the Tepehuan is actually treacherous, “slithering” like a snake?  Does he mean than his love for God now “slithers” because of his feelings of guilt and shame? Does he invoke the “cross” to construct himself as a martyr in the service of the catholic kingdom? Or does he invoke the cross to condemn the whole enterprise of conquest? Or both? Or all of these emotional states, paradoxically, at once, shifting and endlessly unsettling?

In class discussion with my students at Loyola University Chicago, they offered two further readings of this poem. First, in the context of the whole collection, Lessons on Expulsion (2017), they read the poem as an ironic allegory for the immigration debate in the United States today.  They argued that the inscribed author, Sánchez, may be imagining the priest’s subjectivity and crisis of conscience as an act of hope, as an exercise in imagining the possibility of ideological shift of the part of those who dehumanize “immigrants.” “On the Eve of the Tepehuan Revolt” both pushes back against Keats’s notion of negative capability—facts do indeed matter—and embraces negative capability, even uses it as political strategy as well as aesthetic practice.

My students also argued that the poem enacts the unsettled state of mind of the priest. He uses words and images that suggest splitting, splintering, wavering, branching, and weaving: scissors, tentacles, cypress trees, sapodilla trees, rope, etc.

Many of these images are potentially violent and terrifying; many are instead, or simultaneously, beautiful and generative. The arrangement of lines and stanzas on the page—with shifting justification—further splits the utterances and makes the priest’s voice relentlessly negatively capable. By the end of class, we didn’t enforce consensus around these readings. Instead, we deferred to our own continued reading and re-reading of its many parts. What is reading but a “thanking and thanking / the gobs of darkness”?

Virginia Bell is the author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press 2012). Her work has appeared in Hypertext MagazineFifth Wednesday Journal, Cider Press Review, Gargoyle, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Rogue Agent, Cloudbank, Spoon River Poetry Review, Calyx, Poet Lore, Pebble Lake Review, and other journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of Pushcart Prize nominations and a Ragdale Foundation residency. She is also an editor with RHINO and an adjunct professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, and The Chicago High School for the Arts.

Jerry Harp
Lewis & Clark College

Having written that John Milton’s spirit “never slumbers, / But rolls about our ears, / For ever and for ever” (“On Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair”), Keats—it seems no great stretch to conjecture—would admit the author of Paradise Lost among the negatively capable. Such a capacious and awakened spirit would surely know to dwell “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” The capacity shows nowhere more clearly than in his great epic’s representation of Satan, a figure of perseverance in the face of all but certain defeat. On the one hand, the poet’s express purpose is to “justify the ways of God to men”; on the other, Milton’s Satan struggles for personal integrity and freedom against an implacable authority. The division highlights the poem’s complex texture, for it is both a declaration of Milton’s faith and an exploration of character and rebellion, among other things, by a poet who, after the Restoration, found himself on the losing side of his country’s uprising against monarchical rule. It was because of his ability to dwell convincingly in the space of rebellion and liberty that William Blake recognized Milton as a “true Poet and of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” Obviously, the great Puritan was no worshipper of Old Scratch, but once the character was up and running, he took on characteristics that even the most faithful could find it difficult not to admire. There is in this world seldom a clean distinction between the evil and the good, meaning that the wheat and tares become so intertwined that one cannot eradicate one without endangering the other. Milton created a character to reflect this complex situation.

His Satan is, if nothing else, exquisitely self-aware:

Which way I fly is Hell, myself am Hell,
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

Hell is not within the bowels of earth but in the depths of self, “myself,” the abyss within that threatens to “devour me” further and further, so that the Hell I am now will seem a Heaven in time to come. This self-consuming abyss of self opens into further deeps that could frighten off even the most stalwart of Freudian analysts. One can catch a hint of tragic heroism here, however perversely realized. Nor does this portrayal of the Father of Lies violate the poet’s high purpose. As Stanley Fish showed in his Surprised by Sin (1967), the figure of Satan again and again draws the reader into virtual complicity in his textual space, highlighting the need for divine grace. Thus reminded over and over of the panache of which Satanic rhetoric is capable, faithful readers are led more and more to open themselves to the divine, who exceeds all rhetoric and style and does not dazzle in the way that Satan does. To create such experience in circumstantial and convincing terms, the poet needed all the negative capability that any human might muster.

Jerry Harp is the author of For Us, What Music? The Life and Poetry of Donald Justice (2010), and co-editor of A Poetry Criticism Reader (2006), both from the University of Iowa Press. His most recent book of poems is Spirit under Construction (NeoPoiesis Press 2017). He teaches at Lewis & Clark College.

Gary Hawkins

I’ve been going back to Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” several times a year for decades—and every time, I’m taken through its many turns of negative capability, made to be in its many shifting positions and uncertainties. Initially, I can’t read the poem today without also thinking about its poet as LeRoi Jones, who would soon become the more revolutionary Amiri Baraka of “Black Art” and later the incendiary poet of “Somebody Blew Up America.” All that pressure and duration, that rage-come-requiem is there in the title: this is just a preface to an extended, sorrowful, mortal referendum. The poem, then, is really three poems—three tonally very different responses that each challenge my assumptions of what a “preface to a twenty volume suicide note” might be. First, it’s a breezy, discursive account that turns foreboding when those mundane vignettes (the dog walk, the commute) spin off a foreboding, one-line proclamation: “Things have come to that.” Then, we’re within the poet’s nightly, recursive act of meaning-making, where even counting holes in the sky forms a beautiful, comforting, ordering image—and this, too, pulled short, with a non-sequitur summary lamentation: “Nobody sings anymore.” So, then, when the final consideration of this “preface” holds a sustained scene of the speaker’s daughter at bedtime, herself calling out in a note of prayer, there’s no way to assign that final gesture: petition, praise, or lament—we’ll never know this mystery.

Gary Hawkins writes poems, writes in prose on poetry, draws (lately flora and fauna of the Southern Appalachia and bottles of old medicine), and works in letterpress, including editing and producing Croquet, an occasional letterpress broadside delivered as a postcard. His debut collection of poetry, Worker, appeared from Main Street Rag in 2016.

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