The Poetics Of Uncertainty

ffw-logo-shadowAttending the Festival of Faith and Writing has given me more thoughts than I can possibly handle in a lifetime. This may seem like hyperbole, but as poet Geoffrey Nutter, one of the Festival speakers, pointed out using the words of T. S. Eliot: “Human beings can not bare that much reality.”

And that’s what I got today. A lot of reality.

But I think more than that too, because it wasn’t so obvious or so conclusive. As Nutter talked about the “radical uncertainty” of his poetry, I began to get glimpses of images that will probably tumble around in my head for a very long time. The reader (and writer for that matter) are meant to grapple with the words. Most of us know this. It’s an old idea.

But spawning from this wrestling springs a “joyful spontaneity” for those involved. This is another term for faith, I’d argue. “It takes faith to suspend our need for resolution,” says Nutter. Just as it takes strength to suspend our desire to wrestle the text into submission, which, if comprised of true images rather than mere deductions, shouldn’t be possible at the point of the final period.

Nutter uses the distinction between photorealist paintings and interpretive forms of art to illustrate. At best, the photorealist painter creates a brain stimulation – a how-did-he-do-that conundrum. But a photorealist painting is not how a human sees the world. It’s how a camera sees the world. And I’d even go so far as to say all they are creating is a boxed reflection of something. It’s conclusive. There is no joyful spontaneity. No uncertainty.

Then there are other painters who reveal to us what they see rather than what a machine sees, and these are alight with uncertainties and possibilities.

And that leads us to poetry and all of good art. In another lecture from which Geoffrey Nutter’s was strangely reflective, Scott Cairns says that many people try to read poetry and get to the poet’s meaning. This takes us down a stray path. It’s similar to how many people read Scripture – we look for the one true interpretation of the text thinking that once we have found that, we’ll have found truth.

But there is not one interpretation. The Bible is endless meaning-making. Endless energy of interpretations. And reading it puts us into an endless state of becoming. This is what makes the greatest prose and poetry great; they begin to approach Scripture’s uncanny ability to strike the reader with new revelations at every read.

The act of reading is a “coming to terms,” as Cairns puts it. “But they are not conclusive terms. Rather, provisional glimpses.” This is what uncertainty is, and it’s a more lifelike awareness than stale resolution. “We go to the difficult and the strange when we want to really feel,” says Nutter.

And he takes this idea of uncertainty much further. Doubt (or uncertainty), Nutter argues, is the beginning of imagination. There is a sense of uncertainty in the image, and that’s why they resonate. Not so with ideas (conclusions, deductions, resolutions). Ideas have much less power; you can argue or disagree with them.

But images are smarter than ideas. While with ideas there is only comprehension or certainty, images lead to apprehension – and that can be both clear and ambiguous…at the same time. And that’s poetry: words that oblige you to be a part of the meaning-making…

Imagination. Uncertainty.

In this way poetry is smarter than intelligence.

Geoffrey Nutter illustrates this point chillingly: “Certainty is what a soldier needs to go into battle. But uncertainty is what society needs to avoid putting him there in the first place.”

But Nutter still takes this progression a step further: Doubt is perhaps the beginning of imagination. Imagination, then, is the beginning of morality or empathy.

The poet evokes a passage from the Gospel that has been one of the most intriguing moments of Jesus’ life to anyone who’s read it. John 8:4-9. I’ll just write it out rather than try to explain it.

“and they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

No one knows what Jesus wrote there in the sand that shamed the crowd enough to leave the woman alone, but whatever it was it left them speechless. Perhaps whatever it was that slowly appeared in the sand with Jesus’ finger caused the people to imagine what it would be like to be that woman. So certain a moment ago that she deserved death, they now had the imagination to be uncertain. “Life must begin and end with uncertainty,” says Nutter.

Perhaps this was the moment when imagination was born.

Start traveling down that road and you’ll come to realize what T. S. Eliot meant.




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