Stay Puft

I should have said, "It is also the nature of poetry TO DETERMINE OR AFFIRM one's relation to the incomprehensible condition of existence." I say "existence" because it is different than identity. I say "determine OR affirm" because there is an option here: the great sculptor Giacometti once said, "I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make." Perhaps when one makes something one affirms, and when one tries to make and knows they cannot (another kind of making) one determines. One determines that they cannot, one determines this by endlessly attempting.

-- Mary Ruefle, "Madness, Rack, and Honey"

A number of truths on display here. One truth is akin to Walter Benjamin's thesis that "The work is the death mask of its conception." That is, the actual work is a thin and dead reflection of what was quick and living in the author's mind. One tries to grasp the conception, to capture it alive and in motion, but like the philosopher in Kafka's parable of the top, it is oneself that ends up spinning: the top is dead or undead, like Odradek.

But there are two opposed stances toward making here. To make a work "affirms one's relation to the incomprehensible condition of existence." And for a long time, I thought of my poetry as such a work, going back to the claim that Ruefle amends, that it is "the nature of poetry to assert individual identity." My ego demanded so many Mini-Me's, so many poems that, like Duncan's meadow in one quicksilver mood, were "a made place, / that is mine." The poems were objects, more-or-less exquisite, ends in themselves as people should be, themselves, ends.

But there are times when one cannot make a work. When working or trying to work ends in frustration and fragments; or (it is almost the same thing) when what one writes refuses to be a work like other works, like what one had faintly in mind. In short, one fails, and falls, into text. There is no work, like there is no Dana in Ghostbusters; there is only Zuul, minion of Gozer the Destroyer, who comes to the work of destruction indifferent to his form. 

In the destruction of the work there is nothing to affirm. There is only the adventure of "crossing the streams," doing the unreasonable thing (as Charles Bernstein remarks in "A Defence of Poetry," "ratio... DOES NOT EQUAL / sense!"). To destroy the Destructor is not to affirm one's identity, or even "one's relation to the incomprehensible condition of existence." It means to roll the dice (which never will abolish chance) which will determine--for the moment--that relation. And we must roll the dice again and again. (Even if Ghostbusters III never comes to fruition; especially then).

Another more commonsensical interpretation of Giacometti's remark makes making a process of education: in trying and failing to make "what I would like to make," you learn a little more about it, and perhaps get closer to making, to affirmation. Or you can look at it in the mirror and affirm negatively with Beckett: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better." But I am a little suspicious of these aphorisms, which get passed hand to hand around the Internet until all the context--all the difficulty--has been rubbed away.

I am a little tongue-in-cheek with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but my intention is a serious one. Ghostbusters plays with occult knowledge in order to make us laugh, but there is something more than a little sublime and terrifying about the form Dan Ackroyd's Ray chooses for Gozer, particularly after the crossed streams of their "unlicensed nuclear accelerators" have set him aflame. Ray tries to make knowledge harmless, to package it in the form of the friendliest possible commodity, and fails. "Poetry is the scholar's art" says Stevens, deriving from a vision of the imagination as "the sum of our faculties." It animates knowledge, and demonstrates the occultness of knowledge by giving it a sweet, tumultuous, and flammable body.


Knowing conjures; knowing is a summoning. Knowledge is made present by metaphor, and metaphor, as Ruefle reminds us, "is not, and never has been, a mere literary term. It is an event. A poem must rival a physical experience and metaphor is, simply, an exchange of energy between two things." Which echoes Olson: "A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he shall have some several causations) by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader." Energeia: within work. Eventus, evenire: to come out of something. The event comes out of the energy that is within the work, that must be conducted with as little resistance as possible from the poet's knowledge (always occult and hidden: knowledge of the body, of history, of myth). It "rivals" a physical experience; it is a physical experience. It burns on the way out, and on the way in.

I am trying to understand the importance of the occult and the hidden; of the text as paradoxical fragment of the work (the energy) it contains; of the ghost in the small or large machine made of words. I am trying to understand the role of the occult and made-up, of the metaphors. Ruefle: "To conceive of things that don't exist is a natural act for a human being." What is the nature of making and of making-up? What happens when we answer the destruction of a known reality with the destruction of the unknown?

I ain't afraid of no ghost. Oh, but I am. And I am.