Carl Phillips

On Restlessness

    And I saw that restlessness was neither the problem, nor the solution. Was just the fact. A force. And though eventually it might break me, I would not refuse it.


    It is probably human to prefer certainty to uncertainty. The idea would seem to be that uncertainty is a form of instability, and instability is difficult to associate with the usual notions of happiness, or of living “the good life,” that is, a life as free of anxiety as possible, and what does uncertainty bring with it if not anxiety, against which we’re increasingly told we should medicate ourselves: take this, you’ll feel at ease in a crowd of people, you’ll sleep at night, you won’t feel sad. It’s this resistance to uncertainty that lies behind a general preference for immediate accessibility in our society—in music, film, literature, yes, but also in such things as food, the colors to paint a house’s interior. Accessibility dictates that a thing should be altogether available to us at once via the usual means. This can only come about if the means of access to a thing remains fixed, demanding nothing of us. Most people don’t want to go to a movie that they don’t “get” at the end, one that challenges their fixed notions about what life is, what a movie is. Uncertainty disturbs, it challenges us where we had felt comfortable, it unsettles us. But without it, we merely get older, we never deepen.


    What is the relationship between restlessness and uncertainty? Clearly uncertainty can be a catalyst for restlessness: in our not being able to know something absolutely, we somewhere have to acknowledge a vulnerability in ourselves. In knowledge is safety, at least of a sort; what we don’t know might not hurt us, but it could, insofar as we can’t rule out entirely that it can’t. The general inclination is likely to favor avoiding harm as well as those places where harm is possible.
    But there is a sensibility that—instinctively, most likely unconsciously — recognizes vulnerability as a zone of possible illumination. For such a sensibility, the impulse is not to shun the unknown but to offer the self up to it, for the chance to know the self more completely than before: for at least one way in which we come to know ourselves comes from observing how we succeed or do not succeed in meeting any given challenge. Besides getting to know the self better, we get to know, or get a sense of knowing, the unknown to which we’ve committed ourselves—at the very least, we gain a knowledge of what an engaged relationship between the self and the unknowable can mean. For the religious, the manifestation of that engaged relationship is faith, and the unknowable is deity of one sort or another. I’m thinking of faith here as a kind of crucible in which the believer comes perhaps not to know entirely but to deepen an existing understanding of—and in turn, embrace of—divinity. For the artist, the poet specifically, the poem is both the means of that engaged relationship between self and unknown, and the record of it. As for the unknown/unknowable, I think it’s all those other selves within us that are both a part of and separate from our conscious selves—memory, dream, demons perhaps better left undisturbed, perhaps not. A poet writes about any number of things, but whether confessional or not, every poem is in part a record of an engagement between our conscious and unconscious selves—which is why the writing of poetry can be so dangerous. We are likely to learn more than we planned on, in the course of making. We thought we knew a thing. Now we know it differently. That’s the effect of the poem on its maker and ideally that should also be the effect on the reader of the poem.


    Poetry—the kind that does in fact give us the world as we had not seen it, that makes us question what we had thought we knew (and this is finally the only thing I am willing to call poetry)—poetry is the result of a generative restlessness of imagination. Such an imagination experiences uncertainty not as adversary but as opportunity, not as an object of fear but, for better or worse, an object of an all-but-impossible-to-resist fascination. These uncertainties become obsessions to be wrestled with, and with luck, the result is poetry: the poem as, again, evidence and record of the mind’s approach to, grappling with, and (if only temporarily) mastery of an uncertainty by putting it in a place, a context, for deeper scrutiny. The poems that most persuade me of their authority are those that leave room for further uncertainty once they’re over. The illusion is one of mastery, but somewhere the creative mind recognizes, with time, that absolute mastery of an idea has proved again elusive; we approach the old uncertainty from a new angle, it continues to fascinate by its very resistance to us, and we are on our way to the next poem.


    Of course, there are poems that “merely,” we might say, record that something happened, that a feeling was felt; or perhaps they play with structure, sound, and rhythm “merely” because it is possible to do so. Robert Adams, in his book Beauty in Photography, puts it this way (he is speaking of painting, but what he has to say applies as well to poetry):

Some of what in our time we have called art has been concerned solely and finally, I believe, with perceptual form, that is form completely free of any conceptual content, form purely of ordered sensation; the pleasures we associate with it are exclusively those     of color and shape and texture. Setting aside the artists’ intent, works by Josef Albers, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Stella are conspicuous examples. Insofar as art has occupied itself in this  fashion, it seems to offer real but minor pleasures, the joys of decoration.

I am instead speaking here of the poems that tend to last over time—those that, whether directly or indirectly, concern themselves finally with the abstractions that resist solution: love, death, grief, joy, aggression, desire; words—subjects, even—often deemed inappropriate for contemporary poetry. And yet, what distinguishes being human if not self-consciousness, which in turn allows us to conceive and reflect upon abstractions in the first place? Since when was poetry not about and made up of human feeling? I write poetry for the same reason that I read it, both as a way of being alive and as a way of trying to understand what it means—how it feels—to be alive.


    Another way to think of restlessness: as a form of ambition. Unsatisfied with the given—the usual explanations, the usual goals for and trappings of a life—there are those who push past the given, are willing to enter into uncertainty—to take a risk—in order to get to something presumably superior and/or preferable to “the old life.” I don’t have in mind here the kinds of worldly ambitions that can lead to an increase of money and power and material possessions—I mean the quest for meaning, for heightened feeling, for expanded vision, even if that should mean that we arrive at what disturbs us deeply, leaving us more unsettled, less at rest than we had been. This, I would argue, is a defining piece of the artist’s sensibility. And I’ll point out that it’s not a perverse desire to be disturbed; it is instead both a recognition that heightened vision can’t occur without disturbance and a realistic understanding of the world as a place where pleasure and its opposite forever coexist.     The artist refuses to ignore this entanglement of opposites, or perhaps more accurately the artist is incapable of ignoring it, because of a commitment to a knowledge that is absolute, entire, but always at the last elusive.
   That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t regret the knowledge that we do come into. One is human, after all.


Here is Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”:

    My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
    Toward heaven still,
    And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
    Beside it, and there may be two or three
    Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
    But I am done with apple-picking now.
    Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
    The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
    I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
    I got from looking through a pane of glass
    I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
    And held against the world of hoary grass.
    It melted, and I let it fall and break.
    But I was well
    Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
    And I could tell
    What form my dreaming was about to take.
    Magnified apples appear and disappear,
    Stem end and blossom end,
    And every fleck of russet showing clear.
    My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
    It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
    I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
    And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
    The rumbling sound
    Of load on load of apples coming in.
    For I have had too much
    Of apple-picking: I am overtired
    Of the great harvest I myself desired.
    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
    Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
    For all
    That struck the earth,
    No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
    As of no worth.
    One can see what will trouble
    This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
    Were he not gone,
    The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
    Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
    Or just some human sleep.

It’s a poem of restlessness, the restlessness of an ambition that spurs us toward greater achievement, only to have us find, sometimes, that there is no ultimate satisfaction, no resting; and restlessness then becomes a state of hauntedness, as we push over and over again toward a recognition of failure—our own—or what feels like failure, for why else are we not, after all that striving, finally at peace?
    I say “what feels like failure,” because actual, utter failure doesn’t seem to be the case in Frost’s poem. Only a few apples remain unpicked, there seems only a single barrel that’s not been filled; but these accomplishments are depicted from, instead, the angle of failure—the speaker failed to get every apple, to fill all barrels. And of course, in the juxtaposition of the ladder and the mention of heaven in the first two lines, we are meant, I believe, to think of that other ladder, from Genesis, that appeared in Jacob’s dream: that ladder led to heaven and actually reached it, albeit in dream. Here, in “After Apple-Picking,” we have a ladder far removed from Bible and dream; the real world falls short of those elevated worlds, even as success does, apparently. The dream in the Frost poem is of an abundance that overwhelms but does not satisfy: “I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired,” presumably because of the unexpected responsibilities that the “great harvest” brings with it; how to keep up with “ten thousand thousand fruit,” how impossible to avoid having some fall and be, consequently, deemed “As of no worth”? The speaker of the poem has learned too late, in his quest to have more, that having more means having more to lose. Is that a piece of knowledge that makes the getting there, in the end, worth it?
    Would the committed artist say yes?
    Is there, indeed, a choice?
    The poem’s ending has always troubled me because of its anthropomorphizing of the woodchuck, giving what had otherwise been a dignified poem a cartoonishness. But the subtle use of the word “just” in the final line rescues the ending. A comparison is set up between human and animal sleep; the latter is described as “long,” as opposed to “just some human sleep”—one way to understand this is as a comparison between human, eight-hour, daily sleep and animal hibernation. But a more disturbing reading allows for the comparison to be not between durations of sleep but between qualities of sleep. The word “just” diminishes human sleep, pronounces it inferior to animal sleep. And indeed, the poem has suggested the problems with human sleep—we’re beset with dreams that lead us to difficult self-awareness, that lay bare the emptiness of our ambitions, leading us to conclude that maybe we had it wrong from the start. This is presumably not the experience of a woodchuck, or of any other animal that leads a life of pure instinct without the ability to reason, at least in the human terms in which we think of reasoning. Somewhere, in that word “just,” Frost suggests a reason for human beings to envy the woodchuck, even as Keats envies the nightingale—which is to say, in vain. Again, we’re human.


    A quest to know, hand in hand with a boredom with what is known already: is that it? I do believe that a certain boredom leads the artist to try out new methods, take on new subjects, etc. Boredom can be a motivation for change, and without change there can be no artistic development.
    But is it finally boredom that leads us on, or is it restlessness as a form of addiction to what the familiar can never give, namely the challenge of what’s unknown, the excitement of finding the self each time differently surprised into what could be illumination, could be corrosive despair—but the surprise—the surprise of it . . .
    How is the restlessness that can lead to art all that different from sexual restlessness? Aren’t they both sexual? Is this a truth in any larger sense, or just my own truth? Do I betray myself?


    A restlessness with the familiar, be the familiar thing a body or a poem, an assumed agreement as to how to conduct the body or a fixed number of ways agreed upon for how to write a poem—it should rhyme, say, or it should make us feel good—a restlessness with the familiar doesn’t have to lead to art, but it can. It can, as well, lead to danger. Risk is risk. But it’s as if, for the artist, without risk there can be no salvation from a world that he or she finally cannot recognize as his or her own. Back to Adams, again, from Beauty in Photography:

[The artist] commits himself to art precisely because he believes that he sees what others have not. If in the course of his training he discovers a master whose vision he wholly shares, then he becomes that person’s advocate rather than an artist himself, and goes on perhaps to become a collector or teacher or professional critic. If however he finds that no one makes pictures like those he carries in his imagination, then he has to try to devise them. New pictures are the only way to avoid exile from himself. Should he fail, he is condemned to live by others’ views, ones that must always seem inaccurate.

 “. . . to avoid exile from himself.” The recognition here is that to survive at all the artist must avoid an exile from the self, given that the artist is already, as if by default, in exile from the rest of the world, or from much of it. To be exiled from the self as well is to be lost indeed.
    The problem, though, is that the self can never finally suffice. We may select our own society, as Dickinson says of the soul, we may reside there for a time, especially—necessarily, I would say—during those times when we’re actually making what we intend as art; but ultimately, we want, too, to be loved, and we want, by extension, what we make to be loved. That requires an audience outside the self. And in the tension between our understanding that what we make is finally only for ourselves to judge, and a nagging desire for confirmation from a world to which, deep down, we feel no real relationship or attachment—in that tension lies yet another restlessness, generative mostly of anxiety, a false sense now of triumph and now of defeat. If it becomes too powerful, it can destroy that other restlessness that made a way for the making of art.


What is restlessness for?
Can’t it be a condition of being human, and nothing else?
Must it have a purpose?
Does it?


    Oh, what a thing is man! how far from power,
                        From settled peace and rest!
    He is some twenty sev’ral men at least
                        Each sev’ral hour.

    One while he counts of heav’n, as of his treasure:
                        But then a thought creeps in,
    And calls him coward, who for fear of sin
                        Will lose a pleasure.

    Here, in the first two stanzas of his poem “Giddiness,” George Herbert not only makes clear that human beings are by their very nature restless, but he also establishes an intimate relationship between sin and pleasure. We might expect pleasure itself to be a sin, to be equivalent to it, and that is partly the implication here, subtly reinforced by the parallel positions of the words “sin” and “pleasure” at the breaks for two consecutive lines. But beyond this, Herbert suggests that sin has a purpose—namely, to generate a fear that will make us avoid those pleasures that it would be a sin to enjoy.
    And yet, as stanza one suggests, our restless nature is evidently not changeable, even given sin and the fear of it. Herbert spends another four stanzas giving examples of that restless nature, before asserting that the only remedy for us is to be remade each day by, as we’d expect from Herbert, God himself:

    Lord, mend or rather make us: one creation
                        Will not suffice our turn:
    Except thou make us daily, we shall spurn
                        Our own salvation.

    In “Giddiness,” Herbert laments our restlessness; hence the prayer for correction by God. When we put this poem next to “The Foil,” though, we learn that human beings are—at the core—more often than not unchanged by correction, seen here in the form of grief. Grief has been established by God as a means of highlighting sin—presumably in order that we might by seeing it clearly understand more clearly the need to avoid it. And yet, and yet:

                        If we could see below
    The sphere of virtue, and each shining grace
            As plainly as that above doth show;
    This were the better sky, the brighter place.

                        God hath made stars the foil
    To set off virtues; griefs to set off sinning:
        Yet in this wretched world we toil,
    As if grief were not foul, nor virtue winning.

    Our restlessness leads us inevitably to the sinning that we must then turn to God to be brought back from, notwithstanding that we slip inevitably again anyway, in spite of God. It is complicated—all the more so when we remember that, according to Herbert, our restlessness is itself God-given, its purpose is to bring us eventually back to God, as a respite from the restlessness of ourselves. Here is “The Pulley”:

                        When God at first made man,
    Having a glass of blessings standing by;
    Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
    Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
                        Contract into a span.

                        So strength first made a way;
    Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
    When almost all was out, God made a stay,
    Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
                        Rest in the bottom lay.

                        For if I should (said he)
    Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
    He would adore my gifts instead of me,
    And rest in Nature, not the God of nature:
                        So both should losers be.

                        Yet let him keep the rest,
    But keep them with repining restlessness:
    Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
    If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
                        May toss him to my breast.

    Restlessness, then—for the Herbertian Christian, at least—can be generative, eventually, of salvation. Restlessness is divine and necessary, the poet argues; and without sin—the fear of it, and the temptation toward it—there would be no restlessness. By that logic, doesn’t it mean it’s at some level reasonable to sin, insofar as to do so is to be actively engaged in the machinery of eventual salvation?


    Or is all of this mere rationalizing, an attempt to justify what we believe, somewhere inside, to be morally wrong? I’m thinking now of Shakespeare’s sonnet 110:

    Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there
    And made myself a motley to the view,
    Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
    Made old offences of affections new.
    Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
    Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
    These blenches gave my heart another youth,
    And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
    Now all is done, have what shall have no end:
    Mine appetite I never more will grind
    On newer proof, to try an older friend,
    A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
            Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
            Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.

How am I to know you’re my “best of love” without “worse essays”—that is, without having tried others and found them inferior to you? Doesn’t established friendship only find its established nature in contrast to what is less so, is new? The idea, then, would seem to be that infidelity—sexual restlessness—is a necessary means of understanding the difference between mere sexual partners and the truly beloved. Is that true? It’s true that any value is meaningless without the concept of comparison. But where the body and, indeed, our feelings are concerned, the stakes escalate significantly.
    Here is Thom Gunn’s “My Sad Captains”:

            One by one they appear in
            the darkness: a few friends, and
            a few with historical
            names. How late they start to shine!
            but before they fade they stand
            perfectly embodied, all

            the past lapping them like a
            cloak of chaos. They were men
            who, I thought, lived only to
            renew the wasteful force they
            spent with each hot convulsion.
            They remind me, distant now.

            True, they are not at rest yet,
            but now that they are indeed
            apart, winnowed from failures,
            they withdraw to an orbit
            and turn with disinterested
            hard energy, like the stars.

    The restlessness Gunn describes here is a sexual one. The men are associated with a past that is likened to chaos; “each hot convulsion” suggests orgasm, the force behind it is described as “wasteful,” as in to no purpose, and the lives of these distant figures are seen as reducible to the renewal of a force that’s wasteful. Surely this is a vision of restlessness, and it is sex. But it is a restlessness that—from the evidence the poem offers us, at least—generated nothing, just seems to have kept repeating itself; and, even now, in the afterlife, the men aren’t spared, not yet, anyway (leaving room, perhaps, for the hope of rest?). But they are “winnowed from failures,” have energy, even if “indifferent” and “hard”; they are not unbeautiful and not without their purpose, insofar as they are “like the stars,” for the stars are one way by which we can orient ourselves, find our way home, or take leave of it, for a life elsewhere. However sad they may be, these men are the speaker’s captains, like the stars in their motion but also, implicitly, in their reliability even as, incongruously, it is in their restlessness that they are most reliable. Gunn gives to restlessness, to sexual restlessness specifically, a strange dignity, almost, removing the men from the realm of moral judgment, the speaker himself adding, as if casually, that he only thought the men lived a certain way—he can’t be certain now, perhaps because the men are dead. But it has always seemed to me that, in that phrase, “I thought”—appearing at the poem’s dead center, so that the whole poem turns on possible doubt—what Gunn’s speaker has come up against is the slipperiness of morality and the dangers of trying to give any one shape or name or definition to morality.
    Why should sexual restlessness be any less a part of individual sensibility than the kind of restlessness that makes some of us into artists?


    There’s a restlessness that keeps us up at night, the kind whose catalyst isn’t uncertainty, or a quest to know what isn’t known, but is guilt. Perhaps we can say it leads—out of a desire not to feel the agony, the particular restlessness to which guilt brings us—to a correction of behavior. It doesn’t erase the mistake—mistake being a prerequisite for guilt—but it can stop us from repeating the mistake, or what at least we believe to be, deep down, a mistake. Right or wrong—who can say?
—Oh but what is to become of me then, now that guilt’s gone away?