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.
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.
long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
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?
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.
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.
What is restlessness for?
Oh, what a thing is man! how far from power,
One while he counts of heav’n, as of his treasure:
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.
Lord, mend or rather make us: one creation
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
God hath made stars the foil
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”:
So strength first made a way;
For if I should (said he)
Yet let him keep the rest,
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:
true, I have gone here and there
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.
One by one they appear in
the past lapping them like a
True, they are not at rest yet,
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.
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?