For Ryan Millsap
If you read enough poetry, Ryan, you’ll find that everything is on fire. I’ve often searched for an explanation for this, some smart and elegant history of fire in the lyric. Auden wrote a book about water, but nobody, as far as I know, has written the book about fire. Somebody ought to do it. Maybe you can pass the idea on to some of your friends in the industry. Anyway, as best as I can tell, one origin of this inheritance must be angels. Bear with me, I promise you’ll want to hear this. I’ve never read much of the bible, but I suspect everything there, too, is burning, or is waiting to be burned. The name Seraphim does not come from charity only, writes Aquinas, but from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Seraph, from the Hebrew saraph, to burn. This sense, fire as excess, ardor, god’s glory, seems particularly present in the English lyric. Paradigmatically, stereotypically maybe, is Hopkins: the world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. There are also his kingfishers catching fire, his dragonflies drawing flame, the stars, his fire-folk sitting in the air. Of course, everything starts catching fire first in Hopkin’s notebooks, his meticulous daily descriptions of the world. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer, wrote Simone Weil. Maybe you get the picture. Or maybe you don’t. But this is where the Christian bit starts to seem like an expression of something more universal, fire as the poetic figure for what happens when one attends intensely enough to the world. But fire, especially imagined as something universal starts to stink the way those timeless words in timeless poems do.
Poets who write mostly about love, roses and moonlight, sunsets and snow, must live a very quiet life, wrote Langston Hughes. Fire might have a bit more of an edge to it, but it so quickly lapses into abstraction and the romantic. The fire in my heart, burning with desire etc. We want real fires, Ryan. I think you can understand. You said you wanted to make high-action, high-intensity content, which represents and unapologetically reaffirms the American spirit. Real fires right? The cops are only building one mock city next door; imagine how many mock cities will burn in blockbusters, rise and fall inside the walls of your studio. Remember what happened when you sent your friend with the tow truck? The one registered to your name? That’s what I’m talking about! I have never known the police of any country to show an interest in lyric poetry as such, continued Hughes, but when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police. He didn’t mention movie studios, Ryan, but will you still call the police, now that I’ve mentioned yours? Love, roses, moonlight, sunsets, and snow. But Hughes is making a more nuanced point than the abstention from certain topics and words, he’s making an argument about time, or timeliness, against timelessness and universality. Of course, Hughes does write about moonlight in his “Adventures as a Social Poet,” only in the moonlight are klansmen and bodies hanging from trees. Think: you can’t write poems about trees when the forest is full of police. Do you know Brecht? It’s almost like he was writing about our forest, Ryan. Did you know Stokely Carmichael was held for loitering in the old prison on the land next door? What’s the first word that comes to your mind when I write the word tree? What about grave? What about police? One of my favorite poems is instructive here. It’s by Adam David Miller, called “The Hungry Black Child.” It’s a poem about sunsets:
if i twist the sunset
but when evening twist my belly
i see red
walking the field in the woods
the houses on my street
It is a perfect poem. Twists the sunset like Hughes twists the moon. Tells it slant. You must know Dickenson, right? Remember Hopkins here: the world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. The world flames out in the poet’s mind. Though for Miller, this conflagration coincides with a twisting of the world, a twisting of god’s grandeur into violence or revenge one might worry offends him. If Miller’s god is the same as Hopkin’s pasty chevalier then this might be the case. But I’m not convinced the apology is completely sincere. Or maybe, what rides on the tone of that address is a sort of litmus test. Maybe the poet is sincere, but needlessly so. The question of god, what god, is important even for secular poets, at least those concerned with fire, as angels are the mediators between god’s heaven and the earth. Fire, the mediator between this world now and what comes next. The poet (and I say poet not speaker because this poem is about poetry) is guilty of twisting the sunset. No – that’s it: the asking for forgiveness, it is sincere, humble even, but the poet isn’t convinced his act actually is an affront. If I twist the sunset, he writes. The poet twists the sunset. Or maybe he sets it straight. The poet sets the sunset on fire. Really, the poetic act, the conflagration, comes first from an encounter with the world, here, with hunger: …when evening twist my belly. Even Stevens picked up on something like this when he said the imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. So the poet is twisted first by the world, a particular world, and in attending to that encounter, fully, another world flames out, possibility flames out and the world is charged with it. What makes this poem so specifically about poetry is that it demonstrates this for us. Miller doesn’t explain all this, as I just have, but enacts it for us, in the time of the poem, the time of the now. Through apostrophe and the careful combination of the subject and its form into one spoken substance, Miller has this moment unfold directly before us. Within us. In the space of our minds, our mouths, the event can occur over and over again. Jonathan Culler (despite my commitments, Ryan, I just can’t keep from reading such stuffy critics) argues that the fundamental characteristic of lyric poetry is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special now, of lyric articulation. The wager, he claims, is that the lyric can displace a time of narrative, of past events reported, and place us in the continuing present of apostrophic address, the now in which, for readers, a poetic event can repeatedly occur.
Fire, Time, Repetition. I hope this is starting to sound like something of a formula, a set of instructions. The now is the time of attention. Prayer, as Weil would have it. The poet attends to the world and the world catches fire. The next world flames out and speaks in this one. Through this one, through a sunset, say, or even the moon. The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come, wrote Walter Benjamin, that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different. This is also to say that every second of time is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter. The time of the now is the time of the messiah, so to speak. And this now has nothing to do with timelessness, just as communing with and imagining the world to come has less to do with the future, with progress, than with the constellation, redemption, and fulfillment of a whole history of shit and beauty in the present, in this moment, and this moment, and this. Timelessness, Ryan, is the feed, the endless stream of one shit fucking movie after another. It’s an average shot duration of 3.5 seconds. It’s the world of what you call content. It’s the absolute fracturing of attention and the foreclosure of repetition. It’s an obsession with the future that prevents us from ever inhabiting the now. It’s what, along with the cops, keeps the fires out.
What’s important about the now, about poetry, is repetition. Have you ever memorized a poem and recited it by heart? This sort of repetition is important, Ryan, and, whether you know it or not, it’s what your little project, your entire fickle world is against. The expression ‘to lean something by heart,’ writes Byung-Chul Han, tells us that apparently only repetition reaches the heart. He continues, chasing new stimuli, excitement and experience, we lose the capacity for repetition. The neoliberal dispositifs of authenticity, innovation and creativity involve a permanent compulsion to seek the new, but they ultimately only produce variations of the same. I’m sick of the same, Ryan. No more waiting. I want to live in the world, not a movie. I want the world to reach my heart. Maybe this letter (or maybe it’s a poem?) will reach yours. Probably not. Even so, you really ought to pay attention. Read it twice. In this poem, Ryan, everything you own (so much more than one tow truck) is already burning. Now, watch me light the fire again, and again, and again, and again.
Submitted anonymously over email