“THAT FLUTTERING OF MUTE FLIES:” ON CHAOS AND CONTAINMENT
ADAM CLAY / CRAFT ESSAY
Today I’m thinking of James Tate and what I’ve heard about his writing process—he would sit in front of a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper. And he would wait. Sometimes an hour. Sometimes more. And eventually an idea would form and he would go from there. At times for me that blank sheet of paper can be ominous, if only for the possibilities that exist through an infinite choice of subject matter. At the dining room table that’s become a makeshift desk, I return again to the central tension of my writing life: the chaos of content versus the constraint of form. Is one more relevant or useful than the other? I tell my students there should ideally be a balance between the two—one should not seem more important than the other, and they should be inseparable, at the same time. It’s a tall order. If I think too much about it, it renders me silent, and it’s not a patient silence like that of James Tate at his typewriter. It’s a debilitating silence, one that produces nothing but the passing of time.
In his sprawling prose-poem “The System,” John Ashbery considers this tension between chaos and containment. The poem, like so much of Ashbery’s work, is about imagination and the act of creation. In considering the source of creative thought, “The System” explores the imprint of reality on the human mind. We are “mere babes with the imprint of nothing in our heads, except lingering traces of a previous existence which grow fainter and fainter as we progress until we have forgotten them entirely.” I take this “previous existence” to mean not a previous life, but rather a suggestion about the way our past impacts the present. I like considering the past—even its faint imprints on our subconscious—as a starting point, but our previous lives encompass an endless fountain of material. As writers, how should we form this unending amount of material into something the mind can manage, into a form to contain the idea?
Ashbery’s poem offers more advice on the past and its role in the present: “like chalk dust on a blackboard after it has been erased, so we must learn to recognize it as the form—the only one—in which such fragments of the true learning as we are destined to receive will be vouchsafed to us, if at all.” Memory, to be sure, is not our only source material—we also draw from the present in which we live and the future we imagine—but memory, because it includes both what we can recall and what we have forgotten, highlights how the pieces we use to make our poems don’t always fit together. In accepting the past as a puzzle that resists being made whole again, there’s a letting go or a detachment from order, from even the possibility of order. In accepting myriad possibilities, we are surrendering, and through this surrendering we are also finding new ways to see the world.
I thought a lot about this idea of surrender after the birth of my daughter. My relationship to writing changed in major ways—there were moments of inspiration, yes, but they seemed fewer and fewer. Spare moments for reflection were filled with the tasks of the day: parenting, teaching, and my own academic studies. I decided in 2011 to try something different and write a poem every day in April. Many of the poems were failures for the discard pile, but these failures were instructive. And I realized it wasn’t really about the work itself. The habit of writing every day began to change the way my mind worked and the way in which it observed, if only because the chaos of daily life more readily becomes material to be formed into order. In establishing a deadline, I began to observe all aspects of the world with the hope of a poem in mind. Everything becomes a metaphor or, rather, a frame in which to place one’s experiences or ideas.
The third section of my latest book, Stranger, is a long poem called “This is a Frame,” a piece written over the course of a month in 2013. Again, I wrote a page a day without thinking too much about what had come before and where it was going. When I settled in to write the poem (at different times of different days), various elements filtered onto the page and when I finished the page, I saved the file and waited for the next day to return to it. There’s the sound of a newspaper landing outside the front door. Yellow finches in the windless backyard. Empty horse-tracks. The sky like an inkblot of nonsense. In this way, daily life and the 8.5 x 11 white rectangle became, respectively, the content and form I worked within, as I considered what it means to order daily moments into something manageable and what it means to order life into lineation. I used a few lines from Mario Santiago Papasquiaro as the epigraph: “A poem is occurring every moment / for example / that fluttering of mute flies,” which serves as a direction for the poem as it attempts to incorporate mundane or quotidian moments from life within the constraint of the page.
In the act of writing, I’ve found I shouldn’t reflect on what I’ve written. That comes later. And reflection is a different act altogether. The speaker in Ashbery’s poem says that nothing else matters but the speed “with which [we] advance.” As writers, this movement forward prevents even the most simple puzzle from being taken apart and understood. A poem is not a single pane of pristine glass. A poem is like the mind and the memories within it—the pieces are infinite and we don’t always understand how they connect. Somewhere between the past, the future, and the present is where the poem resides. Human thought is chaotic, complicated, and unending. Containment through poetry attempts a sense of ordering. It’s through this containment that we begin to acknowledge the role of chaos in our work, for it is not only what we write, but also why we must write. The mind takes the white page of possibility and fills it.