Against Poetry

Diane Seuss

A poem, unlike

a living being, cannot

perceive you and, in

perceiving you, grant you

reality. If it sleeps

with you, it cuts you.

It runs a few

degrees cooler than room

temperature. A love poem

does not love you. Or

does not necessarily love

you. A love poem faces

outward. It performs

love adequately. Lately,

I’ve wondered about poetry’s

efficacy. It’s like doubting

a long romance, or romance

itself, the essence of it.

Fearsome, to doubt

your life’s foundation.

I’ve also wondered about

painting. What distinguishes

a good or great painting,

paintings I’ve loved, from

illustration? Lately everything

seems illustrative to me,

as if the whole world

is a cunning metaphor.

A young painter once

cautioned me not to bring

a literary framework to visual art.

A sane admonition, I think.

Maybe what distinguishes

art from illustration

is its uselessness. Art,

useless at its core,

but not valueless. And

what is the correlation

between painting and poetry?

What makes a poem merely

illustrative and what elevates it

to an essential artfulness,

i.e., uselessness? I know

I am using the old language

here. “Merely.” “Elevates.”

I am in an antiquated room,

its fixtures, dust-covered

and ornate. Furniture,

built at the behest of another

era, from a principle of design

that forefronts beauty,

is delicate, as if balanced on a foal’s

trembling legs. Maybe to live

within a poem is to entrap oneself

in an architecture constructed upon

outmoded theories of composition.

It’s possible there is an undiscovered

room or house, or a structure

somewhere I don’t yet have

the language for. An academy of silences.

A cathedral of cross-purposed

voices. A posthuman spaciousness

filled only with a reemerged

species of butterflies. A catacomb

of cluster flies. Whatever it will be,

it will be new, filled

with its own mystifying absurdities,

and likely beyond me.

This body may not be built

for it. Mine is the kind

of body you drag around

town on a leash, with a choke

chain. You don’t love it,

but it’s yours to contend with,

though it compresses your

soul. When did it begin

to compress rather than

liberate my soul? Early,

but I do remember

when it was my soul’s instrument,

indistinguishable from

my soul. I could sit on the front

stoop and the whole world

came streaming in through

the structures of my senses.

Maybe the body is the soul’s

metaphor. Maybe to escape it

is to escape the service

economy. To dissolve analogy.

Attain uselessness.

Diane Seuss is the author of frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press 2021), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Modern Poetry (Graywolf Press 2024).
Originally published:
November 9, 2022

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