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By David Pettit
The problem with many poems, my instructor explained, is certainty. The poet tries too hard to say something; is too sure of what her poem is about. It kills the poem.
The cardinal sin of certainty. It has plagued far more than poetry, I suspect. The sermon. A conversation over coffee.
The poem isn’t done until it has surprised you. It is like a bicycle wheel, she suggested, when you turn the bike upside down in the garage and spin the wheel and you watch until the wheel looks like it is spinning backwards. The wheel has to spin backwards. The vision and discovery of the poem is found in the process, not determined beforehand.
I arrived in time to report to jury duty. Found myself sitting in the jury box around 10:30 AM, the final cut of potential jurors. I thought for sure I was committed for a few days. I was also certain that the defendant was as predictable as a corn row. There was no mystery. I had never met him, but it felt like I knew him. A bad characteristic for a juror, I suppose, which the defendant’s attorney sensed, and dismissed me.
But let’s face it: we are known. Our rhetoric falls out predictably. We regurgitate tired talking points. It is predictable. We struggle to come up with real solutions. Imagination eludes us. Our prose has no pep. Our poetry is doxological. Dialogue, that institution in which I have placed so much stock, has become like an endangered species in a time when you can bring home elephant tusks legally.
I have long loved William Stafford’s poetic aphorism, feeling that maybe there is a way through our impasses: “if you don’t know the kind of person I am / and I don’t know the kind of person you are / a pattern that others made will prevail in the world.” The problem, however: we do know each other. We can’t break from our rhetorical scripts. We are as predictable as a student reading lines in the play. We can’t surprise each other if our lives depended on it. And they do.
Can we write without the argument all figured out? Is there room in our interpretation for a sermon to say something new? Can a dialogue over coffee actually produce something besides reifying pre-set scripts? Are we willing to be surprised? If the wheel spun backwards would we stop it?
I’m an idealist. I’ve put a lot of stock in reason. But in unreasonable times, maybe the syntax of poetry can bring some new resonance. Maybe in the turning over of words there lies some surprise, if only for me; some new sound in the play of words, some new perspective in the midst of so much routine, some beauty in endless corn.