“Modern society is … an engine assumed to be for useful purposes, whose force is by a system of subtle mechanism augmented to the highest pitch, but which, instead of grinding corn or raising water acts against itself and is perpetually wearing away or breaking to pieces the wheels of which it is composed.” (Shelley)

Right now I am confused. I am confused by my own sense of urgent necessity, and my inability to meet it with action even slightly equal to its scope. I am confused by the role that I, as a poet, must take. And I am confused that I can learn more about what is going on around me from a pile of two hundred year old books than by the New York Times. I feel as though I am constantly and irritably reaching after fact and reason, though I know better, though I know that in a time of uncertainty I must be capable of being in uncertainty. In times of war there is nothing worse than uncertainty, there is nothing weaker in a soldier or more despised in a leader. The failings of body or intellect are thought trivial when compared to uncertainty. This is what our armies are built to believe and when daily we are told that every aspect of our lives is some sort of war, we are asked to be certain soldiers instead of citizens. And when we are asked this, it is far too easy to comply because we are at war and because we feel at war. But when we accept this certainty we are left with only it, and over time not even that, but simply the residue of its falsehood, an emptiness which clouds our ability to do or think or speak. Our own sincerity and honesty are undermined by this call for certainty, and it seems like we are left with either preaching to the converted or being silent because that is what we believe we would be doing. I see the definite smugness of power portrayed daily as truth and want to respond, not to the smugness but to the power, and instead find myself constantly in struggle with the falsehoods of these “truths.” And so here I sit having exchanged my confusion for anger, almost certain I’m losing.

“A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we know well, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism … The absense of all foundation within their own minds for that, which they yet believe both true and indispensable to their safety and happiness, cannot but produce an uneasy state of feeling, an involuntary sense of fear from which nature has no means of rescuing herself but by anger.” (Coleridge, Autobiographia Literaria)

Originally Published: February 21st, 2006

Joshua Beckman was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and attended Hampshire College. An editor at Wave Books, he is the author of Things Are Happening (1998), winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Award, Something I Expected to Be Different (2001), Your Time Has Come (2001), Shake (2006), and Take It...