Prose from Poetry Magazine

On Fear

Our positive capability.

I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility. Part of what I mean—what I think I mean—by “imbecility” is something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel. It was a Master who advised that we speak little, better still say nothing, unless we are quite sure that what we wish to say is true, kind, and helpful. But how can a poet, whose role is to speak, adhere to this advice? How can anyone whose role is to facilitate language speak little or say nothing?

I don’t know if other poets have this fear, but if they do not, I reason it will only increase the anguish of the outcome if it one day passes into being. To pass into being—now there’s a fear no one ever had. No one ever feared being born, even when all those responsible for the event were fraught with fear for the unborn. And if I may segue to a child at the age of four, I recall watching her beingapproached by a dog that was, well, much larger than the girl herself. The girl’s face was astonishing to watch. It was completely elastic and changed from an expression of wonder and glee: Please come to me doggie and we shall play oh what happiness to be approached by you—to—in less than ten seconds—an expression of sheer terror: Fear! fear! doggie will eat me up and mommie is far away. As the dog slowly crossed the room, in what could not have been more than two minutes, the girl’s face changed expressions so many times I gave up counting. As she oscillated between feeling secure and insecure, it struck me that her face would probably continue to change, albeit at a slower rate, every time she was approached by a dog for the next couple of years, one day coming to rest on that expression that was likely to signify forever after how this human being felt about dogs.

But something seemed to be missing from my neat little formula; surely the dog’s face was important, too? This dog was eager and friendly, if a bit clumsy, but what if the next dog took a good-sized chunk out of the child’s face? I asked the poet Tony Hoagland what he thought about fear. He said fear was the ghost of an experience: we fear the recurrence of a pain we once felt, and in this way fear is like a hangover. The memory of our pain is a pain unto itself, and thus feeds our fear like a foyer with mirrors on both sides. And then he quoted Auden: “And ghosts must do again/What gives them pain.” It is interesting to note that this idea—fear’s being the ghost of pain, or imaginary pain—figures in psychological torture by the cia; in fact, their experiments with pain found that imaginary pain was more effective than physical pain—poets, take note—and thus psychological torture more effective than physical torture. Here is an excerpt from their Exploitation Training Manual, written in 1983:

The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. The threat to inflict pain, for example, can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain.

Although I have never been bitten by a dog, I am scared to death of them, as I am of all living creatures, including myself and my own fragmentation in the long hall of mirrors. James Ward, a British psychologist, broke with religion as a young man in 1872 but found himself a bundle of reflexes over which he had no choice and no control. He said: “I have no dread of God, no fear of the Devil, no fear of man, but my head swims as I write it—I fear myself.” What do I mean by fear? Why I mean that thing that drives you to write—but let us step out of the foyer, and back onto the street, back down the road, and make our approach somewhat more slowly.

Sometime after I had already written the pages you are about to sit through, I realized I had been using the wrong word throughout. Dread is a more accurate version of what I am thinking about, and I have Julian of Norwich, a fifteenth-century anchorite, to thank for pointing this out. In her Revelations of Divine Love, the account of a vision she had during an illness in her thirty-first year, she says, “I believe dread can take four forms.” In a nutshell, the first of these forms is what I will describe as the unconscious emotion fear—your very first response to the smell of smoke, the sound of thunder, the sight of flames, the slap. The second form of dread is the anticipatory dread of pain, either physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological, and that, folks, covers nine-tenths of the world’s surface. The third form of dread is doubt, or despair. And the fourth form of dread is “born of reverence,” the holy dread with which we face that which we love most, or that which loves us the most.

Dread. I like it better than the word fear because fear, like the unconscious emotion which is one of its forms, has only the word ear inside of it, telling an animal to listen, while dread has the word read inside of it, telling us to read carefully and find the dead, who are also there. But I have not used the word dread in what follows. I have used the word fear. And fear is an older word—it can be found in Old English, while dread enters the language in Middle English.

Neurobiologists have distinguished emotions from feelings, though I am afraid our language has for so long used the two terms as equivalent currency that it is a hopeless task to expect any listener to hear one word and not think of the other. Emotions are hardwired, biological functions of the nervous system such as fear, terror, sexual attraction, and hunger-impelled action (also called “feeding behaviors”). They are each purely physical reactions over which one has no control, and they are common to all animals with a central nervous system. The emotion of fear is what drives all animals away from life-threatening situations, and that is not the kind of fear I have in mind. Feelings, on the other hand, are more complicated and involve cognitive reactions that combine, or can be combined, with emotions, memories, experience, and intelligence. That is the kind of fear I have in mind—the feeling of fear that involves an intelligent, cognitive reaction. Fear that requires self-consciousness.

(Don’t be alarmed, scientists are not studying feelings, they are only studying emotions, divorced from cognition, as they travel in recognizable systems throughout the brain and the body.)

At this juncture it might be instructive of me to look up at you and say, “Try putting less emotion, and more feeling, into your poems.” The fact that neurobiologists have publicly announced the separation of emotion from feeling should be heartening news to poets everywhere, for it implies that to have feelings is on par with highly sophisticated cognitive systems. Feelings are not subpar. On the other hand, lest we forget, let me repeat: to be more emotional and less cognitive is to be less evolved than the species is able to be. It is to be like a four-year-old child. Feelings seem to represent a place where emotions combine with intelligence and experience to create a highly personal thought process that results in an individual’s worldview.

And that is where I want to take up our fear again. I asked a doctor about fear. The doctor said, “The only way to overcome fear is to do what you are trained to do. Fear is overcome by procedure. For example, if I don’t successfully insert an emergency trach—a hole in the throat—someone will die from lack of oxygen. So I mechanically do what I have been trained to do. Someone is there, periodically calling out the oxygen saturation—95, 90, 88, 83, 79—and the lower it gets the more of an emergency it becomes. And the funny thing is, I ask for the count. It is part of the procedure, but I work as if I am not listening—procedural concentration is all.”

I asked a pilot about fear. The pilot said, “The only way to overcome fear is to do what you are trained to do. Fear is overcome by procedure. For example, I was flying a test jet alone at thirty thousand feet and there was a leak in my oxygen mask I didn’t know about. I temporarily lost consciousness, and when I came to I was at fifteen thousand feet heading straight for the ground, nose down, completely out of control—and I was still groggy, still fighting for consciousness. Cut the throttle and punch the dive brakes. Cut the throttle and punch the dive brakes. Cut the throttle and punch the dive brakes. Those were the only thoughts I had, and I continued to have them until I leveled out at five thousand feet.” Then the doctor and the pilot, who were in the same room with me, looked at me and said, “So, have you ever had any poetry emergencies?”

I was a fool on a fool’s errand. Out of the fear of being a fool, I wanted to tell them that the fear they were trained to overcome was an emotion and not a feeling; after all, these were both life-threatening situations and their reactions were pure instinct, albeit professional ones. But I have professional instincts as well, professional instincts I employ while writing a poem. I was hopelessly confused and felt my sense of self-worth losing altitude; in situations like this I pick up the phone and call my friend, the German philosopher. “Reinhard,” I shouted into the phone, “What do you think about fear?” “Yikes!” he shouted back, “I am afraid of dogs.” At last, a friend. And then he quoted Nietzsche: “The degree of fearfulness is one measure of intelligence.” It was better than I had hoped. Cut the throttle and punch the dive brakes. “Fear is to recognize ourselves.” As far back as I could remember, every minute of my life had been an emergency in which I was paralyzed with fear. Feelings of fear, being at least in part cognitive, and therefore thoughts, often constitute knowledge. For instance, the knowledge that one is going to die. This is a fear one can have while lying in a hammock on a beautiful day. And it can lead to an emergency of feeling that often results in a poem. “Thank you,” I said, before hanging up, and then I heard my friend Reinhard say, “Faulkner, however, said that for a writer, the basest of all things is to be afraid.” My mind quickly came to the conclusion Faulkner was drunk at the time. But perhaps he was thinking about writer’s block, the inability of a writer to do that which is most natural to him: to encounter fear, to face fear; a fear of being alone with fear...

Roethke: “Fear was my father, Father Fear./His look drained the stones.”

Auden: “Fear gave his watch no look.”

Neruda: “When I was a young poet I was full of fear like a real rat in a corner.”

And what are we to make of Wordsworth, “Fostered alike by beauty and by fear”?

Or Milton’s “equal poise of hope and fear”? Or Blake’s “fearful symmetry”?

Which is more inexpressible, the beautiful or the terrifying? Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his last, troubled sonnets, cries out, “O which one? is it each one?” Lorca says,

The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart.

And Edmond Jabès, in The Book of Questions: “If you bend over your page...and do not suddenly tremble with fear, throw away your pen. Your writing would have little value.”

And George Oppen, who said, “Great artists are those, in the end, who do not have a failure of nerve.” Afraid, yes, but there they are, having locked themselves alone in a room with fear. Or as someone else might put it: “Blank pages—shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.”

I think it is time to list some concrete fears:

fear of death
of illness
of pain
of suffering
of despair
of not understanding
of disturbance or reversal of powers
of being unloved
of the unknown or strange
of destruction
of humiliation
of degradation
of poverty
of hunger
of aging
of unworthiness
of transgression
of punishment
of making a mistake
of loss of dignity
of failure
of oblivion
of outliving the mind
of eating an anchovy

These are not simian fears. These are human fears.

Barry Lopez, in his study of the Arctic called Arctic Dreams, makes this interesting observation:

Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realized that they are more afraid than we are. On a day-to-day basis, they have more fear. Not of being dumped into cold water from an umiak, not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful. A Central Eskimo shaman named Aua, queried by Knud Rasmussen about Eskimo beliefs, answered, “We do not believe. We fear.”

Lopez goes on to chastise those who think hunting peoples such as the Eskimos are living in perfect harmony with nature. Nervous awe and apprehension are born out of proximity and attention. The greater the intimacy between these cultures and nature, the greater the tension. The industrial world destroys nature not because it doesn’t love it but because it is not afraid of it. You can in your own minds recall the long Judeo-Christian tradition of fearing God. Or you can perhaps remember having read The Wind in the Willows as a child, or to a child, and encountering that magnificent, odd, and out-of-place chapter entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” where Mole and Rat go in search of Otter’s lost son and find, on the very edge of dawn, Nature personified in the august presence of a terrifying and benevolent satyr, half man, half animal:

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”
  “Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”
  Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Fear is the greatest motivator of all time. Conflict born of fear is behind our every action, driving us forward like the cogs of a clock. Fear is desire’s dark dress, its doppelgänger. “Love and dread are brothers,” says Julian of Norwich. As desire is wanting and fear is not-wanting, they become inexorably linked; just as desire can be destructive (the desire for power), fear can be constructive (fear of hurting another); fear of poverty becomes desire for wealth. Collective actions are not exempt from these double powers; consider this succinct and frightening sentence written by John Berger:

Everywhere these days more and more people knock their heads against the fact that the future of our planet and what it will offer or deny to its inhabitants, is being decided by boards of men who control more money than all the governments in the world, who never stand for election, and whose sole criterion for every decision they take is whether or not it increases or is prone to increase Profit.

But has it ever been any different? Races everywhere have always been at the mercy of collective desire and collective fear, sometimes their own, sometimes others’.
The impulse toward order is born of fear and desire, and the impulse toward chaos is born of the same. The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott believed artists were people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.

Think of the simplest caricature of a poet, the kind that might be used as a generic figure in a cartoon. Which comes to mind, the forlorn, melancholy, sadly loitering one, suicidal in blue breeches, or the happy eater and drinker, the smeller of roses, the carouser, the gusto-bearing, sun-loving one? In Epicurean atomic theory, “the world functions because from the outset there is a lack of balance.” The French novelist Georges Perec, devoted to mathematical literary forms—he wrote a novel without the letter e in it—speaks of anti-constraints within a system of restraints. He quotes the painter Paul Klee: “Genius is ‘an error in the system.’” (Those of you who have heard lectures on the sonnet may recall that this is often, precisely, the point.) The world functions because of fear, because of the error, the anti-constraint, the anti-perfect, the anti-balance. We stumble. We fall.

We fail. And so desire to progress, to become better poets, to eradicate a disease, to become better people, to perfect that which is perpetually imperfect. The biblical “fall” is just such an anti-constraint. The apple was fear. (And remember, fear is knowledge, according to Nietzsche.) The apple set the world in motion by forcing Adam and Eve to migrate out of the Perfect. “Fear is to recognize ourselves,” said the philosopher. One of the fears a young writer has is not being able to write as well as he or she wants to, the fear of not being able to sound like X or Y, a favorite author. But out of fear, hopefully, is born a young writer’s voice: “But now,” says Kierkegaard,

to strive to become what one already is: who would take the pains to waste his time on such a task, involving the greatest imaginable degree of resignation?...But for this very reason alone it is a very difficult task...precisely because every human being has a strong natural bent and passion to become something more and different.

It is very easy to read those words, and very hard to enact them. Elsewhere Kierkegaard says, “What is education? I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself.”
There are poets who are resigned to not being able to save the world, who barely have enough time to catch up with themselves and the attendant mystery of their fear and being. I suppose Szymborska was one of them. Here is her compatriot Miłosz describing her:

In Szymborska we are divided not into the flesh and a surviving oeuvre...but into “the flesh and a broken whisper”; poetry is no more than a broken whisper, quickly dying laughter.... When it is not the perfection of a work that is important but expression itself, “a broken whisper,” everything becomes, as it has been called, écriture.... To talk about anything, just to talk, becomes an operation in itself, a means of assuaging fear.

Much as I am sympathetic to the theory of écriture, I find it—confusing. For why is it meaningless to write with no other function than to assuage fear? Doesn’t that function in itself have a meaning? And why fear the dismantling of language’s semantic function, its being representational of meaning, when that is but one more fear that will drive those in opposition to écriture to write? And certainly this “theory” is no theory at all but a centuries-old practice: “He seemed to be depressed, for he went on writing” reads a twelfth-century Japanese text. Or take Rilke: “I have taken action against fear. I sat up the whole night and wrote; and now I am as thoroughly tired as after a long walk in the fields at Ulsgaard.” Even a bitter poem is a small act of affirmation, and I wonder if we can’t say the same thing about a meaningless poem (if such a thing exists). But Miłosz, who would most certainly disagree, is, to his immortal credit, a knight of faith, and I am but a knight of resignation. Like Kierkegaard: “As far as I am concerned, I am able to describe most excellently the movements of faith; but I cannot make them myself.” The Danish philosopher’s famous essay Fear and Trembling is a rumination on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, Abraham’s long-awaited and cherished son, and in the essay Kierkegaard grapples with how an act of murder can become a pleasing, good, and holy act in the eyes of God. It takes faith, a faith Kierkegaard minutely examines and describes, but one that he cannot in the end claim for himself, as devout as he is. He remains what he dubs a knight of resignation, a state that, for all it is worth, is still a state of sin. To be sure, I am “using” Miłosz here for my own purposes. He knows perfectly well he is not a saint. In an interview he has stated—and proved—that he is a man of contradiction. In other words, an ordinary man. But I admire his insistence on an objective reality, his faith in a world and an order that does not exist exclusively in the mind. And he is quite provocative at the end of his essay “The Sand in the Hourglass”:

If in our moments of happiness, mastery, ecstasy, we say Yes to heaven and to earth, and all we need is misfortune, sickness, the decline of physical powers to start screaming No, this means that all our judgments can be refuted tomorrow and that it is easy to mistake our life for the world. It is not obvious, however, why weakness—whether of a particular person or of an entire historical era—should be privileged and why the old nihilist from Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape should be closer to the truth than he himself was when he was twenty years old.

Miłosz closes his essay with an astonishing and succinct remark of Simone Weil’s: “‘I am suffering.’ It is better to say this than to say, ‘This landscape is ugly.’”

Fear belongs to man, not to the world. The world feels no fear, at any time, in any place. We are “an unhappy people in a happy world”—Wallace Stevens’s last stance. Feelings of fear—personal, cognitive fear—allow us to feel anguish while lying in a hammock on a beautiful day, allow us to feel as if our life were threatened when the sky is blue and the meadow at peace. Raymond Queneau:

The poet is never “inspired, if by inspiration we mean...a function of the poet’s mood, the temperature, the political situation, subjective accidents, or the subconscious.
     The poet is never inspired because he is the master of what others assume to be inspiration.... He’s never inspired because he’s always inspired, because the powers of poetry are always at his disposal, obedient to his will, receptive to his guidance.

And I want to say the poet is never afraid because he is unceasingly afraid, and therefore cannot become that which he already is, though of course, Mr. Kierkegaard reminds us, he must; you might say fear is the poet’s procedure, that which he has been trained to concentrate on.

What an odd thing to say; what a terrible thing to say. Surely someone is saying to himself, “Gee whiz, hasn’t she ever heard of negative capability?” As a matter of fact, I have; those words have become like a sickness unto death for me. As often as I have used them myself, I wish there were a moratorium on them for a decade, so overused are they, so bandied about that they have come to mean just about anything one wants them to, especially a bebop version of Be Here Now, or a diffusive religious awe in which the poet wanders, forever in a stupor. As with most famous sayings, we are given only a fragment of the paragraph from which it comes. “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact reason”: the letter was written by John Keats on a Sunday, late in December of 1817, from Hampstead, and addressed to his brothers George and Tom. The year 1817 is, relatively speaking, quite early in Keats’s career, though only four years before his death; the letter was written before George left for America, before Tom died, before John met Fanny Brawne, before he was sick, and before he had written what are considered his finest poems. One of the things you have to remember about Keats is that his development as a poet was telescoped into an intensely short period of time in which he passed through as many stages as another poet may experience in a life three times as long. Although the letter in its entirety is too long to quote here, you’ll have to trust me when I say that only the last quarter of it puts his definition of negative capability into context. Here is that context:

Several things dovetailed in my mind, at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

The passage is a bit like the us Constitution. By that I mean that it may be interpreted to suit the purposes of a great many people who are at odds with one another. For instance, nothing prevents someone from saying that the essential definition means: once depressed, stay depressed. Of the passage relating to Coleridge there is no doubt: all you have to know is that Coleridge was the great intellectual among the Romantics, the great thinker. But an interesting and further complicating key is provided by the phrase “isolated verisimilitude.” Verisimilitude means “having the appearance of a truth; probable,” so that Keats is saying something like this: “Coleridge would pass over a probability that someone else would accept as the truth because Coleridge is not content with appearance or probability.” If we add to this the idea of isolating, which implies distinction or differentiation, we can’t help but think that Keats has searched the penetralium of mystery at least long enough to isolate a probable truth that is, unto him, sufficient. And this is a far cry from the non-isolating attitude that most of us associate with negative capability. Following this, Keats does a remarkable thing—he sums up something he has not even elaborated on. He says, “This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” What does this mean? For where was there ever any mention of Beauty in the original definition? And do you see how this last bit could be used as a defense by the most archly formal poet or by his worst nemesis? And if I presume to understand negative capability, am I then incapable of it, since it is the capability of being in the presence of an uncertainty without reaching to understand it? And finally, we always intimately connect John Keats with negative capability as if he possessed it himself, as if he were speaking of himself, when he was not thinking or speaking of himself at all but of Shakespeare—and who among us amounts to squat compared to Him—of whom we can be as uncertain as we like without reaching after facts, because there are none? Shakespeare’s reputation as a god is enhanced tenfold by the mysterious circumstances of his being. As is always the case, the unknown raises the stakes and the stature and the flag of the formidable before which we bow and do worship in unaccountable dread. Keats sought to understand much in his life; his poems and letters are full of urgent searching, of the kinds of questions that arise in the minds of passionate youth. He says in another letter:

You tell me never to despair—I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying—truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals—it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear—I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment.

One has only to look at the opening lines of a majority of his poems to see him in a state of uncertainty, mystery, doubt—that is, fear:

“When I have fears that I may cease to be”
“Glory and loveliness have Pass’d away”
“My spirit is too weak—mortality”
“O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind”
“In a drear-nighted December”
“Deep in the shady sadness of a vale”
“If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d”
“O what can ail thee, knight at arms”
“Why did I laugh tonight?”
“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains”

The suffering in these poems remains intact; it is neither resolved nor negated. What happens for the most part is, the poems dissolve, finally, into the cream of the physical world. If negative capability works at all, it works in reverse, a kind of negative negative capability—which would make it positive—where very real anxiety and irritability over mystery and doubt enable the poet—no, propel him—into the world of the eye, the pure perceptual habit that checks all cognitive drives, not before they’ve begun but after they’ve begun, and done their damage. In the words of a painter, the abstract expressionist Pat Adams—

That marveling rush of wonder at sheer multiplicity and differentiation of stuff when surfaces of heightened materiality, of encrusted and layered imprinting are generated to entangle our attention and delay cognition

—until it seems that perpetual fear is a propellant into the innocent, fearless, and vulnerable world of the senses. So that the poet paralyzed with fear lying in a hammock on a beautiful day—unhappy man in a happy world—does not suffer any less when he looks around him; he does not cease to suffer, he only ceases to try to understand.

It was the last nostalgia: that he
Should understand. That he might suffer or that
He might die was the innocence of living, if life
Itself was innocent.

        —From Esthétique du Mal, by Wallace Stevens

We do not know the etymology of the word fear. That is, the makers of dictionaries are unsure of it. But there is a good chance that it is related to the word fare in its oldest sense, which is to pass through, to go through, as in, How did you fare at the dentist’s? or Fare-thee-well or, He fared in this life like one whose name was writ in water.

Keats died at an age when no one should have to die. I wonder if the young are less afraid of dying, or more afraid of dying, than the old. I am no longer young. I am old enough to understand and know that it is not death I am afraid of, it’s dying. Dying is the act, most often painful, that leads to death, while death itself is as painless as the feeling you had before you were born—no feeling at all, you didn’t care one way or another (feeling is caring one way or another). But what do I know? Blessed Brother André, currently under investigation for sainthood, said, “If we knew the value of suffering, we would ask for it.” Though others can, I cannot fathom that remark, let alone embrace it. Nor am I a Buddhist, one who believes suffering is based on ignorance, and that ignorance can be eradicated; actually, I do believe that suffering is based on ignorance (if the Third Reich had not been ignorant, millions would not have had to perish), but I don’t believe ignorance can be eradicated. Actually, I do believe ignorance can be eradicated, but in the way of a weed—it will only pop up again someplace else. When Brother André asks us to embrace suffering, is he saying, “If we knew the value of ignorance, we would ask for it?” Should we finally and willingly cease to understand? I have often said I would rather wonder than know. Is that a youthful stance, a Keatsian stance? Is that—could it be—negative capability? Should one mature beyond it? I don’t know. Rilke advises the young to “live the questions now,” because the answers can only be revealed in time, the extension of which they do not possess. Much like Keats himself says, in a letter, that certain lessons can only be learned on the touchstone of the heart, that is, through direct experience.

What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth—of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked. I am more or less the same age Emily Dickinson was when she died. Here is what she thought: “Had we the first intimation of the Definition of Life, the calmest of us would be Lunatics!” The calm lunatic—now that is something to aspire to.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2012

Though poet and essayist Mary Ruefle was born outside Pittsburgh, she spent her youth moving around the United States and Europe with her military family. She has written numerous books of poetry, including My Private Property (2016), Indeed I Was Pleased with the World (2007), and The Adamant (1989), which won...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. June 6, 2012
     Wes McGee


    This is a beautifully written, truthful look at fear in writing. I have often said that poetry is one of the most intellectually stimulating, cathartic and frightening things you can do. Everyone has that place inside where they hide their hurt, pains, and dissapointments. I take those things, put them into verse and put them on display. It's terrifying to display yourself so nakedly. Again, great article.


  2. June 10, 2012

    "The calm lunatic—now that is something to aspire to." Perfect ending.

  3. June 10, 2012
     Adam Strasser

    I didn't think America had a literary voice more hilarious than Joan
    Didion, but it seems that Didion has met her match in Mary Ruefle.

    Being funny ain't easy.

    And, speaking of fear, the finest American poets who also happen to be
    extremely funny -- I'm thinking of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop,
    James Tate, and only a couple of others -- have been very skittish
    about displaying their humor anywhere outside their private letters and
    personal conversations.

    (Were they afraid that their comic timing, their ability to set up and tell
    a joke, give a few belly laughs, would somehow compromise their

    I've never before read an essay by an American poet who had the guts
    to make me laugh out loud. And Ruefle's exquisite mind and lovely
    prose accomplished not only that, but also elegantly placed fear, dread,
    and death, in contexts I'd not considered, nor would have ever found
    my way to on my own.

    Had Ruth Lilly's grant made possible only the publication of Ruefle's
    essay, Lilly would've had ample reason to consider her big bucks well-

    I'm certain I'm not alone in very much looking forward to whatever the
    Poetry Foundation publishes of Ruefle in the future.

    Thank you for giving me a chance to read something so beautifully
    written. (I've a hunch that it will ultimately be judged something of a

  4. June 21, 2012
     Mike Richards

    A wonderful, wonderful read.

    My mind is whirring.

    Many thanks.

  5. June 25, 2012
     Blake Bergeron

    An excellent essay. Yet, with all of this talk of the
    sorrowful poet in a hammock on a beautiful day, how
    could be forget what is surely the most literal example?

    Let this piece serve as the background music to the

    Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine
    Island, Minnesota

    by James Wright


  6. June 28, 2012
     Clyde Beury

    What about John Milton, "On my Blindness"? When I have fears that I
    may cease to be, before my pen hath gleaned my teeming brain, Now
    that is a man who is confronting his fear of unfinished work and his
    less defined and left unopened! A great essay Ms. Ruefle, I sent it to
    my daughter who just finished her master's at Columbia and will be
    getting married in late September. Talk about fear.


  7. July 3, 2012
     John Hinds

    "I have often said I would rather wonder than know." Kierkegaard: God stands before us his closed hands outstretched. In one he holds the ultimate secrets as to the meaning and purpose of life, of existence. In the other he offers the unending search for those. The wise let him keep his secrets and choose endless discovery.

    To fear, to dread, to be in a state of infinite resignation to these, is to accept our place in relation to the unknowable, and, taking up faith, to live in a state of grace, thus acquiring the exquisite realization our destiny is the same as our point of departure.

    John Hinds

  8. February 6, 2013

    Thank you for sharing this. I just reviewed Madness, Rack, and
    Honey for New Pages, knowing that my pedestrian words could never
    do justice to her marvelous work. A poet and former VCFA classmate
    once told me that Mary, his advisor for a semester, had saved his life.
    Before I read the book, I didn't understand. Now I do.

  9. February 10, 2013
     Joey Connolly

    Mary seems to have no fear of writing...
    here's my poem - GRAPHOPHOBIA, Fear of Writing

    A pencil with graphite, eraser, wooden shaft , or mechanical pencil
    You’ve dreaded picking one up since you can’t remember when
    Not even to make writing lettering tasks shorter using a stencil
    More fear arises using an old fashioned ink or ballpoint pen

    One time you tried exotic, sepia toned, genuine Alaskan squid ink
    It didn’t lessen your fear of writing one bit and there was little demand
    Say nothing of the mess extracting the fluid and the dead squids stink
    Morbid fearful memories of any ink stains on your clothes and hand

    Now the painful problem is just sitting down at your PC keyboard
    Where you have to write or type in actual text in the form of words
    Graphophobia strikes, the communication form you’ve always abhorred
    Major message or shout out to anyone listening –“This is for the birds!”

    The advent of power points, videos, and texting have made writing
    A method you are coming to finally enjoy, even somewhat delighting

    Joey Connolly , July 2012

  10. September 11, 2016
     Steven Malham

    Thank you Mary! And here I thought I was alone in my little epiphany: Hopkins, the ferret of finding the INSCAPE of a thing and the sponge that absorbs the thing's INSTRESS into "his heart in hiding" (read as "in HIDING from his 19th Century Jesuit Superiors) --how could he have viewed himself as a poet in the Keats tradition of NEGATIVE CAPABILITY while his poetry and prose, diaries and notebooks, are forever flowing from his personal wellspring--think of the great oil strike in Jet Rink's (James Dean) oil derrick in "Giant" (1956)--and proclaiming his own INSCAPE, at times gently and at other times overtly emotional and honest. It's difficult to imagine how Hopkins could celebrate the inscape of anything in his purview and yet not recognize, accept, and grow to cherish his own inscape: "I am Gerard and I am made to love and praise "the dearest freshness deep down things!" Read my poetry and share in my joy." I suppose he couldn't see the forest for the trees. I think of "the custody of the eyes" and empathize. I imagine the Victorian English Jesuits and how little the Society of Jesus fed "his roots" or "sent them rain." If only Hopkins could have seen the trees AND the forest. Well, then we'd likely have one more sonnet, this one in praise of the oak, the yew and copper beeches, and all the other trees--the INSTRESS--of the forests of Britain's "green and pleasant land..."

    Steven Malham, M.A.
    UCLA (1979)